As the leader of a fast growing, chaotic, “everything-is-urgent” growth-stage start-up, time is my most critical asset. Yet it’s remarkable how little thought has been put into the right approach to time management for key leaders. My suggestion: Spend 60% of time scheduled – divided into quarters: 1/4 each devoted to customers, external constituencies, product and people. Spend 40% on unscheduled activities.
Earlier in my career, I tried the extremes. I tried running from one fire to the next, answering 100% of emails and taking every meeting I could. Needless to say, I got a lot done, but I didn’t get the important stuff done. I then tried being super deliberate, not taking serendipitous meetings, leaving plenty of time for thinking and not worrying about responding to emails on a timely basis. That didn’t work either – we were just too small for that.
Early Stage Start-Up Time Management
The early stage forces you to maniacally focus on the next milestone. For instance, you might not have a product if you don’t have a team, so you devote 80% of your time to recruiting. You might not have a team if you don’t have money, so you spend 80% of your time fundraising. You might not get to test product-market fit without shipping a product, so you focus 80% of your time trying to get the product out. You can’t scale without reference customers, so you focus 80% of your time ensuring that you get them. The great thing about early stage time management is focus – and because value is created with clearly defined milestones, time management can follow those milestones and evolve serially to reflect them.
Growth Stage Start-Up Time Management
Growth stage time-management is a whole other beast. The trouble is you are too small to purely focus on the strategic and run the business as a set of KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). You are too big to only be able to execute on one thread; in fact to assure hyper-growth, you have to excel at a collection of things, executing in parallel to achieve the next value threshold. A number of these things are short-term oriented; some are long-term oriented. The trouble is hyper-growth does not come from doing just one thing well (for example, build a great product and you may find the market has changed, or a competitor is racing ahead from a positioning perspective or you don’t have the right people on your sales team). It also does not come from being unfocused – which we all know is the kiss of death.
I have come up with a heuristic to try and manage my scheduled time, which I try to limit to 60 percent (yes days can be long). I divide that time this way:
- 1/4 on Product and Engineering: In a business like ours, we will not succeed if our product pipeline dries up and we stop being innovative. The trouble with constant innovation as a source of growth is that each initiative is hugely time consuming and therefore requires a lot of “entrepreneurial energy.” I try to ensure that I spend 1/4 of my months on product development – for mature and for new products (to be fair, I have a terrific co-founder who spends a lot more time on this, otherwise this % probably should be higher).
- 1/4 on customers – new and existing: I learn a lot from being on the road. It motivates me; it challenges me and it puts me on the front lines with our sales and customer success teams. Customers have a way of cutting to the chase – and it helps me prioritize what matters.
- 1/4 on board, marketing and external: I see a lot of CEOs spend a lot of time at networking events and conferences. I see value in them. Brand matters. Perception matters. Serendipitous meetings can lead to great things. And job #1 for a CEO is to make sure the business never runs out of money. On the other hand, I’m not interested in the glamour CEO position – the person who pontificates at conferences but really doesn’t understand the nitty-gritty of the business.
- 1/4 on Team and People: This is the bucket that most often gets ignored but of course may be the one that matters most in the long term. It’s the one where you get to think deeply about culture, to recruit, to fire, to meet people 1:1 and to define organizational practices that have a non-linear impact on value.
I think its really important to have unscheduled time for all kinds of purposes and I try to make sure I get at least for 40% of my weeks/months for that. I spend it on whatever matters at that moment. Sometimes those are complex market-facing dynamics. Sometimes, its key customer situations that I try to hold myself responsible for. Sometimes its email. Recently I decided to spend it on looking at a possible tuck-in acquisition for the company. Some weeks I spend it helping to fly to close an end of quarter deal. Sometimes its resolving complex people-related situations or just reflecting on the direction of the business.
I don’t try to stick to these percentages at the granularity of my weeks, but I do try to course correct if entire months go way off the heuristic. To help me do this, I’m working with my Executive Assistant to map my allocation and help me stay on track. As you can see from the mapping below – the percentages above are aspirational – I have a ways go to. Overall, I feel pretty good about February. I got my 40% “think time.” I spent a lot of time on the road with customers, but the trade off was spending less time that I would have liked on products. In January, we spent a lot of time on product planning and the ratios were flipped the other way. In March, things got ugly – a ton of travel meant I was over the limit on scheduled time and interviewing consumed my “people” time.
I don’t know if my 60/40 recipe is the right answer as we grow. It certainly wouldn’t have been the right approach when we started BloomReach. But for today, it works.