Start-ups: Three execution activities that separate successes from “interesting ideas”

The sense of freedom in a start-up environment (or “incubation laboratory”) is incredibly exciting. However, it is very easy to let this freedom lead you down the path of “what if”, distracting you from achieving success. You only have – at most – three years (many would argue two) to go from spending the “first opportunity dollar” to demonstrating commercial success. This leaves little room for distraction. Over many successes and failures, I found three things separated ventures that went on to commercial success from those that simply remained “interesting ideas.”

1. Hone your vision

Defining your vision can be a razor’s edge. Vision defines your reason for existence. However, it can become hostage to your day-to-day trials and tribulations, reflecting what you are doing (instead of depicting what you want to achieve).

Before you even start, hone your vision down to one sentence (a short one, not a 40-word one). Check with potential investors, employees and customers if this is compelling enough to fund, execute and buy. If you cannot do this, you will never be able to sell what you develop.

Once you get this one sentence, make it the core of everything you do. Use it to manage scope (execute what is needed to fulfil this—and nothing more). Use it to excite investors and potential hires. Use it to build your sales and marketing materials. Use it to keep focused.

2. Focus on disciplined execution every day

It is very easy to think that two (or even three) years gives you a long time to execute. It is not. You have so much to develop: the full details of your business model, a team, a brand, a product, brand awareness, direct sales and partner channels, an operations support structure, etc. You have to do all of this without a big enterprise budgets (unless you want to give your business away to investors).

The only way to get this done is to break it down into a manageable plan (i.e., more than 10 big steps but less than a 1000-step plan you will drown in). First, determine what you need to get done each year. Then, for the next two years, determine what you need to achieve each quarter. For the next two quarters, determine what you need each month. For the next two months, determine what you need to do each week. Repeat this monthly.

This will balance focus on the “big picture” with what you need to “get done now.” It will keep you from getting caught in “rat holes” and ensure you are not late starting longer-range items (such as building brand awareness and sales channels).

3. Be ready to respond to the unexpected

No plan has ever survived contact with the enemy.” That is why I favor the adaptive planning above. Things will happen you did not expect: some that easy to recover from (your internal mistakes) and others that are much harder (changes in the market; moves by competitors). If you are not able to respond and adapt you will not survive.

At the start pick the key people (i.e., 2-4 people) who will determine how you will recover from mistakes or adapt to external changes. Then diligently (i.e., weekly) take a hard at what you are doing to look for things that can “go wrong.” When you find them, acknowledge them and take decisive action to address them. If you do this regularly, you can nip problems early (when it is easiest). If you do not, you can only hope everything turns out as you planned.

By all means, these are not everything you need to build a successful start-up (or develop a successful product from an “incubation laboratory”). However, they are essential principles to manage navigation from an “interesting idea” to a commercial success.

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  • If you found this interesting, I recommend three other reads:

    1) Three Big Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make When Starting Businesses by Shaun Rein (
    2) How To Go From An Idea To Launching With Paying Customers In 8 Steps by Jason L. Baptiste (
    3) Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition by Guy Kawasaki (

    James Haughwout10 October 2010
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