4 Disciplines Necessary in Building a Startup

I was reading this piece by Jeff Atwood on why discipline makes strong developers. Having only been doing this startup thing for less than a year so far, I am learning my way as a startup co-founder as we go. So that article got me thinking on how discipline plays a role in the context of an early-stage startup. Here are the four recurring themes that I find upon closer reflection.

  1. Discipline in time
  2. Discipline in focus
  3. Discipline in communication
  4. Discipline in seeing it through

Discipline in time

It is not easy distinguishing between working hard and working productively. As I've wrote in More Problem Solving, Less Solution Glorifying, I sometimes catch myself building "cool" things rather than just the practical things. Taking a page from the Pareto Principle, we want to focus on the 20% of effort that would deliver 80% of value to our users. It is ok in the first release if things break or don't work that well. If anyone notices it, that means your users are using your product! Ship it first before anything else. This is the discipline in making the best use of your time to deliver visible values.

Discipline in focus

We regularly hire contractors to fill our gaps (design, in particular, is our Archilles' heel). It is tempting to hire even more contractors to do more work so we can get even more things done. Getting more done is good, right? But more can add complexity. It could be complexity within the product. In which case it would unnecessarily complicate the user experience. It could also be complexity in sales. A more complex product is harder for a customer to understand and see the value of. If more doesn't add complexity, then it adds to planning. In which case, you need to be critical of your basis for why you're doing it. This is a counter-intuitive one as startups need to move fast. The nuance, as Eric Ries puts it, is that we want to make informed progress and not just haphazardly shooting in all directions. This is the discipline to remain focused via customer development-driven progress.

Discipline in communication

One way to ensure that we're focusing on the right steps to take is proper communication. The people talking to clients need to communicate what users say and don't say. The people building the product needs to communicate what are the do's and not do's. Only when the two sides can come together can we find the 20% work to deliver 80% values.

Within the engineering team, we lay out the problems and communicate our plans. My job as a team lead is to enable our engineers to solve problems and not point people to build the solution in my head. Jared Spool has a good piece on Moving from Critical Review to Critique. The article is on product development but the idea of i) focus on the problem instead of the to-do's, and ii) ask questions instead of making suggestions, are sound advice in a broader context.

Within the whole company, we need discipline to be able to speak honestly and listen without passing on judgement. That one I'm still struggling on as I have this horrible tendency to be too analytical and diving into details prematurely to new ideas.

Discipline in seeing it through

Building Glassy Media is the hardest thing I've pursued, with the double whammy that there's no way to tell what we're doing even matters. I've often described to my friends that this is a roller coaster ride. In Jessica Livingston's Founders At Work, one of the founders said it best (I'm paraphrasing here):

One day you're all optimistic and things seem to be coming together.
Then the next day, you could be all gloomy and feel like this is going
to go down in flame. Even when nothing has fundamentally changed.

I couldn't agree more. I find that the key is to keep your heads up beyond the next loop to see where you're going, enjoy the ride regardless of the outcome, stay on track, and keep at it going through one obstacle at a time.

Well, that's my take. How does discipline play a role in what you do?

Posted 17 August 2014 in startup.