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So Much to Do . . . So Little Time

A thing I’ve noticed about entrepreneurs is how busy most of them are. They usually have a ton of things in their head. New ideas, current projects, you name it. I’ve been asked a few times how I manage lots of moving pieces. I’m human like everyone else and admittedly struggle with this sometimes, but here are a few things that work for me:

  • Park it – I put my ideas somewhere in writing—often, in the iPhone notes feature. Parking lots let me catch and release. They get things out of my head and I don’t have to fear forgetting them. This frees up mental bandwidth and reduces stress.
  • Visualize – When I get really busy or take on projects that involve lots of tasks and connected pieces, it helps me to visualize everything. Tools like Airtable are great for tracking and visualizing things in a variety of ways. Looking at something organized in a certain way makes it seem more manageable.  
  • Prioritize – I have only a finite amount of time and energy. I can’t accomplish an infinite number of things. I prioritize and try to work on the highest-priority tasks first.
  • Slippage – Things will occasionally fall through the cracks and that’s OK. Everyone is human. The trick is to make sure the things that slip aren’t mission critical. I try to identify things that can and can’t slip.
  • Think about it – I’ve been guilty of saying yes too often. Over time I would end up taking on way more than I could do. I now avoid giving an on-the-spot answer to big requests. I ask for time to think about it and then I figure out if it works with everything else on my plate. If it doesn’t, I politely decline.
  • Strengths – When I have a task in an area where I’m weak, I try to find a specialist and ask them for help. Sometimes they’re paid. I’ve learned that completing something I’m weak at takes me five or ten times as long as it does a specialist. And the end result is only half as good most times. It’s efficient to leverage the strengths of others.

What are your tricks for managing lots of moving pieces?

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Did You Create a Job or a Company?

When I started CCAW, I told people I was an entrepreneur. I had quit my job and created a company that had customers, and I controlled my own destiny (kinda). One summer when I was in New York with friends I tagged along as one of them visited his uncle in Connecticut.

The uncle was entering the later years of a wildly lucrative career. He’d worked in corporate America and then started a successful company with his wife. That company changed the family’s life. When I said I was an entrepreneur, he became more interested in me. He asked lots of questions about my company. Then came the most important question of the conversation: “How many employees do you have?” I remember thinking, Why does that matter? Little did I know that the answer would tell him more about my company and my mindset than anything else we discussed.

At the time it was me and a part-time contractor or two (I was bootstrapping so funds were tight). I proudly told him about my contractors, and he replied, “OK. Keep going; you’re not quite there yet.” What does that mean? I wondered.

In hindsight, I think he was telling me (politely) that I wasn’t an entrepreneur yet. I was on my way, but I hadn’t arrived yet. I had succeeded in creating a job for myself, not a company. I was a solopreneur, not an entrepreneur. At the time I didn’t know there was such a thing as a solopreneur.

Solopreneurs are workers. They’re usually the one and only full-time employee. They handle all aspects of a business and execute most tasks. With no full-time team, everything falls on this one person. If the solopreneur doesn’t work, the work doesn’t get done. They are the business. This setup limits how big the company can get because there’s only so much one person can do. Freelancers of all kinds, barbers, and massage therapists, for example, are often solopreneurs.

Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, are managers. A team conquers by dividing the work. The entrepreneur delegates so he can focus on growing the business. He usually has a larger vision for the company and realizes early he can’t do it all alone. The business has its own identity independent of the founder. If the entrepreneur doesn’t execute, the work still gets done. I like to think of an entrepreneur as the driver of a machine that does the work. Businesses from which you purchase a product or service without interacting with the owner are likely run or were started by entrepreneurs.

Over time I realized that I didn’t want to be a solopreneur because I wanted to grow. I had a bigger vision for CCAW. I eventually hired a great team and focused on building CCAW into a machine that didn’t need me. We went on to accomplish some great things. Looking back, there’s no way I could have done it alone. It was a team effort.

I’m thankful for the conversation I had with my friend’s uncle. Although we met only once, he left a lasting impression on me. His entrepreneurial wisdom was priceless.

If you’re thinking about starting a company (or you have one already), have you decided whether you intend to be a solopreneur or an entrepreneur?

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How Lunch Saved Me

As I built CCAW, I wore multiple hats, especially in the early days. It’s part of the entrepreneurial journey and I was fine with it until we reached $5 million or so in annual revenue. As the team and the company’s complexity grew, I began to struggle. It was common to have back-to-back meetings, approve large payments, take calls, and talk to a steady stream of team members who wanted my feedback on an idea. Every day. I was mentally exhausted at the end of most days.

One day when I took time to reflect, I realized what the problem was. Not wearing multiple hats—I was used to that and often enjoyed the variety. The issue was constantly switching between mental modes. One moment I needed to think strategically and high-level. The next moment, tactically about a specific problem. And then back to strategic thinking. I’d often be working on something requiring deep concentrated thought and abruptly stop because someone had a question or I needed to run to a meeting.

Over time, I concluded that I couldn’t keep working that way. I was functioning, but it was wearing on me. I felt like the quality of my work had declined. I decided to address the issue and make a change.

I tried a few approaches that didn’t help much. Eventually I hit on something simple that worked. I realized that lunch was the most consistent part of my day. It also served as a natural mental break and change of scene. So, I segmented my days: before lunch and after lunch.

I could focus better in the morning, so I decided to work on things requiring concentration (strategic planning, presentations, new initiatives, etc.) before lunch. I’d find a quiet space in our co-working building most mornings and work until lunch. Just before lunch I’d join the rest of the team in the office. After lunch I worked in the office on tactical tasks, held meetings, and did everything else.

The difference was like night and day. My days were productive and proactive instead of chaotic and reactive. I was able to make consistent progress on all fronts. Because I wasn’t constantly shifting mentally all day long, I no longer felt mentally exhausted. I was back to enjoying the variety in my work.

I doubt if this approach will work for everyone, but it worked for me. If you’re juggling lots of things, consider: are you managing them proactively or reactively?

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How Long Is Your Runway?

Today I had separate conversations with two friends who are entrepreneurs. The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) came up both times. The program was just announced, so many things still haven’t been sorted out. We agreed, though, about the importance of understanding your runway so you can plan how to navigate the PPP process and communicate effectively with your team, your bank, and other important stakeholders.

At CCAW, I always knew the length of our runway. This equation gave it to me:

  • net cash / average monthly fixed expenses = runway (in months)

Here are some inputs we can use for an example:

  • cash bank balance: $200,000
  • accounts payable (how much you owe others): $50,000
  • monthly payroll: $50,000
  • monthly rent: $5,000
  • other monthly fixed expenses: $7,000

Here’s the calculation:

  • Net cash: $200,000 (bank balance) – $50,000 (accounts payable) = $150,000
  • Fixed monthly expenses: $50,000 (payroll) + $5,000 (rent) + $7,000 (other fixed expenses) = $62,000
  • Runway: $150,000 (net cash) / $62,000 (fixed monthly expenses) = 2.4

This business has 2.4 months of runway left if things get really bad. Of course, this is a worst-case scenario. It assumes the business won’t collect any cash (accounts receivable aren’t included). And it assumes that fixed expenses won’t be reduced. It isn’t meant to be a perfect calculation. It’s just a snapshot to help inform decision-making.

This calculation was revealing to me, especially during difficult times. Every day, I knew how much time I had to right the ship before drastic measures would be required.

I encourage entrepreneurs to regularly calculate their runway and communicate it to key people, internally and externally. This simple metric is super-powerful. It can rally and focus people rapidly, which is critical during difficult times.

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