Towards the end of last year I was doing a few interviews as part of promotion for Secret Sauce Conference, the conference series I run, and was asked a few times by press (and also occasionally after I give talks by attendees): “What would you do differently if you were to start over?” or “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made?”.
Because of hindsight bias and the negative impacts of regretting previous actions, I don’t really have many answers for these questions, “You can only join the dots looking back,” as Steve Jobs used to say. Having said that, I appreciate the point of this question is to find helpful advice for others. So here are five things I regret:
1. Travelling to real-life meetings
Easily the biggest time-waster on this list. From day one of building Planet Ivy right through to fairly recently, weeks of a year have been wasted. Even with validated leads (of people to sell to or to invest in you) the amount of time you put in vs reward is shockingly low. That’s not to say you shouldn’t meet powerful people or those with strong networks, but for the most part, Skype does the job just fine.
I’ve closed deals worth thousands and avoided wasted time in hundreds of “getting to know you” meetings. Put it this way: You have a mid-morning meeting. They can either come to your office/have it via Skype or you can travel to meet them somewhere.
If you travel to meet them, it’ll take you 15 minutes to get ready from home/close down whatever it was you were working from in the office. Then let’s say 30-45 minutes to get there and meet them. You have the meeting for an hour, then another 30-45 minutes back. By the time you get back it’s lunchtime so you’ve basically wasted the morning and into the early afternoon.
Option B goes like this: one minute before the meeting starts, you walk to the meeting room/turn on Skype, and are back at work five minutes after the meeting ends. Multiply that by 20 meetings a month and you’ll see some serious hours lost (or saved).
Brilliant on day one when you’re learning how to pitch and speak about your company to strangers, but pretty soon after this, unless you’re looking to sign up the people you’re networking with to buy/use your product, a complete waste of time.
Randomly wandering around the room hoping to meet a potential customer/get an intro to an investor is an insane use of resources. What happens if you meet someone in a completely unrelated field? You’re probably going to talk to them for 15 minutes out of politeness. You rack up about 12 of these conversations (out of a room of 100 people) then it’s time to go home, even less if someone is giving a talk. A little while back I was at St. James’ Palace helping hype social media for an event with some of the richest and most powerful people in the country. I found out who was attending before and tweeted some of them, but in the hour before the event started there were only so many people I could squeeze in talking to. Even in that dream context, I could do little to affect major results.
There are enough tools out there to reach out to the people you really want to meet (VoilaNorbert to find emails, Discover.ly to see who you have in common to reach out for a warm intro, etc) as well as the epic usefulness of Facebook groups in your area/niche (go find them, they’re incredible). You should be at these networking events, but with one change (see below).
3. Not doing public speaking before
If you’re at an event, you should be the one speaking. You have everyone’s rapt attention, can show expertise and will get people asking to work with/help you, rather than the other way around.
I can’t stress enough how important this is if you’re selling something, or are a contractor/freelancer/run an agency. Most business will come from referrals, but when you’re starting out, you have no customers to refer you.
4. Not getting out to America soon enough
If you’re not lucky enough to be living in the States, do whatever it takes to get out here.
More investors, customers, customers with bigger budgets, bigger total addressable market, more advanced startup ecosystem. Do I need to say anything else?
I can’t find the exact quote (and apologies if it was someone else) but Y-Combinator’s Paul Graham once said something like: “If you wanted to get into the fashion industry, you wouldn’t say ‘Hey, I’m going to move to the 6th biggest fashion city in America!’ You would move to New York, LA, or maybe Chicago … anything else would be ridiculous.”
5. Not executing fast enough
This is in the “No-one thinks they’re doing it, but most founders do it” category.
Things get discussed in meetings, fear ultimately holds you back, and you stay the course which normally doesn’t work. Particularly if you have investors and a team around you, it often feels like you can’t just rip up the rulebook and head off in a new direction/try new things. You can, of course.
Three experiments a week is a good number to aim for (hat tip to Sean Ellis for this idea). I’ve been using this model to try out three new growth hacking techniques for the last month, and have had some real breakthroughs using this technique.
I’m sure I’ll have another set of time wasting activities in five years, but saving time by not doing the above makes me feel good, until I learn more.