The 4 Part System I’ve Used For 4 Years To Achieve 10x Productivity

Tony Robbins
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To say I’m obsessed with productivity and time-ROI is probably an understatement. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated with the art and discipline of goal setting. Over the last 10 years I’ve probably tried every system there is. And none of them worked. So I decided to build my own hybrid approach which I’ve been using since 2011.

There are thousands of articles that talk about the impact of goal setting so I’m not going to go there. What I do know, though, is there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. By hacking together the best approaches from various systems and mentors, I’ve created something that I would estimate has helped me to be 10x more productive over the last 4 or so years.

What do I mean by productive? I mean getting more leverage from the resources I have and accomplishing more while exerting less personal effort. I mean defining a clear roadmap for the next 12 months that’s balanced across the important areas of life: health, business, relationships and contribution. I mean knowing what to say yes to – not because it sounds interesting, but because what you say yes to is in context and part of the roadmap you’ve defined for the coming year.

Before any goal setting or productivity system will work, though, you’ve got to have the right people on your team. That means the right leaders (if you own a company), the right partner (if you’re married), etc. Fix your people problems first otherwise they’ll slow you down massively. That lesson is hard to learn but easy to give.

So the system I’ve been using for a while is pretty basic and there are 4 parts. I’ve shared it with maybe 20 people I know (employees, friends, relatives, etc) and it’s changed their lives by dramatically boosting their focus, productivity and clarity. Basically it will make you outcome focused so you stop doing stuff just to be busy.

#1 – Goals categorized by area of focus

Every year starting on December 1st, I spend about a month brainstorming goals for the different areas of my life. I scribble those goals down – even if they aren’t clearly defined yet. I come back to them whenever a new goal comes to mind and add it to the unsorted, messy list.

Once the list is finished, the goals are moved into areas of focus that are important to me. Those areas are:

  1. Family
  2. Marriage
  3. Financial
  4. Giving Back
  5. Investing
  6. Travel
  7. Fun & Hobbies
  8. Possessions
  9. Stuff

It’s no mistake family and marriage are at the top of the list. The areas here come from Ted Leonsis’s great book The Business Of Happiness. His book will change your life and is a must-read.

Ted is a personal mentor of mine and is part of Revolution Growth, through which Steve Case sits on the Bigcommerce board. He is also owner of the Washington Wizards NBA team, which makes flights to Washington exciting.

After you move your goals into the areas of focus, you prioritize them. Most important goals at the top of the list, least important at the bottom. Easy.

#2 – 12 month timeline

The next step is to use something like Google Docs, Photoshop or Trello to create a horizontal timeline of the calendar year. You then go about roughly placing your goals across various months of the year – about where you’d expect to complete that goal.

For example, if you plan to hire a head of marketing early next year, put that goal in February. If you plan to take a trip to Japan later in the year, place that goal in October.

After you’ve placed all of your goals on the timeline, you end up with something like this (click for a larger version):

timeline

This is the timline I created last December for this year (2014). For privacy reasons I’ve blocked out most of the goals, but you can see that I categorize goals by color as they’re laid out on the timline.

As you progress every week, you move the green bar across the timeline to represent where you currently are in the year. As you achieve your goals, you grey them out, like this:

Timeline (December)

This is my actual timeline that I updated this morning. Again, I’ve just blocked out the details. You can see I’ve achieved all but one goal for the year. Goals that were really important for the year are marked with a magenta color as they’re completed – just to remind me of their importance as I look back on them.

You might think it’s weird to position your goals on a timeline like this, but it’s incredible what it does to your subconscious mind. By writing something down and giving it a completion date, you find your goals are almost automatically completed within a few days of that date.

Your brain works behind the scenes to figure out the resources, team, advisors, communication, planning, etc you need to get something done.

#3 – Draft look back statement

You can’t predict the future. Or can you?

Once I’ve laid out my goals on the timeline, I then write a 2-3 page look back statement. I start by asking myself this simple question:

It’s December 31 2014. Knowing you’ve achieved all of your goals, how would you describe the year when you look back?

I look across all of my areas of focus and the goals I’ve set, and I write a story that talks about the success I’ve had during the year. Now you have to remember I’m writing this before the year has even started. I write this on December 31st of the previous year for the upcoming year.

Why do this? It comes back to your subconscious mind. The power of writing something down can’t be underestimated. If you’re a visual learner, the timeline locks the goals in your head. If you’re an audible or kinesthetic learner, the look back statement locks the goals in your head.

So how do you write a look back statement? Organize your list of goals not by area of focus but by overall priority. Start at the top of the list with the most important goal you will achieve next year and work your way down.

Then just write a paragraph describing what achieving that goal means for you today (remember, you’re standing a year in the future from now) and why achieving it was so important for your life.

You must write these paragraphs in past tense, as in, you’ve already achieved them. This is another way to trick your brain and subconscious mind. Your brain has no idea if what you’re telling it is true or not and it assumes everything you say is true and works to make it so.

This has been proven over and over again by science.

#4 – Wheel of life

I’ve borrowed the wheel of life from Tony Robbins. It’s a simple construct that helps you grade each area of focus every week. For areas where you grade yourself low (on a scale of 1 to 10), you dedicate some time and focus to boost your rating – say from a 4/10 to a 7/10.

Your wheel of life is structured as a circle and the areas you want to focus on are included as spokes on the circle, like this (click to see a larger version):

Wheel Of Life

Areas you’re doing well in get a rating of 8, 9 or 10. Areas where you’re doing OK get a 5, 6 or 7. Areas where you’re struggling get a rating of 1, 2, 3 or 4.

The analogy Tony uses for the wheel of life is a tire on a car. If you look at how you connect each of the spokes on the wheel – and if that were a tire on a car – how would the car drive?

A high performance tire is round, so if you look at the example wheel of life above, you’ll see that the spokes are connected with lines that are jagged. If this was a tire on a car, the car would barely drive.

And that’s the idea. You need a focused approach to all of the areas of you life that are important to create a well-rounded tire. If you rate your business progress a 10 and family a 2 then your wheel will be off – and your car (your life) won’t drive (function) well.

See the 3 highlighted areas of focus in yellow? Those are the 3 areas you choose to focus your efforts on over the coming week. Generally you choose the 3 areas where you’ve self-rated the lowest.

You then take those areas and look at which of your goals you can work on in the coming week to drive those ratings up.

In the example wheel of life, those areas of focus are:

  1. Business
  2. Learning
  3. Health

To improve each of those, you’d look at your goals timeline (part #2) and pencil time in your calendar to work on progressing towards the goals you’ve selected. It’s OK to add new goals to your list if you need to as well. The idea is that a system is just a system. It’s there to provide structure and to support you, but it’s not set in stone.

You should review all 4 parts of the system at least once a week and pencil that time into your calendar as a recurring event. I like Sunday afternoons or Monday mornings for an hour.

Once you’ve decided what you’ll focus on for the week, make sure you block out that time in your calendar as well. It’s a forced discipline that lets you “set and forget” so you end up with at least 50% (ideally 70%) of your awake time accounted for. And that’s the time where you’re making progress on the goals you’ve decided are important to you.

That’s it

It’s a pretty simple system that works. The idea is that your yearly goals define your quarterly focus which defines your monthly and weekly priorities which are what you work on to improve the areas of focus that are important to you.

I don’t believe you can be happy when most of your areas of focus aren’t performing well. With this system, you’re forced to give attention to the things you’ve decided matter to you, so it keeps you progressing on all fronts throughout the year.

Like all systems though, it only works if you stick with it. Once I came up with the system it took me a few weeks to get used to it, but now I can’t live without it.

I don’t think it’s a great system if you’re planning incremental gains in your life next year. For those, you can use Clear, Omnifocus, Google Tasks or some other basic system. But if you want to 10x your productivity, goals and progress then maybe give it a shot and see how you like it.

49 Fitness Tips I’ve Learned Over The Last 10 Years

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I started lifting weights when I was 21. Up until that point I see-sawed between “skinny fat” and overweight – bouncing between 70KGs (155LBs) and 90KGs (198LBs) and 20% – 25% body fat. I realized early on that in order to be successful in any area of life, you first need to have a body that can keep up with your mind.

There is so much misinformation out there about how to get in shape – the fitness industry is worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year, so the barrier to entry is low. Anyone can pedal the next amazing supplement or weight loss miracle pill.

I believe there are two kinds of people though. Those always chasing the easy way and those who are willing to put their heads down, take responsibility, learn and keep course-correcting along the way. I’m the latter, as I’m sure you are.

As a result, I’ve spent the last 10 years investing a lot of my time learning about fitness. How to eat, how to workout, understanding supplements, body types, maco-nutrients, acidity vs alkalinity and it’s impact on the body, free weights vs machines, various types of cardio, stress, determination, etc.

I’m still learning but through trial and error over the last 10 years I’ve put together a list of 49 tips that have helped me put on some muscle, keep body fat low and most importantly, keep my mind clear and stress down. I hope you find them useful.

Goals First But Routine A Close Second

Austin Wall
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There are hundreds of goal setting and productivity books, courses, videos, strategies and methodologies you can use in both your business and personal life. And over the last 15 years I’ve tried all of them. I guess I’m what you’d call a productivity nut. I like to do in one year, what most people would be happy accomplishing in 3-5 years.

I see productivity as a game and also as a hobby. I like to 1) find ways to get more done, while 2) producing more output over time while 3) using less of my own time so 4) I ultimately use leverage to achieve the same goals.

There are some basic examples of this I’m sure you’ve heard before. Steve Jobs had a work uniform consisting of a black turtleneck sweater, jeans and running shoes. The idea is that the fewer decisions you have to make in a day, the less likely you are to end up with decision fatigue, reserving more of your brain cycles to make decisions on the things that really matter and that will move the needle.

I’ve found that one of the best ways to eliminate decision fatigue and progress towards your goals almost effortlessly is by structuring a constant and predictable routine of tasks and actions that you just do, regardless of circumstance, external pressures or anything else that might try to get in the way.

Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about goals and goal setting. There are dozens of books on the topic and they range from interesting to mundane, but most of them leave out the most important part of setting any goal – the why. Why will achieving a specific goal improve your life?

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s right-hand man is well known for training his managers on the why principle whenever they’re communicating MBOs (Management By Objectives) to their troops. He will go so far as to fire any manager who doesn’t explain why hitting each MBO is so critical to the business and to each particular individual. If you look at the performance of Berkshire Hathaway, it’s hard to argue with his results.

So, before committing to any goal, understand why achieving that goal is important and what it will mean for you. If there’s not a good enough why, think hard about removing that goal from your list.

Once you have a clear why for each of your goals, the next step is to really break each of your goals down into mini milestones that you can achieve on your way to hitting the bigger goal. For example, let’s say your goal is to make $1M in the next year (all goals should have a deadline, too). You might break it down into milestones as follows:

  1. Make $100,000 in Q1
  2. Make $200,000 in Q2
  3. Make $300,000 in Q3
  4. Make $400,000 in Q4

Now you have four milestones along the way and your brain can focus not on the huge goal of making $1M in the next 12 months, but on the easier milestone of making $100,000 in the next 3 months. It’s a subtle shift in thinking, but perception becomes reality. To your brain, making $100,000 in the next 3 months is a real possibility and exists in your reality, while making $1M in the next year might not feel realistic just yet.

Once you’ve got your milestones worked out, you need to be pig-headed about structuring a routine that will get you to your next milestone. For our example of making $100,000 this quarter, let’s assume you’re a sales rep. Let’s also assume you know how many calls you have to make, your conversion rate, your average deal size and your commission. You can then work backwards to determine your daily work routine – that is, how many calls do you have to make every day to guarantee you’ll hit your milestone:

  • Average deal size: $5,000
  • Commission: 30%
  • Conversion rate: 30%
  • Calls per day: 60

So there it is. Your daily routine must now be scheduled in your calendar to block out the time you need to make 60 phone calls. If that’s 9 hours a day, then it’s 9 hours a day. Jump into Google Calendar, block out 4 hours in the morning and 5 hours in the afternoon and defend that time like your life depends on it.

The thing about achieving goals is that it really can be as easy as the simple process I’ve described above. Now of course you should always be working on a mix of goals that involve health, family, finances, contribution, etc – and these will all have their own mini milestones and time booked into your calendar so you can make progress on them every week.

How many goals you work on at a single time is up to you. There’s a fine line between hitting your goals and feeling like you’ve taken on too much, but that balance comes with time. After a year or two of goals backed with routine, you’ll get a good sense of how much you can take on at any one time and will optimize around that.

Like I said at the beginning, there are hundreds of ways to track and work on goals, but the system you use shouldn’t be complicated or get in the way. For every goal, if you:

  1. Know why it’s important to you
  2. Break it down into mini milestones
  3. Block time on your calendar every week to make progress on the next milestone
  4. Review your progress weekly and course correct along the way

Then you’ll be ahead of 99% of the general population and easily 90% of people who actively set goals. The simpler the process you use, the more likely you are to achieve success. At least that’s what I’ve found.

How to pitch a room full of investors and get a term sheet

Pitching
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In my last post I shared 8 tips for creating the perfect pitch deck. After such an overwhelming response (tens of thousands of readers, 45 questions via twitter/email and almost 5,000 shares via social media) I decided to follow up with a second piece on a topic that’s discussed even less than creating a pitch deck – actually standing in front of potential investors and pitching for capital.

As part of my 5 year journey building Bigcommerce, I’ve raised 3 rounds of venture capital financing. A $15M series A in 2011 from General Catalyst, a $20M series B in 2012, also from General Catalyst, and a $40M series C last year from Steve Case’s Revolution Growth for a total of $75M.

For each round of financing, we created a pitch deck and went on a road show. For all 3 rounds, we received term sheets very early in the process and cut our pitching short, allowing us to get the capital and get back to building the business.

Here are 9 tips to help you do the same – that is, pitch fewer potential investors, get term sheets faster and raise capital so you can get back to building your business and executing on your vision.

Tip #1: Know the investor and their portfolio in detail

Before you pitch a potential investor, spend a few hours on their website. Get to know who the partners are, whether each of them has any operational experience running a company as founder and/or CEO, whether they took their company public or had it acquired and what they’re good at.

A lot of partners at venture capital firms blog too, so search for “[partner name] blog” and read through their posts to learn more about them and their views.

You also want to figure out which other companies they’ve invested in, why, how much and over how many rounds. You’ll want to avoid any investors who have put money into one of your direct competitors, as that would be an obvious conflict of interest and a waste of time.

Tip #2: Don’t pitch on a Monday

This one is short and sweet. Partners at every venture capital firm meet on Monday mornings to discuss potential deals and vote on investments. If you pitch on a Monday afternoon then you’ll be waiting a whole week to hear back  on whether they’re interested in learning more or discussing a term sheet. By then, they’ll have listened to other pitches and may not hold the same level of interest they did on the previous Monday.

Tip #3: Find partners whose thesis aligns with your vision

Most investors have investment theses that form the foundation on which they research, analyze and invest in companies. For example, one of our investors has had a few different theses over the last few years. First it was travel, then e-commerce, then big data.

Inside a single venture capital firm, each partner can have their own investment thesis and it’s important to make sure at least one investor has a thesis that involves your industry or domain. For example, there’s no point pitching your mobile messaging app if none of the investment partners have formed a thesis that mobile messaging has a huge future.

Tip #4: Understand their fund size, life and stage

Venture capitalists raise money every few years from their LPs (Limited Partners) such as wealthy families and University endowments. Each time they raise (yes, they have to do a roadshow and pitch, just like us!), they create a new fund. These funds are typically numbered in sequence (such as fund 4 or fund 5) and have an investment life of about 10 years.

The life of a fund is important, because if you take capital from a fund that only has 3 years left in its life and receive an acquisition offer that you might not want to take, your investor may push you to sell so they can generate a return and attribute it to the same fund from which they invested in your business.

Always ask a potential investor how much capital they have left  in their current fund and how many years are left before they raise their next fund. It’s not always possible, but you want to receive capital in the first 5 years of a fund, which will give you at least 5 years during which to grow your business before the investor starts thinking about payback and return on the fund.

Tip #5: Speak to your strengths and areas of expertise

If your startup has multiple founders, they make sure you each stick to discussing what you’re comfortable with and what you’re an expert at. For example, if you’re a non-technical CEO then defer to your co-founder and CTO for technical questions about your architecture.

Tip #6: Don’t read your pitch deck line-by-line

Never, never, never load up your presentation and just read through it line-by-line . Always focus on one key point for every slide and talk to that point in detail. Look for queues showing extra interest as you speak as well as body language and drill in to a specific topic if you feel it’s appropriate.

Tip #7: Every headline should be phrased as a selling point

Investors, like everyone else, will skim your deck before you pitch and while you’re pitching. Instead of a headline like “We have 100,000 users”, phrase it as a selling point, such as “We signed up 100,000 users in only 45 days”. Remember – you’re essentially selling equity in your business, so focus on benefits.

Here’s the litmus test: if all they did was read the headline on each slide, would they call you in for a meeting?  Make the answer a yes.

Tip #8: Speak about your competitors honestly and in detail

Have one or more reasons why your product is better than the competition, but never underestimate them. Study their businesses inside out and clearly articulate (both visually and audibly) how you position against them. List their weaknesses and their strengths and if appropriate, talk about your plan to turn your weaknesses into strengths against them.

You want to be able to articulate why an incumbent has a huge market share and convincingly convey why you feel you have a shot at winning over their customers.

When we were pitching for our series A in 2011, we clearly identified our 4 biggest competitors and how we would attack each of them. They were each much, much bigger than we were. Today, 2 of them are barely alive, 1 is dead and we’re close to taking out the final competitor, exactly as we anticipated in our pitch deck back then.

Tip #9: You don’t have to know all the answers

Don’t fumble if you can’t answer a question. Just remember the question (ideally write it down, including who asked) and politely ask if you can email or call the partner with the answer later that day or tomorrow, once you’ve had time to do some research or talk to whomever you need to talk to.

Trust me, it’s better not have an answer than to fumble , get nervous and say the first thing that comes to mind.

The other 99%…

There’s a lot more to raising a round of financing than simply creating a pitch deck and nailing its delivery. That’s 1% of the battle. The other 99% is building the right product, hiring amazing people, building a fantastic culture and understanding your metrics. All much, much easier said than done.

How To Create A Pitch Deck That Gets You Funded

Bigcommerce Sydney Office Entrance
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Creating a pitch deck is hard, especially when you’ve never done it before. If you’re a first-time entrepreneur like I was when we raised our series $15M A for Bigcommerce back in 2011, then you’re probably excited, nervous and anxious about raising your first round of financing.

The good news is that a pitch deck can (and should be) be almost formulaic. You’ve got to tell a story, paint a vision, know your metrics and sell, sell sell. Whether you’re raising a small seed round or a bigger series A straight off the bat, you need to get a few things right and the rest will fall into place. In this post I want to share with you 8 tips to create the perfect pitch deck.

There’s a lot of advice out there about creating pitch decks, so why should you take mine? Well, I’ve raised a total of 3 rounds of venture financing for Bigcommerce over the last 3 years totalling $75M. I’ve pitched to dozens of venture capitalists including most of the tier one and tier two VCs up and down the west and east costs. And I’ve received multiple term sheets, all with strong valuations, great terms and the most important thing – great investors and board members.

So let’s jump in. Here are the 8 tips I think are the most important for creating a pitch deck that will make your fundraising experience short, effective and rewarding for you, your co-founders, your employees, your business and your future investors.

Tip #1: Have a big vision – then make it 10x bigger

Having a compelling vision for where you want to take your business is important, but most first-time entrepreneurs think too small . I know I was guilty of this a few years ago. I can tell you now, whatever your vision is, it needs to be bigger and more compelling.

For example, if you have a vision to make it easy for people in a specific country to solve a problem, then expand your vision to help everyone in the world solve that same problem.

How do you know when you’re thinking big enough?

When you’re uncomfortable and even nervous with the size of the vision you’re adding to your pitch deck. Over time you’ll get used to the bigger vision and you’ll be surprised at how much more aggressive it will make you towards pursuing it.

Tip #2: Explain how you’ll use the capital – in detail

“We will invest half in marketing and half in engineering” is not the most articulate way to address how you will spend the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars you want an investor to trust you with.

Having a detailed financial model for at least the next 2 years will paint a picture of not only your operating expenses but also your revenue growth, margins and potential profit over that time as well.

More than anything, know by department and ideally by business case where you will invest the capital and if you already have a marketing machine with a predictable ROI (i.e. $1 in brings $5 out) then explain that in detail too.

Having an accurate financial forecast will help mitigate some of the risk potential investors see in your business, especially if you’re pre-revenue and/or are a first time entrepreneur. Remember – the more risk you can take away, the better your chances of closing the deal.

Tip #3: Know your metrics better than anyone

For a subscription business it’s CAC, LTV, CAC:LTV, nett MRR, conversion rate, churn (both number of clients and percentage of revenue), gross margin, etc. For other businesses the metrics will be similar. You need to know your current and future metrics in exact detail and you should be able to talk to how you will improve the metrics that aren’t up to scratch.

David Skok wrote the ultimate guide to metrics back in 2010 on his great blog For Entrepreneurs. It’s a long and detailed post, but it’s foundational to understand if you’re raising capital.

Tip #4: Short main deck

This one is simple. Your pitch deck should have two parts: the main deck and an appendix. In the main deck, include slides that are critical to telling your story, showing your metrics, team and vision. Supporting slides should be in the appendix.

How long should your deck be? Generally 30 to 60 slides is about average. The main part of our series C deck, which we used to raise $40M from Revolution, was 26 slides and the appendix was 16 slides for a total of 42 slides.

Tip #5: People grow a company, not capital

The best companies are built by amazing and capable people . Devote at least one slide in your deck to outlining your team and what makes them amazing. Are you an amazing engineer? Spell out your talents and how they contributed to your product. Do you have a strong executive team from A-list companies? Include a mini bio on each executive including the companies they’ve been at and each of their key accomplishments.

For example, has your head of sales built large, high performing sales teams before? If so, call it out. Has your CTO built highly scalable systems that handle tens of millions of users in her previous company? You get the idea.

Investors know you have competitors and generally the strongest team will build the best product and brand and therefore win the market. If you have a strong team, make it known. If your team is just a handful of first-timers then talk to your vision for the team. Who will you hire with the capital and how will you recruit them?

Have ambition to hire and build the best team you can and communicate that ambition in your pitch deck. Be honest about your team’s weaknesses and emphasize your strengths.

Tip #6: Talk about pain and how you solve it

All great pitch decks include a story that guides the reader from the initial pain point to the solution to the promise land (a business with excellent metrics that’s growing quickly). Be sure to talk about the initial pain point your product solves.

How did you come across it? Why are you solving it? Why is your approach the best one and how can you solve the problem for more people as a result of raising capital?

Tip #7: Traction speaks louder than words

Whether you’re generating revenue or not, it’s important to show your product already has traction . Again, this reduces the risk in the eyes of potential investors and gives you a better shot at getting a term sheet.

If you’re generating revenue and it’s accelerating fast, make sure that’s a slide in your pitch deck. If not, look at all of your metrics and choose the one that best represents the potential of your business, such as total number of users, total photos uploaded or similar. Ideally this metric should chart “up and to the right” and show that with a little capital you can push this metric even faster, while on your way to revenue and then profit.

Tip #8: Pitch, polish, repeat

As soon as you’ve wrapped your first pitch, make sure you have a Q&A session at the end. Questions help potential investors get clarity on everything from your numbers to your competitive advantage. Take note of their questions and feedback and use them to tweak your deck before the next pitch.

Repeat this for every pitch you do and after 3 or 4 pitches you should notice you’re getting fewer questions about the content in your deck. Because your pitch deck is continually improving, you should get a lot of positive feedback about your presentation – assuming you’re a captivating speaker and actually have a business that excites potential investors.

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Build a Product Not a Feature

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Over the last few years, access to capital has been cheap and plentiful for investors and that’s had a natural flow-on effect in the startup world. As more money became available to VCs from their LPs (Limited Partners) because of near 0% yields from other investment options, they had the ability to participate in more deals and therefore take more bets.

With the proliferation of sites like KickstarterAnglelList and especially with their new syndication model, VCs are no longer just competing with each other, but competing with a myriad of other money sources, such as entrepreneurs with huge social followings and reach that can build 6 or 7 figure syndicates in a few weeks.

A good example of this was when Tim Ferriss used his reach (via his blog) to create a syndicate and fund Shyp. Up until 1-2 years ago, Shyp probably would’ve raised that financing from a VC. Not so today.

The increase in funding competition has put some VCs at a huge disadvantage, especially those that aren’t tier 1 or tier 2 – i.e. they don’t have a brand name, a track record or dozens of entrepreneurs singing their praises and introducing them to new startups.

In the last few years, that’s led some VCs to start writing checks for feature companies, not product companies – purely so they can deploy enough capital and place enough bets to kick the laws of VC investing into gear (1 in 10 investments will pay back a VCs entire fund – and then some ).

What’s a feature company you ask? Well, let me give you a few examples.

  • Twitter is a product company while Buffer is a feature company
  • Kayak is a product company while HipMunk is a feature company
  • Salesforce is a product company while Streak is a feature company
  • TripAdvisor is a product company while Oyster is a feature company
  • Box is a product company while Hightail (formerly YouSendIt) is a feature company

Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to say that feature companies are sub par to product companies, but there are a few fundamental reasons why I believe you should start by building a full product as opposed to a feature. But before we get to those, what defines a product versus a feature?

Put simply, a product is something that can eventually become a platform on which businesses (B2B) or consumers (B2C) can standardize. The Goliath examples are Facebook, Salesforce, Spotify and Evernote.

A feature company looks like a product company, but because they focus on solving a problem for fewer use cases and therefore fewer businesses or consumers, they are at risk of being squeezed by either the category leader (via the release of a new product or an acquisition of a competitor) or new startups focusing on solving a more common problem statement and therefore providing more value.

So why build a product company instead of stringing together a bunch of features that may or may not become a product that gains traction? Here are three reasons worthy of consideration.

First, you can tell a more compelling story to both the talent you’re trying to recruit and also to investors. It’s a no-brainer that software products aren’t as complex nor as fully-featured as they were even ten years ago, but focusing on building a full product that can stand on its own (i.e. isn’t reliant on a platform like Twitter or being a plug-in to WordPress or an app for Salesforce) allows you to tell a bigger story that addresses a larger market and therefore by default gives you a much better chance of getting traction, because there are more potential customers who will give you money.

Second, the cost and complexity of technology continues to improve day-by-day, so compared to even just a few years ago, it takes less effort to build a product company today. All things being equal, you can now build a product in probably three quarters to half of the time it took in 2004-2008 thanks to Amazon, Github, Heroku, etc.

Third, there’s a better chance you’re focusing on solving a real problem that people will pay you money to fix. Take Kayak (product) and Hipmunk (feature) as the perfect example. Kayak was able to solve a fundamental pain point that all travellers have – wanting a fast, clean and simple way to find and book flights.

Hipmunk on the other hand, solves a use case that a fraction of Kayak’s customers have – displaying flights in a gantt chart view instead of list view. They’ve added hotels and a few other things now, but essentially that’s their value proposition.

Kayak was acquired by Priceline for $1.8B while Hipmunk has raised $20M over a few rounds of financing and looks to be doing OK, but isn’t the Goliath that Kayak is. Yes Kayak invested in building a brand, in partnerships, etc, but it all starts with product-market fit, which Kayak absolutely nailed.

The final reason to build a product company instead of a feature company is that your risk profile drops considerably, primarily because you have a larger TAM (Total Addressable Market) and there’s less risk that one of the incumbents in your space will wipe you out, because it’s harder for them to build a full product than just adding a feature to one of their existing products.

For every point I discuss above, there are dozens of exceptions. For example, Instagram essentially took Facebook’s photos feature and built a $1B feature company . WhatsApp took Facebook’s messaging feature and built a $19B feature company. Then Facebook acquired them both.

Still, I believe your chances of success are much better if you start by building a product company, not a feature company. In that context, I define success as three things:

  1. Starting with a product but ending with a platform on which businesses or consumers can standardize, while developers use your APIs and ecosystem to piggy back on your growth and therefore become revenue contributors by building paid apps for which you take a sizeable revenue share
  2. Building a business with a valuation (either private or public) of $1B or more
  3. Attracting the right kind of talent to help scale the business as it progresses through each stage of growth

If you define success in the same way, then a product company will give you a much better chance of getting there. If not, maybe a feature company should be more your thing. Food for thought, though.

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Don’t Lose The Hustle As You Grow

Bigcommerce #Poached Campaign in San Francisco
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Limited resources can breed creativity and produce results faster because of constraint. That’s why so many startups can create such amazing products so quickly. As companies grow beyond a small team and into more mature organizations, sometimes the hustle that got you to where you are is exactly what you need to keep driving you forward.

Structure and a clear role for everyone in a fast-growth startup are foundational for departments like sales and business operations, however across departments like engineering, marketing and HR, there’s a huge amount of room for hustle, or leveraging what you’ve got to have a bigger impact than you otherwise might have.

The formula to make hustle work as your business scales is leverage + creativity = hustle. I believe that everyone should hustle in some way, shape or form to improve their contribution to the business. Here are a few recent examples that come to mind from how we do things at Bigcommerce.

Weekend hack houses

Our Sydney engineers have regular weekend hack houses where they build product features, platform improvements or internal tools that might not be on the immediate roadmap, but that they know will add value to the business.

Five or ten engineers, product managers and designers will rent a beautiful house on the ocean from Friday to Sunday and treat the time as a 72 hour hustle. Most weekends they will finish what they set out to build or will at least get an idea going so that it’s much closer to reality than it was before the weekend started.

There are no stand ups, no management (we don’t have managers in engineering anyway) and no interruptions. They just hustle to create value for clients. Our Single Click App store started out as a weekend hack house project late last year.

#Poached Recruiting Campaign

After opening our San Francisco office about a month ago, we needed to hire dozens of engineers to help scale our platform and continue innovating.

We had to hire extremely fast though, so I got together with some of our execs and internal recruiters and after the initial idea to rent all of the billboards along the 101 in San Francisco proved too expensive, we decided on our #Poached campaign, which just ended.

For 3 straight days a bunch of our guys and gals setup stalls with poached egg sandwiches and coffee at the bus stops Google and Facebook engineers use during their morning commute. When they received our breakfast goods, they of course got the chance to learn that we are hiring and that they could stay in the city for work instead of commuting for hours every day. Win, win.

Our recruiting pipeline absolutely exploded, we were picked up in various tier 1 media outlets and the #poached hash tag got huge exposure on Twitter. We backed this campaign with a contest for non-engineers to refer their engineer friends and I have no doubt our San Francisco office will be full within a few weeks. Our team hustled their butts off, with many people flying in from Sydney and Austin to lend a hand.

Tech Support LAN Party

In our Austin office where we have the bulk of our support team, we recently held a recruiting LAN party where potential tech support ninjas could come along, see our office, eat pizza, drink beer, meet everyone and just get immersed in our culture.

We wanted to fill our recruiting pipeline quickly and ended up hiring 4 people in a single night with dozens of applicants. This cost us a few thousand dollars and took a few hours to setup and promote using social media and LinkedIn. It used leverage (our office, our team) and creativity (who doesn’t like LAN parties?) to create the ultimate hustle.

These are just three examples of how we use hustle to improve the business – and we’re definitely not the only mid-sized company that hustles. Encouraging everyone to work with limited resources and to move fast while maintaining quality can have a huge impact on any business. You’ve just got to cultivate the environment and mindset that encourages people to respect the hustle.

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Give Up The Good For The Great

Bigcommerce Austin Walkway
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Every startup has a finite amount of resources in terms of both people and cash, so choosing the right thing to focus on is critical. I believe that every company has a few defining decisions that ultimately end up leading them to market domination or bankruptcy. The thing about these decisions though, is that you can only identify them in hindsight – otherwise building a startup would be easy.

Over the 4 year history of Bigcommerce I could name a few big decisions we’ve made that have led us to become the business we are today, but in this post I want to talk about the business Eddie and I had before Bigcommerce and how we gave up $20M in future revenue to create Bigcommerce from nothing.

Between 2003 and 2009, we built our previous business, Interspire, from no revenue and 2 people to around $6M in revenue and two dozen people. Being first-time entrepreneurs, we were learning everything along the way and both wore many hats, as you do when you’re hustling.

We started the business by building a basic content management system that web designers could rebrand and offer to their small business clients. Think WordPress before WordPress was what it is today. This product, WebEdit, did so well that we were able to reinvest profits into the business and over the next few years we built a suite of 7 products.

Between these 7 products we had about 50,000 customers. And we were profitable. With a team of 10 or so engineers, we were releasing updates to each of our 7 products every few weeks. We were similar to what 37Signals is today. Momentum was growing, our revenue was on the up and we were having a great time working crazy hours being young and single.

Our products were all perpetually licensed, which means you’d pay us a one-time fee of anywhere from $295 to $2,995 and would then install them on your own web server as PHP scripts. This worked well for the first few years. Really well, in fact.

Around 2006-2007 though, Saas really started taking off. WordPress, ConstantContact, Mailchimp, Google Analytics, SurveyMonkey, Salesforce and a bunch of other fast-growing companies had gained massive traction and scale and Saas was now the accepted way to sell software.

The problem was, our products were all installed on your web server. We also had 7 separate products and only 10 engineers. Compare this to ConstantContact for example (who were a competitor for our email marketing product) who had dozens of engineers focused purely on one product and you can see the problem.

Clearly we had to make a decision. Do we keep hiring engineers and spreading them across our 7 products, or do we double down on one or a few of our products and make them great? To figure this out, we initially launched two Saas products from the 7 products we’d built.

We took our email marketing product and “Saasified” it, calling it BigResponse. We took our shopping cart product and Saasified it, calling it Bigcommerce. We put the same marketing effort behind each of our new Saas products and gave it 3 months. Whichever one gained the most paying customers in that time was the one we’d focus all of our attention on moving forward.

During this time we continued to sell and support all 7 of our products as they were extremely profitable and were used by 50,000 businesses including a lot of huge brands, such as GE, Monster, Shell, Ticketmaster, Kraft and Virgin.

After 3 months though, it was clear we had a hit on our hands with Bigcommerce. It had attracted 3,000 paying customers in just 3 months with a tiny marketing budget. We leveraged our Interspire email list of 250,000 subscribers to promote BigResponse and Bigcommerce. Most people on our list were web designers with dozens of clients and they loved Bigcommerce because we took care of everything technical and let them simply customize a design and on-sell it to their client as a fully-hosted e-commerce offering.

So we were now at a crossroads. Do we keep our good portfolio of 7 products, 50,000 customers and $6M in revenue, or do we accelerate our focus on Bigcommerce – our great new product, with 3,000 customers and much less revenue? We knew we didn’t want to do both, because that would dilute our focus even more and we’d ultimately end up failing.

To make the decision easier, we leaned in to building and promoting Bigcommerce more aggressively. We decided that if we could build it to 10,000 paying customers in the first 12 months, we’d go all in and give up the good for the great. We started to hire more engineers and designers and were releasing new features at an astonishing rate.

Twelve months in, things weren’t just humming, they were on fire. We ended up with 9,850 customers and made the tough decision to discontinue all of the Interspire products within 18 months. This gave us time to honor our support contracts and notify our customers and design partners of our decision.

In the process, we essentially got the clock ticking. We were 18 months away from not just losing $6M a year in revenue, but also the future revenue over the next few years, so about $20M all up – a huge chunk of which would’ve gone to the bottom line.

Over that 18 month period (from 2010 to mid 2012) we worked furiously to improve Bigcommerce and expand our team. We also built sales and support teams in Austin and started to think seriously about raising our first round of financing.

In the end, of course, the revenue we generated from Bigcommerce more than compensated for the Interspire revenue we chose to give up. But most importantly, we now had a single focus and a single vision that everyone was excited about. Instead of spreading our focus across 7 products, we focused on making just one product the best in the world.

Today we have well over 50,000 paying customers, tens of millions of dollars of annual recurring revenue, over 300 people across 3 offices and are growing more than 100% year-on-year, so giving up the good for the great was the best decision we ever made.

When I talk to first-time founders as an advisor, the first thing I ask is for a high level overview of their product strategy and I’d say that 80% are planning to launch multiple products all within quick succession.

While it sounds good to have a portfolio of products and the revenue forecasts all (of course) go up and to the right, in reality the dilution of focus that comes from having more than one product can easily kill a startup before it gets any real traction.

In conclusion: build a great one-product company instead of a good multi-product company and you’ll have a much better chance of winning a market.

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Be The Face Of Your Startup

Bigcommerce Austin office opening
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There are two kinds of businesses. Those that are faceless and those that are not. Faceless brands include American Airlines, Adidas, Chase and Visa. On the flip side, Richard Branson with Virgin, Marc Benioff with Salesforce and Marc Zuckerberg with Facebook represent brands where the founder is so intertwined with their business that most times they are indistinguishable from one another.

Let’s call brands that are indistinguishable from their founders founder-led brands. When you look at media coverage for founder-led brands, they seem to get a lot more coverage and most importantly, a lot more interesting coverage than their faceless competitors.

For example, when was the last time you saw anyone from American Airlines on the front cover of a magazine? Richard Branson is on at least one major magazine cover each month.

There’s a good reason founder-led brands receive more coverage in the media. It’s because they’re more interesting to read about and as their businesses start to experience success, those founders come with a built-in audience that shores up readership.

Founder-led brands still launch new products and might use traditional media like billboards, TV, etc for branding and customer acquisition, but the reason they resonate well with customers and potential customers is because they’ve mastered the art of telling stories and standing for something.

And I think that’s the key point. Founder-led brands are typically disruptors with huge missions that interest a lot of people. Plus, if they have competitors, they’re generally from the “old guard” and have stopped innovating. How Aaron Levie positioned Box against Microsoft’s Sharepoint a few years ago is the perfect example of this. Did Microsoft respond? No? Did they need to? No.

Even founder-led brands such as Dropbox, with cash-laden and innovative competitors like Google and Apple can still win. Why? Because Drew Houston tells a different story (solving a problem versus growing revenue as a business unit inside a behemoth global brand) and built his business to meet a real need. He continually tells the story of how he had the idea for Dropbox:

“I could see my USB drive sitting on my desk at home, which meant I couldn’t work. I sulked for 15 minutes and then, like any self-respecting engineer, I started writing some code. I had no idea what it would eventually become.”

Compare this to how Tim Cook at Apple might tell the story of why iCloud was created. I’m sure his story would be interesting, but would focus on selling more Apple devices as opposed to solving a problem he had when he was in college.

Regardless of the company, people tend to remember and gravitate towards founders who tell a genuine story about what made them want to solve a problem. That solution then becomes a revenue-generating business and they continue to tell the story over and over again, in slightly different contexts depending on the audience. But it’s their face and their story that resonate with people.

Most founders have really interesting stories about why they started their business and excellent insight into the problem they’re solving. They just either aren’t comfortable being interviewed or don’t feel their story is interesting enough to share, which most times just isn’t true.

There are a million ways to become the face of your brand. That’s the easy part. Look at how others have done it and implement the same strategies. Either have a huge, compelling vision or be the David attacking the Goliath of your industry like Aaron Levie did at Box or Marc Benioff did at Salesforce ten years ago.

The important thing is being able to tell a fun and interesting story about the problem you’re solving and to then commit to telling that story to whomever will listen via interviews, speaking at events and meetups, etc over and over and over again.

It’s a commitment you’ll need to invest hundreds or even thousands of hours in over the life of your business and initially it might be painfully awkward. But as you build momentum and your story becomes more well known, you’ll find that awareness starting to translate into sales, which becomes a measurable ROI on your time invested.

You’ll also find it a huge help for recruiting, especially when you’re trying to poach top talent from some of the world’s best companies. Being the face of your brand can mean the difference between a candidate responding with “I’ve never heard of you guys, why would I want to work for you?” versus “I saw you speaking at that conference last month and believe in your mission. Thanks for reaching out, I’m interested in joining!”.

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Do Things That Don’t Scale: My Take

Bigcommerce Sydney All-Hands
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Paul Graham’s excellent essay “Do Things That Don’t Scale” is a must-read for every entrepreneur. He argues that startups don’t magically take off and gain traction. Founders work diligently doing whatever it takes to achieve and maintain that growth, whether those actions scale or not doesn’t matter.

Here’s a great excerpt from his essay:

“Actually startups take off because the founders make them take off. There may be a handful that just grew by themselves, but usually it takes some sort of push to get them going. A good metaphor would be the cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.”

Early on with Bigcommerce, I wore almost every single hat in the business. I was an engineer, product manager, designer, marketer, support guy, pre-sales guy, COO and CEO. And it was fun, but as we built the business to dozens and then hundreds of people, I found that I didn’t want to move away from a few things I enjoyed. And most of them don’t scale all that well.

Being able to scale business processes, hiring, communications, decision making, etc is critically important as you grow to hundreds of employees, but I believe most founders are only good at a few things. I also believe founders should build a team of people around them to do the things they’re not good at and to do the things they don’t necessarily want to do or aren’t passionate about.

To know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at is important. You’ve got to put your ego aside, realize you can’t possibly be good at everything and then you’ve got to think about where you can add immense value to the business. Some of those things like sharing the vision, setting strategy, public relations, etc scale quite easily, but other things don’t.

Here are a few things I do weekly that don’t scale. I do them to help build the business but also because I like doing them and they play to my strengths.

Creating content such as articles and videos

Early on when we launched Bigcommerce, I created hundreds of educational videos that taught entrepreneurs about marketing, hiring, etc. Within a year my videos had 1,000,000 views on Youtube and helped propel us to 10,000 customers quickly.

I like writing and recording videos so I spend an hour or two every day writing or sitting in front of a camera. Some content makes it to Fast Company, Inc, Mashable, etc, some helps with recruiting (example) and some stays inside the business for training and to motivate teams in our offices when I’m not physically there.

Sit with designers and review product changes

I’m obsessed with our product and I love getting into nitty-gritty detail with our UX and visual designers. I’ve always been this way because I built the first version of Bigcommerce. I like seeing wireframes, clickable prototypes and can throw down with Photoshop to make something pretty.

These days our designers are much more talented than I am, but I still love to challenge them, debate design ideas and help keep the bar high by referencing design-led companies that I admire such as Apple, Porsche and Dyson.

For example, last weekend I redesigned our careers page in a few hours using Balsamiq and Photoshop. It was then passed onto our design and engineering teams to finish. This doesn’t scale, but is important as we’re currently on a huge recruiting push in San Francisco to hire 40 engineers.

Interview anyone I am asked to speak with

As a fast-growing startup we’re always hiring dozens of people at any given time and I love sharing our vision and mission with anyone who wants to listen. Regardless of role or location I will always meet with any potential candidates and happily answer their questions about the business, our product, team, etc.

People say founders have magic powers and I really believe that. Having a short conversation with a candidate really can make the difference between building a good team and a phenomenal team.

Tweeting

I believe a founder’s job is to build his company’s brand by any means possible. To me, that means putting useful content out into the world. One of the ways I do that is with Twitter (@mitchellharper). My filter before I tweet is whether what I’m about to type will add value to the world or just noise. If it’s noise, I won’t post it. Simple.

Read NPS survey feedback

We send a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey to anyone that calls or emails our support team for help. I read feedback from detractors and email them to follow up if I need to. No matter how big your business gets, it’s important to find a way to keep as close to your customers as possible.

Mentor employees

I have a handful of people I meet with inside the business once a month just to mentor them informally. Topics range from career progression, productivity and planning to real estate, exercise and interesting books or blog posts. No topic is off limits and I’m there as a sounding board. It’s fun, keeps me engaged with amazingly smart people and lets me add a little bit of value based on how I see the world.

Advise startups

There are so many ways to kill a startup and only a few ways to make it flourish, so by advising a few founders of smaller startups I can not only share war stories and advice from my experiences but I also get to keep up with what’s going on in the broader startup scene. I ask as many questions as I answer when I meet with the founders I mentor and probably end up learning more from them than they do me on many occasions.

As I mentioned earlier, scaling a business is important but I do agree with Paul Graham that to grow a business, you have to do some things that don’t scale. And I think those things are different for every business and every founder.

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