Basics for Organizing a Startup

A couple of days ago I was keynote speaker at an EO Accelerator meeting. I was sharing my experience as an entrepreneur in building fast growing companies. While preparing my talk I realized how the basic principles for building an organization are very similar to those helping a six year old child cleaning up her room two weeks before.

When I helped my daughter to clean up her room, I tried to teach her principles. The principles we worked on are:

1. Less stuff
My daughter and I drove through piles of finished drawings, broken toys and she decided for every single item whether she wants to keep it or not. With this, we reduced the complexity of organizing stuff later.

2. Every thing has its place
We used amazon cardboard boxes and she labelled the, carefully. One for “stickers”, one for “small stuff”, one for “nature things”… you get it. All of a sudden, her chaos started to make sense to her.

3. Small tasks
When I ask my daughter to clean her room, the tasks seems insurmountable to her. But starting with: “let’s do the area under your desk now” is something she can easily achieve and be proud of.

4. Do everything only once
We tried to clean up one drawer first, and only when that was finished move on to the next corner. Arguably, we did not get very far here. Too big was the temptation to just look at an item in one corner of the room and arbitrarily play with something else, and then go back.

Here is how I apply these same principles  to organize a business, whether a small start up or a large organization:

1. Less Stuff Even at the earliest stages, startups do too much. Focus on your core service. You don’t have to maintain a great blog if you provide a terrific ecommerce experience. You don’t need to sponsor that conference, heck you don’t even have to speak at conferences. Stripping away activities that are not core is the best way to help your organization to focus on that core. I find this most fun of restructuring work.

2. Everything has its place Your org chart is perfect when every new task like “talk to a new customer”, “be responsible for the product launch” has one clear and logical owner. If you leave room for interpretation who will do a new task, then your boxes are not well defined. If some areas drown in work while others have time to do side projects then the card board boxes of your organization need resizing. Do that test with all new stuff that you come across. It really is worth fine tuning. Labeling the boxes means to give people good general understanding of everyone’s job with distributing the org chart and keeping it up to date.

3. Small and measurable tasks. This is probably the most obvious rule. Nevertheless we see many IT projects fail because they are invariably too big and complex. Rule of thumb: cut the “six week projects” into “one week sprints”. While the six week project won’t be finished after three months, you will probably find that you only need three “one week projects” in the end.

4. Do everything only once. One of my biggest frustrations in my companies: Projects are being started, discussed, delayed, restarted again and again. My lesson as someone who is often guilty of changing his mind: If something is in process of being done then let people finish it. Try to reach decisions quickly and then end the decision making process. This is hard with constantly changing information, but necessary. Do everything once is a rule which will make your product team smile.

There are tons of books for organising companies. I find that if you stick to these simple principles, you can’t go very wrong.

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