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Startups are different: Activity vs. Results

At one of the entrepreneurs conferences our venture capital firm provided for its portfolio companies, the lead venture partner distinguished “activity from results” and provided a guest speaker and session to make this clear for us. Given the long list of tasks required for startup success, there is even a longer list of sub-tasks beneath each of them that generates a lot of activity for the team. In an established company there can be a lot of activity happening with absolutely no results and the company will still survive. In a startup company, achieving results are the only thing that let you survive. You have a limited amount of time because of limited cash funding and if all you have is a lot of activity, you will run out of cash and the company will end. Every member of the team has to understand that working and activity are not the same as achieving a result.

At one point in Tesla’s history captured in a video documentary about Elon Musk, he is sitting in a very large room with members of his team, with 100 prototype cars that had not passed a federal inspection. Even more incredible, at the same time, Elon had just had a 3rd rocket (in a row) explode during or after launch at Space-X. These are clear examples of useful activity towards a result without the intended result happening. In the hardware businesses, distinguishing a clear result is often easier than in software companies (in the case of Tesla or Space X - a lot easier). Companies that depend on physics are never given a pass.

But if you are a consumer media or business-to-business software startup, I think finding a way to identify the results in a way that is as black-and-white as the results Elon’s companies needed to achieve, is a powerful way to treat all of your startup activity. You either built a product or you didn’t (Easy to distinguish the result). You either built a product that achieved product-market fit or you didn’t (much harder to distinguish). To clearly identify results that count you have to be able to clearly articulate what a successful result means. Using the description endorsed by Andreesen Horowitz for product-market fit (12 Things about Product-Market Fit, Feb 2017*) , is a great way to define successful results along the way to achieving product-market fit (and one I highly recommend). *

Last, activity that does not end in a specific result will either be a valuable lesson learned or a wasted investment in time, resources and energy. When I was CEO, our Board meetings usually started with what results we achieved in the last quarter and what lessons we learned (a nice way of reporting activity that did not end in a result). In the ideal, activity that resulted in lessons learned would then be used to get back on track to achieving the necessary result that was missed the first time through. All of your startup activity must end in specific results that move your company forward by solving problems to get results and achieve success.

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