“A thousand details add up to one impression.” Author John McPhee quoted Cary Grant on the topic of structure in his book Draft No. 4. “It’s implication is that few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential.” Building a startup requires numerous steps, each feeling more important than the last. But each detail both means a great deal, and nothing at all. Like your gravitational fluctuations as you try and loose weight; the trajectory matters more than the moment. Maintaining momentum requires planning and clear expectations. “The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.” Steven Pressfield distinguishes the amateur from the professional. A Professional shows up to work while the amateurs shows up only when inspiration hits or fame is promised. Do you want to be the amateur or the professional? If the latter, the first step when considering building something new, especially when built on the side, is to develop a framework to drive the process, not the product.
The Framework to drive the process
Building anything with more than one person requires clear expectations. Clarity around schedule and work output is critical to sustainability. From my experience there is a clear correlation between slow burnout and assuming too much while never identifying clear guidelines. Everything slowly falls apart. Another example of this come from a team of landscape architects who set up a fence around a playground and watched how kids played. It turned out that when there was no boundary around the space, the children played close to the center of the playground, not exploring their surroundings. Following that observation, the architects constructed a boundary and the children utilized the full area to play. This clarity of boundaries actually helps us explore creatively. The path Nick and I took to put a fence around our space was a charter document.
The Outline We Used to Build Our Charter
The charter is not formal, legal, or binding. It’s a strategy document that all participants work on together and agree on. If you can’t trust your co-conspirators enough to align with this method, I would seriously re-consider launching anything with them. The fluidity of the document is also important. We use Google Docs to ensure easy recall of changes. It allows the document to evolve with us. Below is an inventory of all the aspects of our charter and why each part is important.
Create a title page that lays out the document name, the team, a picture and the date. Creating a title page brings the document to life because it increases it’s validity. This is what our title page looks like.
This is the purpose of the document and the purpose of your venture. You need to describe two ideas in the overview in order to lay out the intent right up front.
The purpose of the document
What you are attempting to do
This section is about documenting the decisions that will make thousands of decisions for you. Finding direction and consensus on these aspects is the most important part of this effort. Follow Simon Sinek’s advice, “Great leaders and companies naturally get this right by starting all communication with why they do things, eventually followed by how they do things, until finally revealing what it is they actually do.” Remember, this document is fluid and is meant to ebb and flow with the trajectory of your team. Don’t be afraid to set the ship’s course, you can always re-direct. Break this section into three parts.
Goals and Objectives
Areas of Accountability
Don’t use skepticism as an excuse for inaction. This section is meant to remove any skepticism about the team in relation to what is being built. There are five critical components that drive every organization – culture, decision rights, incentive/comp, resource, and talent. This section address each component that is relevant in the project. Define the split of ownership right up front. If there are different investment levels, create a pool of equal ownership, maybe 20%-30% and leave the rest for investors and employee options. Define what type of entity you are looking to create. Lay out what financial investment will look like with the information you have today. Using all preceding information, lay out decision rights; who has the authority/autonomy to make what decisions.
This is where complete clarity is required. Set the foundation of how you will work with you team with clear expectations you can all agree upon. Also, set a timeline in which to check back in; we used 6 week increments. Nick and I started with meeting weekly for an hour. After the first 3 months, we expanded to an additional weekly hour meeting to accommodate projects in our pipeline. Also, set a financial consequence if a meeting is missed without prior notice. Lay out what tools you are going to use. Don’t let your team assume anything because it’s impossible to collaborate on a document if half of it’s in Evernote and half is in Google Docs. We use Trello, Remember the Milk, Google Docs/Calendar/Drive, and Strategyzer. For the agenda, define how that will be created. For the meeting focus, lay out what’s in scope and out of scope.
This is the process you will take to get moving. Nick and I have defined an approach to take ideas and run them through a gauntlet as this was out main objective in our project. Yours will be different. This specifically caters to our goal to start a portfolio of automated companies. I’ve outlined our approach as example but you will need to create your own. The process is what drives your ability to do the work. If you focus on product, you will get stuck. This is where so many ideas go to die. Focus on process and you can keep showing up to do the hard work. Here is what our process looks like.
Capture all ideas and meeting agenda items here. Each member has the ability to prioritize the inbox.
Checklist validate ideas:
1) Define what we want to learn. (leverage the scientific method)
2) Can we start and operate within available time / life stage constraints?
3) What will is take to achieve net profit of $1M in 5 years? (back of napkin)
4) Does it play to our strengths and/or skills?
5) Are we willing to commit 5 years of our lives, start to finish?
Once validation document is filled out, members discuss and decide to move it forward or kill it.
Fill out the Product Opportunity Assessment and Business Model Canvas. Once filled out, members discuss and decide if the would invest in an MVP or kill it
Plan out the MVP and launch strategy. Once planned and financially scoped, members decide whether to move forward or kill it.
Build the MVP and launch it
Monitor the progress after the launch
Run the business and work to automate what’s possible
Board of Directors
This section is simple. It’s a placeholder for the difficult but necessary tasks to acquire advisors. Ours currently says “Establish a Board of Advisors”.
Nick and I took 3 weeks to establish the base of our charter. We met 3 times for an hour and spent time individually brainstorming and bringing content to the discussion. This document is more about getting something down in order to get moving. The clarity will give you boundaries to work creatively together on what is important. At this point, we update the charter as things change but we don’t reference it much. Like the work you are about to do, it’s the process that’s important.