The easiest to give, hardest to follow startup advice

By David Frankel

Do you want to build a really significant business?

If the answer is yes, you need to say no.

A successful startup needs to balance a never-ending stream of requests from customers and internal stakeholders with a desire to push innovative new ideas, all while needing to pay down technical debt. The only viable management solution is to say no — a lot.

Successful startups will have no shortage of exciting opportunities. Geographic expansion. New product categories. Again, you have to say no and focus manically on your key KPI, whether it’s revenue growth or user acquisition.

You need to say no to things that could be good investments to preserve focus for your great investments. Put all the fun, but peripheral, ideas on a shelf for a time when you have excess bandwidth (Likely never).

This philosophy extends to the founders as well. There’s a temptation to micromanage a favored function after hiring an exec. You must sublimate your ego and trust the person you hired. Letting go is scary, but absolutely required if you want to scale.

This advice is incredibly basic.

Steve Jobs and The Harvard Business Review have famously made similar points over the years.

The challenge is applying it consistently and in the face of pushback from those you respect and admire the most.

It’s so easy to give in.

To bow to pressure from influential investors.

To acquiesce to funding a valued IC’s pet project.

To chase your competitor’s moves.

Dangerous distractions are often disguised as discerning decisions.

The temptation to expand is particularly challenging right after raising capital. You look at your balance sheet and spending a few million dollars on an experimental budget seems downright prudent!

It’s also more comforting to say yes. Diversification is drilled into us in the realm of personal finance. It’s only natural to want to apply these lessons to startups. However, just as a government can’t be run like a business, a startup can’t be run like a retirement plan.

This advice is easier given than followed, and there have been times as both an operator and investor when I’ve strayed from it. That said, I’ve rarely regretted the decision to simplify and focus.

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