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In the wonderful and demanding world of startups, you may find yourself working hard for many hours, feeling busy but actually accomplishing little and barely “moving the needle”. Operations is not about the hours spent, but on how you work and which things you choose to work on. Many people see two dimensions here: Strategy and Execution. For early stage startups, execution is more about speed, while the strategy is about quality. Speed increases your chance of success and gives you more opportunities for learning before you run out of resources.

Moving the needle: making a noticeable (and measurable) difference in helping users.

It’s very common to find yourself working on many things that don’t “move the needle”, so to speak (e.g., refactoring, improving architecture, long-term improvements), but actually this can be a critical mistake for early stage startups (pre-seed, round A). It’s important to focus on doing things that “move the needle”.

“So often people are working hard at the wrong thing. Working on the right thing is probably more important than working hard.”

— Caterina Fake, Flickr co-founder

Consider the unit of execution you aim for (e.g., 1 week, 2 weeks, 1 month) — how often will you do something that moves the needle? This will dictate your work and decision making. A good rule of thumb, is to aim for the company to do something that moves the needle at least once a week or once every two weeks (in fact, ideally, each team member should contribute something that moves the needle in that time frame). If this doesn’t happen, there may be a problem with your strategy or with specific a team member.

Startups tackle big problems, but it’s very hard to tackle the whole problem. Typically, these big problems consist of many smaller things — so choosing what to focus on is critical. Equally important is to be able to gauge your speed.

Tools and Practices that Help with Speed

  • Culture of shipping.
  • Infrastructure that supports continuous deployment and shipping.
  • Efficient decision making process: Sometimes people believe they have to do more research on a topic, that they don’t have enough input, or that they need to reach an agreement or consensus in the team, eventually ending up delaying their decisions. In most cases it’s better to make a decision and change your mind later than to not make a decision.
  • Focus: Work on the most important thing first. Break down the most important thing to its basic layers and focus on the most important component.
  • Delegation and ownership: Allow people on your team to make decisions without the need to seek agreement with everyone.

These insights are based on a podcast discussion by Eytan Levit and David Katz (original podcast is in Hebrew). I initially summarized these insights to share with students in my Startup Programming course, and later decided to share it here, too.

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Alexey Zagalsky


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Alexey Zagalsky

Software Engineering Researcher

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