Ways to think about working smarter (not harder)

When Reid Hoffman talks about building a startup, he says it’s like jumping off a cliff, and assembling a plane on the way down. It’s a reference to the fact that when you start building a startup, you set a clock ticking. 
If you can find product-market fit and a viable business before the clock runs out, your startup has a chance of success. If you can’t, then you’re in for a hard crash landing.

That’s why for startup product teams it’s critical to move as fast as you can. The most valuable resource you have is time, so you need to be extremely wise with every hour you and your team spends.

The key to moving fast is not to work harder, but work smarter. It’s not about working weekends, skipping lunch or pulling all-nighters. It’s about making smart choices about how to get things done.
Here are a few ways to think about moving fast.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Isaac Newton famously said: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

When building a product, don’t be afraid to borrow from solutions that already work. Steal what you can with pride. Look for existing patterns and use them. Don’t waste time re-inventing the wheel, especially not in areas that aren’t key to your differentiation. 

As Picasso said: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”. 

Rethink the constraints

Every project has constraints. For an artist that might be the size of the canvas. For a technology product it might be the business model or the underlying technology. 

But not all constraints are equal. Some are very hard, and others are flexible. 

Look at the constraints you have and ask: which ones are flexible? Which are not even constraints at all?

Can you simplify the task by challenging one of the constraints?

Do the simplest thing first

Alfred Einstein said (approximately): “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Complexity is the silent killer of products. Complexity is a poison that spreads lethargy and chaos in your startup. The more complex your product, the harder it becomes to maintain. Avoid complexity at all costs.

Always start by doing the simplest thing first. Ask this key question: What is the smallest, simplest thing we can do that will validate our hypothesis and deliver value to our customers? 

Ask for help early 

I’ve seen people (and whole teams) bang their head against a hard problem for days, or weeks, without asking for help. Sometimes it’s a mix of stoic determination and pride; sometimes it’s that feeling of being ever-so-close to cracking the problem… for days and days on end.

Productive people know how to ask for help early. Whatever the issue is that you’re facing, the chances are there are people out there who can help you. Sometimes a point in the right direction is all you need to unblock yourself and save hours or days of wasteful wheel spinning. 

First and foremost, use your colleagues. Don’t be afraid to ask more experienced team members for help early on. It’s not your job to know all the answers; it’s your job to find the answers. There is no shame in asking for help! It’s how great people learn. 

Second, build your network outside of your team. This could be in your company, or outside it. Find the networks, groups or meetups in your area of expertise, and use them.

If you have any questions or would like some more detailed tips, get in touch!

Branch, a deep linking SDK, is now a unicorn

From TechCrunch:

Branch, the deep-linking startup backed by Andy Rubin’s Playground Ventures, will enter the unicorn club with an upcoming funding round.

The four-year-old company, which helps brands create links between websites and mobile apps, has authorized the sale of $129 million in Series D shares, according to sources and confirmed by PitchBook, which tracks venture capital deals. The infusion of capital values the company at roughly $1 billion.

I remember seeing a talk from these guys when they were brand new at the (now defunct) Where 2.0 conference in 2014. Back then, deep linking was novel and new, and was not widely supported by the mobile platforms.

We use Branch at FATMAP, and I can say it’s a very easy way to get deep links set up across a range of content types in a mobile app.

That they are now worth a billion dollars is on one hand a bit odd: they are basically packaging platform functionality in an SDK and charging app developers for it. There is nothing particularly unique or defensible with what they are doing, and it’s nothing a medium or bigger sized app developer can’t build on their own.

On the other hand, it’s a signal of the health of the app development platform industry. I have to wonder what their exit strategy is though. An obvious potential acquirer would be Google, while would buy it for the data, or Microsoft, who would buy it for the developers and make it part of their overall developer platform.

Either way, they are now a rather expensive acquisition.

Barrels and Ammunition

I came across this quote from Keith Rabois:

If you think about people, there are two categories of high-quality people: there is the ammunition, and then there are the barrels. You can add all the ammunition you want, but if you have only five barrels in your company, you can literally do only five things simultaneously. If you add one more barrel, you can now do six things simultaneously. If you add another one, you can do seven, and so on. Finding those barrels that you can shoot through — someone who can take an idea from conception to live and it’s almost perfect — are incredibly difficult to find. This kind of person can pull people with them. They can charge up the hill. They can motivate their team, and they can edit themselves autonomously. Whenever you find a barrel, you should hire them instantly, regardless of whether you have money for them or whether you have a role for them. Just close them.

It’s a really interesting way of thinking about the people in your teams.

You know the people that can make things happen. They can take initiative, and then push through organisational and other problems to make things happen, without needing someone to approve or unblock them.

The amount of things you can get done in parallel is limited by how many barrels you have.

You generally know a barrel when you see one; but here are, I think, some common characteristics:

  • “Ask for forgiveness, not permission”. Barrels will not wait for approval or consensus. They take initiative, and follow through.
  • Barrels take accountability. They stand up and own the plan, and the result.

When you find a barrel, the most important thing you can do is point them in the right direction, and let them go.