Startup Thoughts > 7 Hacks to Execute Better

I am pretty well known in my office for having a penchant for cheesy motivational quotes. What can I say? Cheesy or not, I truly think they work. We all suffer from daily motivational dips and a quick glance at some of these posters are often all that’s needed to pull me through a rut.

One of my favourite motivational quote posters hangs in my office directly within eye shot and it reads “Vision without execution is hallucination”. A quote by Thomas Edison apparently, a guy who achieved a thing or two in his lifetime. The point is that, although many of us have lightbulb moments (see what I did there!), the vast majority of us don’t. Or even if we do, we then don’t know how to execute on our ideas.  

As morbid as it sounds, the poster is a sobering reminder to me that 90% of all startups fail, and provides a daily kick up the a*s to get going already!

Vision Without Execution is Hallucination.

Thomas Edison

This view is echoed by many successful entrepreneurs, although some may express it less eloquently than others:  

Ideas are shit, execution is the game.

Gary Vaynerchuck

The concept seems blindingly obvious. With the benefit of hindsight we can answer why Airbnb was successful where a similar company might have failed: Execution.  

Another example (slightly closer to home) is Movinga, a highly touted startup that wanted to globally revolutionise the moving market. Unfortunately, Movinga failed spectacularly this year having squandered $39 million in less than 6 months.

Contrast this with its direct competitor Movago, who recently announced that it closed a 7 million Euros financing round. What makes Movago so different from Movinga? It shares exactly the same market, business model, vision and mission. The answer surely lies in execution.  


So if execution is the answer, then surely all we need to do is make a plan, draw up a ‘to do’ list and just get going with it? Now, I love a nice to ‘to do’ list. So if this theory were true I should be a billionaire by now…. Alas, executing a ‘to do’ list is not enough. As it turns out, a lot of this is because of evolution and how our brains are wired.

Researchers have found that a portion of the brain, the amygdala (try pronouncing that!), reacts negatively when we are facing uncertainty or risk. This response is quite helpful when you’re in the jungle and you’re trying to avoid danger and stay alive. Unfortunately, when we imagine a future as being vastly different from today, we experience uncertainty because we don’t know how to create and maintain the future we are imagining. When this happens, the amygdala kicks in.

That’s when the part of our brain that avoids risk gets in our way. When you start to envision a future that stretches your comfort zone and is significantly bigger and bolder than what you currently are living, the amygdala tries to shut down the process before you can do anything silly. No matter how risk-embracing an entrepreneur might be, there is no getting away from the scientific fact.   

It’s all very well confidently convincing your investors of your bold vision. But once you’ve raised the money, you’ve actually got to make things happen. It’s rather deflating, therefore, that at one level we are all wired to resist change and postpone greatness.

Learning from the Greats

So if all of us fall victim, one way or another, to our brain’s primal wiring then what are the secrets of the 1% of performers who somehow overcome this hurdle and pave their way to success?  

I make no secret of the fact that I invest time into studying those successful individuals who clearly know something most of us don’t. Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Elon Musk, Steve Jobs are some of the few legends that I’ve scrutinised.  

And here’s the bottom line: 99% of what these successful people do is not rocket science. Far from it, in fact. A lot of what makes these people successful, other than smarts and vision, is fairly commonsense. It’s just that they actually do these things consistently, every single day.

So here are 7 of the ‘not-so-secret’ tactics that I have learned, and which – notwithstanding the daily battle with my wretched amygdala – I try my best to apply:

1. They purposely create more urgency

Why on earth would they do that, you may wonder. Well, the answer is fairly simple:

There’s nothing like a deadline to get you motivated.

It’s amazing what happens when people have a goal and a deadline. But most of us focus on yearly deadlines, which isn’t very effective. Think about it. We begin the year with big goals but by the end of January we usually find ourselves slightly behind where we need to be. While we’re not pleased, we’re certainly not too worried about it, either. We have 11 months to catch up, right?

Wrong.  Because more often than not, this thought pattern prevails late into the year. Then, all of a sudden, as year end nears, we jump into action. It’s no surprise then, that in most corporates, Q4 often represents 30-40% of the annual sales. With little time to waste and with clear objectives to meet, workers focus on critical projects and activities. Tasks that are not directly related to driving results are pushed aside for what really matters in the short term.

This whole concept is nicely captured by Parkinson’s Law (a concept often touted by productivity guru Tim Ferriss). The law can pretty much be summarised by the following sentence:

Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

If you were to plot this on a graph it would look a little like this:

Simply put, if we’re given three hours to complete a task that normally would take an hour, we’ll find a way to fill those three hours. However, when we’re down to the final thirty minutes, we’re suddenly feeling the pressure to get things done. Successful people recognise this and so always seek to place shorter time limitations on what they’re working on to maximise their effectiveness.

If you’re committed to being an Amygdala Rebel, then instead of giving yourself a week to complete a project, break it into smaller activities, and set multiple deadlines during the week to finish them. Then once you’re done, you have more time to watch Netflix or locate more Pokemon Go creatures (whatever floats your boat).

Using restriction to your advantage will actually create more freedom for yourself, not less.

2. They eliminate what’s not important  

Successful people ruthlessly weed out the things, activities (and people!) that do not substantially contribute to their goals. They also apply the ‘20% Rule’, also known as Pareto’s Law which, in a nutshell, holds that:

20% of all activities will deliver 80% of our desired results.  

The origin of Pareto’s Law came from an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who noticed that 80% of wealth and land were controlled by only 20% of the people. Further research has shown that this concept is consistently applicable in almost every situation. For example:

  • 80% of our expenditures come from 20% of sources (i.e. rent, mortgage, transportation)
  • 80% of our profits come from 20% of customers
  • 80% of our happiness come from 20% of people in our lives

If you were to draw a picture to illustrate this, it would look a bit like this:

It’s easy to be wrapped up in ‘busy’ work without ever getting anything done. Pareto’s Law tells us that to get ahead, we need to be more effective, rather than just be efficient.

3. They know consistency is King  

Ok, so far so good. We now know that to crush it we need to shorten the amount of time we give ourselves to do things and we need to use that shortened time to focus on the 20% of tasks that will drive 80% of our success. Awesome, I’m off to make a down-payment on my Porsche Boxter Spyder because I’ll be joining the billionaires’ club soon.  

Not so fast. There’s obviously more to it. They say it takes at least 5 years to be an overnight success and unfortunately this holds true for the vast majority of us. Success requires a prolonged period (likely years) of consistent application of the principles in this article (which, by the way, are by no means exhaustive).  

Sir William Osler, founder of John Hopkins School of Medicine, and a pretty successful guy by anyone’s standards, said that his secret was living life in “day-tight compartments”. What he found was that, while we plan for the future, we act in the day. To be truly effective, your daily activity must align with your short-term vision, strategies and tactics.  

In the end, you have greater control over your actions than you do your results.

This holds particularly true for startups. Previously, I’ve emphasised how we all needed to be flexible in our thinking, embrace uncertainty and be brave in the face of failure.  In startups you have even less control over the overall outcome than you do in corporates. But, what we do have control over is our daily actions. Our results are created by our actions.

An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s not enough to have the intention to achieve things. You have to actually act – not just once but consistently. As the ancient Roman philosopher Lucretius pointed out:  

“The fall of dropping water wears away the stone.”

Or, assuming you are all House of Cards fans (if not, where have you been?), the following may be more relatable:  

Although his tactics may be highly questionable, there’s no denying that old Frank Underwood got his way. Consistent action on critical tasks is what’s needed to reach our goals.  

Finally, given I have such a penchant for cheesy quotes (hey, it’s my article!), here’s one from the mighty Aristotle:  

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act, but a habit.”

4. They always keep score

Ever wondered why watching sports is so exciting and motivating? One of the key reasons why sports are so stimulating is because we keep score. Just as in athletics, measurement drives the business process.  

A common misconception is that scoring actually demotivates people, because it basically amounts to micro-management. And nobody likes to be micromanaged….. But there’s another way of seeing this.  

In the 1960s Frederick Herzberg, an industrial psychologist, set out to determine what motivates people in the workplace. His extensive research identified the top two motivators as achievement and recognition. In most cases, the only way to know if you are achieving is through measurement — that is, keeping score.  

We all have a tendency from time to time to rationalise lacklustre results. But with effective scorekeeping we are forced to confront the reality of the situation, even when it’s uncomfortable.  If you don’t measure your performance, how do you pinpoint where things are going wrong? How do you improve? How do you make intelligent decisions? How can you truly know anything?

In God we trust, all others bring data.

Edward Deming

So if I find myself shying away from facing up to the reality of my own scorecard (which I do more often than I would like…human!), I will mutter under my breath something along the lines of “suck it up, buttercup!” and then will get on with it. The more comfortable you can get with being uncomfortable, the quicker you’ll grow. Period.  


5. They rock at owning it

Successful people always hold themselves accountable. I know, I know, accountability is such a dry, creepy word. We always associate it with bad behaviour, poor performance and negative consequences. Well, my advice is to get over that. Because accountability is not about consequences, it’s about ownership.  

C’mon, don’t be offended. At the end of the day, we all have freedom of choice. The reality is that there is no such thing as ‘have-to’ in life. You could down-tools right now, go home and build that ant farm you’ve always dreamed of. Everything in life is a choice. It’s this freedom of choice that is the foundation of accountability.

When you choose to do something, you are able to tap your resources and give your best. It is a much more empowering stance. Ultimately, you choose your actions, your results, your consequences. How you view accountability and to what degree you embrace it affects everything you do, from your relationships to your ability to execute effectively. Successful people understand that true accountability is about choice and taking ownership of their choices.  This truly is a key difference between mediocrity and greatness.

6. They are not afraid of commitment

There is an old anecdote about commitments involving a chicken and a pig at breakfast time.  The chicken has contributed the egg and so is merely interested in the breakfast. The pig, however, contributes the bacon, and so is completely committed.  

Commitment is another one of those concepts that causes many people to break into a cold sweat. It conjures up images of chains, restraint, suffocation, claustrophobia…. need I go on.  Many of us avoid making commitments or break them when the going gets tough (Disclaimer: So have I… human, remember?).

However, like it or not, an ability to make and keep commitments improves results, builds trust and fosters high performance teams.

“Unless commitment is made, there are only promises and hopes; but no plans.” — Peter Drucker.

You can plan as much as you like, set targets and measure performance. However if you don’t have a healthy respect for those promises / targets / deadline / fill in the blank, then you are ultimately selling yourself short. Worse, you’re letting your team down and holding the business back from executing effectively. In the words of Anne Robinson: “You are the weakest link, goodbye!”.  

P.s. And if you can’t / won’t commit, then just f*ck*ng own it (see point 5 above..)

7. They go the extra mile always, not just sometimes  

In August of this year, many of us tuned into the Rio Olympic games to watch amazing athletes do incredible things. We reveled in and were buoyed by their achievements, of which the symbolic pinnacle always is the medal ceremonies. But is winning a gold medal what defines the greatness of a champion?

No. The athlete becomes great not when she breaks a world record and wins a medal. That’s when the world recognises her, yes. But the reality is that the athlete achieved greatness months, perhaps years earlier when she decided to run the extra mile, swim the extra laps, or perform just one jump more.  

Greatness is not a moment, it is a habit.  

Similarly, the profound difference between greatness and mediocrity for a salesperson is two or three extra appointments a week, five or ten more calls a day. For a marketeer it’s checking the numbers for the nth time, just in case he missed something earlier, tweaking adword campaigns to perfection and working overtime to finish the article he promised to publish. That’s the difference between being great and mediocre.  

Each and every one of us has the God-given ability to be great. What makes a champion is the discipline to do the extra things even when – especially when – you don’t feel like it. You just have to choose to be that way. And then own it, of course 😉

The last word…

I started this article by making the point that the difference between success and failure for any start-up lies, primarily, in execution. No matter how driven the CEO or founder may be, he or she cannot achieve a company’s success on their own. The 7 success principles outlined above need to be embedded in the company’s culture, and ingrained in every member of the team (particularly the founding team).   

The CEO’s job then, together with the management team, has to be to instill these values in every and every person in the business. How this is done is probably material for another 10 blog posts and, in truth, I am learning every day.