One of the things that we, as humans, have a serious affinity for is tradition. The more often something happens, in a regular way, the more excited we are about it, and the harder it is for us to not do it. I see this as something that’s totally different to “habit”, and as a great, but separate, way of keeping myself doing things that might seem an unnecessary chore, but which I know will lead to a positive outcome.
Every year, on the 1st of January, I write a blog post which analyses the key decisions I made two years ago, and the outcomes of those decisions over the past year. The specific process I follow is that every single month, I will write down the two or three most important decisions which I make. Decisions that are truly important and life-changing. And most importantly, decisions that I am not entirely certain of. I also write down my predictions and reasons for making those decisions, as well as my fears for what will happen if it doesn’t go the way I plan.
The following year, in the same month of the year, I look back on that page, and I write down how those decisions actually played out. I evaluate whether my initial reasons for making that decision were correct, and whether there was something that I was missing in my ability to make it. In effect, I train my instincts – I make my instinctive decision-making ability better by analysing it in this structured way.
Most of the decisions I make and write down are Ometria related. Running a startup means that you’re faced with what is basically a never-ending stream of tough and uncertain decisions. But many are about family, about financial planning, and about personal goals. Whatever kind of decision it is, I follow the same process. And below, for the fourth year in a row, just as I wrote down on the 1st of January 2015, 1st of January 2014 and 1st of January 2013, is my list of learnings from my analysis today. Interestingly, this time they fall into four clear groups, so I’ve linked them together.
1. Success begets success, but failure stops it in its tracks. Never slow down.
By doing things slightly better each day, by being an even more productive person, by building even better relationships, you slowly but surely move forward. You can’t take time off that – as soon as you do, everything goes back to square one. The more successful you get, the more tempting it is to stop the frantic pace and let things just keep running. The best entrepreneurs leverage their success to the next level each time, taking a risk and going bigger. Others slow down to enjoy what they have built, and then have to start again from the beginning.
2. Don’t rely on things that you don’t entirely control.
Often you’ll make plans which are based on uncertainty. But sometimes that uncertainty is too uncertain. Making decisions based on something that only might happen, especially when you have historical evidence that it probably won’t, is unacceptable – especially if there is no clear backup plan. There’s always a way out of any situation, but you just don’t want to find yourself in some. So whatever plan you have, make sure that you have at least one option that’s certain.
3. Always take into account all relevant stakeholders, including future ones that might be vital to success.
Smart people will take time to consider who the relevant stakeholders are in any decision, and will make sure that they optimise by taking into account the views and needs of all of these. However it’s often hard to think far enough into the future and predict who relevant stakeholders will be then. Running a company requires intense forward planning. If you need something from someone in two years’ time, you’d better work out what they’re likely to want, and make sure you get it first.
4. Show extra trust early to good people, as it comes back in even greater amounts.
One of my biggest problems, which has cropped up almost every year in this key decision analysis, is to not get rid of bad people in my life, whether work or personal, quickly enough. What I learned this year, is that truly trusting people who turn out to be great is one of the best things that you can do. That trust is reciprocated and comes back in even greater amounts, and the relationships that you build are truly genuine. Sometimes the people don’t turn out to be good – but then you just need to be good at removing them quickly. It’s not a reason to not trust people from the start.
5. Hire young hungry people – they are more likely to care.
This is a generalisation, so it’s not true for all individuals, but overall it’s been clear to me that when you’re running an intense organisation that requires almost crazy levels of commitment, you have to get people who are young, hungry, and have yet to prove themselves. With success come blunted passions, and with age comes more responsibility. Both are at odds with commitment to the company. We have some great older people at Ometria, and I couldn’t do it without them, but I’ve seen some amazing success when we took a risk and hired some young and inexperienced people who turned out to be truly special.
6. Hire people that you want to join you, not the ones that are really keen and want to join themselves.
This is another big one for me. I often get so excited when someone really, truly, wants to get involved with what I’m doing, that I make the decision to find them a role just because I love their keenness to join. That is the wrong approach entirely – I’ve seen other people really fail by doing that. Instead, I’m going to try and be much more strict with myself. There are requirements, and I will find the best people for those requirements. Just because someone wants to be part of the team, doesn’t mean that they should be at that time.
7. Always define roles and responsibilities clearly from the beginning.
When you’re a founder, and managing hundreds of priorities, it’s easy to think that you can build a team of hustlers and they’ll just sort everything out. And that you can then apply that same thinking to all other aspects of life too. Well things don’t work like that – beyond a certain scale, people just assume that someone else will do it. And a family is not a startup team, however much you might try and mold it into one. Instead, write out clear responsibilities for each person from the beginning, and if a new one pops up, make it clear who gets assigned it, so there is never any confusion.
8. If things aren’t working, step back and reassess from first principles. Don’t just rush on.
This is true in so many aspects of life. Often, go-getters will just try to battle their way through problems with sheer energy and dedication. And while that’s fine for the minor problems that come up many times a day, it’s not fine for the big ones. If something is truly not working, the only way to fix it is to stop, and take things right back to first principles. Work out exactly what you want to do, why you want to do it, and what the best way of doing it is. That may lead you down a completely different path – a path you would not have seen by just continuing on from where you were.
9. If you’re selling, give people what they want, don’t try to just sell what you’ve got.
For me, this was linked directly to the point above. Intelligent and creative people often come up with ideas which they believe are great. It’s often the case that most other people don’t think that however. As someone who never learned about sales, I thought that I could come up with something great, and then persuade others to buy it. It turned out that this is simply not how life works. People already want things – those are the things that you’re going to sell them, and not anything else.
10. If people want to give you money – take it. You never know what’s going to happen.
As I mentioned, running a company requires long-term forward planning. It’s a 10+ year game. And it requires money. No one knows what the world will look like in a year, let alone in ten. Just look at Back to the Future Day. A startup CEO’s only real responsibility is to not run out of money. That’s it. The rest you can sort out. So if someone wants to give you money, take it, straight away.
11. Always stay in control of finances, whether company or personal, yourself.
There are so many things that you need to delegate, both in work and in your personal life. You simply can’t be in control of everything. But every time I delegate finances, something goes wrong. There’s just no way that someone will actually care about it to the level that you will. So cashflow planning, whether company related or personal, needs to be done by you, personally. Even if things get too big and someone else needs to do the gruntwork, the ultimate ownership – the ultimate knowledge of everything finance-related – needs to sit with you.
So these are my eleven learnings to take into 2016. These are derived directly from my experiences over the course of one year – from the decisions I’ve made, and the outcomes, whether right or wrong. There are so many lists out there that talk about “the ten best things you can do this year”, but it’s just so hard to truly internalise them. By following this process, I make a list that’s actually relevant to me – a list of points that I can relate to on a really deep level. So the best thing you can do is not just learn from my mistakes – it’s to learn this process, and start doing it for yourself.
May 2016 bring you health, without a doubt the most important gift any of us can have, happiness (I’m currently reading The Business of Happiness), the incremental success that will get you closer to your current goals, and a great new set of goals that keep you focused and excited to keep going.