Get Out of Denial About Your Startup's Priorities

With One, Simple Question

As startup founders, we’re all looking for ways to move that needle. But when was the last time you stopped to question your efforts and whether or not they’re the ‘right ones’? I can say I did this zero times…until a few weeks ago. 

In a recent chat with Hiten Shah, he told me that the thing he sees early startups struggle with the most, time and time again, is misplaced focus.

This wasn’t the answer I was expecting. Or maybe I should say, it wasn’t the answer I was hoping for.

I wanted a concrete, common reason like, “Most early startups focus too much on customer development, marketing, product features, scaling, etc…when they should be doing [BLANK].” 

“Misplaced focus,” he said.

And he hit the nail on the head. So why was that such an unsatisfying answer? 

Because I wanted that magic bullet! Do x instead of y. Boom. No matter what size, shape, stage, or market — just do x! Instead of being handed a cure-all, I was forced to face something I’d long been putting off.

Finding the right focus and the right set of tasks is something I’ve been personally struggling with on HookFeed for the past few months without admitting it. I was guilty. And now I was forced to look at the problem head-on, and figure out what the hell to do about it.

Denial is a Sneaky Thing

It’s funny how we are able to slip into denial about all kinds of things in life without even realizing it’s happening. We humans are very good at deceiving ourselves. As Chris Mooney puts it, “when we think we’re reasoning, we’re often rationalizing.” 

Whatever the underlying reason for denial (self-preservation, pride, laziness, fear, etc.) we’re so damn good at it that we usually don’t even realize we’re doing it. We trick ourselves into some false reality without trying to do so. It’s actually amazing! But it’s dangerous. 

The thing about denial is, it never works long-term. Reality bats last.

Let me give you an example:

“I was busy all day — so I’m making progress towards my goal.” 

We all know this is bullshit. But I’d be willing to bet you’re guilty of this mentality. We justify this to ourselves all the time. 

This false reality that busy = productive is dangerous. The real reality is that it doesn’t matter how busy you are if you’re not actually accomplishing your goal. If you can reach your goal with almost no effort, great! It really has little to do with how hard you work.

Putting in more hours is not a badge of honor.

In my opinion, it’s quite the opposite. I’d love be able to put less in and get more out. 

There are always going to be plenty of outside factors that make it difficult to reach your goals — but do you ever stop to ask yourself if the things within your control, the things you are doing are the right things for that exact point in time? I rarely did…until recently.

Confession: I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

We’re in a phase with HookFeed, that we’ve never been in before. We’re past all the super early half-baked versions. We’ve got a clear roadmap. The product is incredibly valuable (in my humble opinion ☺). It’s time to sell subscriptions. It’s time to grow! And I’m responsible for moving the needle — which is a new, scary frontier for me.

I’ve written before about how when too many choices are in front of you, analysis paralysis sets in. But, what about when the choices themselves are unclear?

I’m faced with challenges that are so new I don’t even know where to start. So I don’t. I work on all of the things I know how to do, whether or not they’re the things that will get that needle to move. I do the things I know I’m good at. I stay plenty busy. And the needle doesn’t move. This, my friends, is denial. And it’s a recipe for failure.

So How’s That Working for You?

I can’t help but think back to an instructor I once had. Big, booming, Belgian guy with a killer accent. He’d ask this one question that just came back to me as I sit here writing this post. You’d tell him about your struggles in achieving some goal (getting your team to work better together, getting a promotion at work, losing weight…whatever). You’d list off the things you’d been doing to try and achieve it. And after each action you listed, he’d ask:

“And how’s that working for you?”

You’d list off something else you did and he’d ask again. “And how’s that working for you?” He did this incessantly…often to the point of berating the person. But his point was clear every time.

If you keep doing things that aren’t working, you’ll never get there. Try something else. If that doesn’t work, try something else. Get creative. Problem solve. Attack things from different angles. But stop spending your energy doing things you know don’t work.

Persistence does not equal progress.

The thing about running a startup is that there’s never a clear-cut path. I know we’re going to make lots of mistakes. It’s part of the fun and a component of a unique, lifelong education. In fact, the freedom to make them is part of why I got into this business instead of something easier or more secure. But in order to grow (not just move the needle, but grow personally) I’m going to need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m going to have to experiment, try new things — fail fast and move on. I need to avoid the opportunity for denial and take that instructor’s advice to be more mindful about what I’m doing, and why.

Which is why at the end of every day I now spend a few minutes (that’s all it takes) to think about what I did and ask myself “how’s this working for me?”

About the Author

Joelle SteinigerTwitter

Co-Founder of HookFeed. Currently focused on Marketing.

"What's HookFeed?" It's a software product that helps your whole team understand your customers on a deeper level based on their behavior and our research about them. Check it out  >