Three Questions that Helped me Focus and Get More Done

When I was at Princeton, one of my advisors warned me, “earning a Ph.D. is a solitary process.” While writing my thesis indeed was solitary, nothing has been as solitary as starting a business (or two!). While at times it can be therapeutic, at other times it can drive you down a lonely hole of despair. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t have it any other way! However, the lows don’t have to be despair-give-up lows. One way I found to aid me through the more challenging times was asking the right kinds of questions. Here, I want to share three that I not only use to help make business decisions, but also use in my personal life.

Question 1: If I were successful right now, what would I do next? What’s stopping me from doing it, or a version of it right now?

Sometimes it is easy to get blinded by the struggle, the day-to-day, product launch, and product manufacturing. You do all this hard work hoping for the great “outcome”. You need this idea of an “outcome” as fuel to keep you going. However, one of the drawbacks is that you often get lost in the trees and can’t see the forest. So, I found myself migrating to this question, “If I had the success I’m currently working towards, what would I do next?” After answering this, I follow up with a second corollary question, “what is stopping me from doing a version of this now?” Often times, I would say 80% of the time, I can easily implement a version of that next step without distracting me from my current task. This question alone has helped me open extra sales streams even though I was in the thick of major product-production problems. The “next thing” is usually just around the corner.

Question 2: What else might this mean?

I remember a few years ago I was pitching a product to a large distributor. At that time, my thinking (completely influenced by “convention” which later proved to be 100% wrong) was that if my product was not accepted by this distributor, I would not make it in the industry. The distributor declined the product, and I was devastated. I received this news late in the afternoon on a Friday. I licked my wounds over the weekend and asked myself, “why”?  I needed a reason so I could turn rejection into a learning point. Monday morning I got some specific reasons from the distributor regarding price point and packaging. This was a tremendous gift since this rejection informed how we sought to source our coffee (direct-trade, thus dramatically bringing down the price for us and ultimately the consumer) and the packaging (which I disliked, but went with what my design team told me was  the “right thing to do” which is code for conventional thinking and therefore usually wrong). I learned that with every apparent bad news/feedback, it is crucial to ask, “what else could this mean?” My product wasn’t rejected, nor was my brand, only certain price and design choices that I was able to remedy with ease. Never take the negative news at face value, and always ask what else this might mean?

Question 3: Is this truly essential, or not?

Part of running a startup is that people come and go, largely as a function of cash-flow. When I let one person go, in particular, I came to realize that there were a  lot of subscriptions and services we had signed up for. While the dollar amount now is not that much, at the time it represented a major part of our monthly expenses. I also realized that I never knew we had them (a failure of leadership on my part I confess), and therefore they were not an essential part of the business, but superfluous. Over the next month, I canceled these extra bells and whistles and not only did the business have more in the bank monthly, the work was actually streamlined since the core team members didn’t use these services, and since the superfluous person and services were gone we were lighter and more agile.

Now, whenever someone comes and says, “we have to get XYZ and this is the only way to increase sales, etc.” I pause and ask, “is this essential?” The clarity that comes is almost magical. If you scrutinize your major decisions based on what is essential, you will save much time and money and end up with a leaner operation.

Social Entrepreneurship at the Bullis School

Earlier this year on a very, very cold January day, I had the privilege of speaking to young social-entrepreneurs at the Bullis School in Potomac, MD. While I was able to give a high-level overview of what it takes to start a business and do good at the same time, I was surprised when the students began to ask specific questions about margins, regulation issues, competitive advantage, and the real cost of doing business. Needless to say, I was impressed by their insight and precision. It reminded me of two very important points I learned the hard way along the way:

ONE. Entrepreneurship is not about the glory, but about paying attention to details. Details are what make a product or company excellent. Often times people get motivated to start their own business because they think they will become rich and buy everything they ever wanted…this could happen, but it’s not the goal, just a potential by-product of hard work. This is not a strong enough motivation and can get people wrapped up in the hype of entrepreneurship, and not the daily hustle that is needed. Without the daily hustle you will crash and burn. This is where details come into play. To succeed, one has to have hyper focus on details. How can you maximize profits without sacrificing quality, how can you create more efficient systems that cut out unnecessary middlemen who essentially add no value, how do you compete against dishonest competitors, etc? Without answering these tough questions, the business will not survive and will not be sustainable, and this is important for the second point.

TWO. Doing good. The amount of dishonesty in the commercial world is shocking.  However, I believe that the greatest thing about business is the ability to add great value to the lives of your customers and do good at the same time. But this shouldn’t be an afterthought. Rather, it should be built into the system of business from the beginning so it can become automatic and part of the culture of the organization. Social entrepreneurship is a powerful tool and can often times solve systemic problems that NGOs and charities can not. To accomplish this dual task, you have to have the right set of principles from the very beginning.


The link below summarizes this great day and opportunity I had to pump up these young entrepreneurs!