Writing the perfect business plan won’t get your startup off the ground if you can’t take the action to make it happen. Finding the perfect customer segmentation wont get you any customers until you call the first one and sell the product to them. And, even making the perfect specification for a revolutionary product, won’t build it for you.
Building a startup is mostly about making things happen, but how do we learn to do this?
After regular discussions on this topic with my first co-founder, Gus, we came across an interesting definition which I’ve revisited in many talks with new entrepreneurs and students with entrepreneurial dreams many times since. It’s the difference between activity and action.
Activity is what we’re taught in school, hence what most of us are often good at; doing the analysis, thinking about the solution and writing up the plan. Others might called this “busy work.”
Action is a competence we’re often not taught in school. It’s the part where you call the first customer or partner to try to sell your product, make the decision to do something and act on the plan. For the sake of brevity I’ll avoid entering a discussion about how this is a fundamental flaw in our educational system, and instead just point out that just like ‘activity’, ‘action’ is also a competence you can learn and master.
Think of launching a startup as similar to publishing a book. You can do the best research in the world, write a flawless manuscript, but unless you have the courage to ask someone to read and critique it,
call a publisher to sell them your idea, then ultimately meet a publishing deadline, you’ll never complete the task of getting that book published. It takes the action not the activity to get it done.
I see a lot of startups, especially those who are part of incubators, spend an over-proportional amount of time making the perfect powerpoint presentation, including deep market analysis, competitor mapping, and (unrealistic) financial projections, to present to investors. Rarely do I meet a startup founder who has a great idea, has done a basic analysis, created a business plan, and also called 10 potential customers to get their feedback and see if someone would actually like to buy the product or service. The irony is that investors are in fact primarily looking for signs of action, or “traction” as they would put it.
As much as this subject relates to startups, I believe the balance of activity versus action is a general challenge that occurs inside larger organizations too. Far too much time is spent on thinking about what to do, and especially what not to do, rather than actually doing anything at all. For the same reason this also applies to building a team, and a company culture inside your startup. A colleague of mine at Podio and fellow startup addict, Adrian Roessler, recently wrote a great post reflecting on his experience from joining a startup and honing the skill of taking action, he writes: “if you can’t make up your mind on how to do something, it will probably never get done.”