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Building a great startup strategy that provides genuine focus

Iconically, one of the reasons I left Google was that it made too much money. Prioritisation seems pointless when the business is printing cash. I wanted to feel the weight of prioritisation, of profit and loss, and test whether I actually knew how to do strategy when it actually can change the outcome.

So I went to a startup and, despite not even being breakeven, everything was a strategic priority. More specifically, there was a rotating list of priorities depending on the week, weather and if it was school holidays or not. Unsurprisingly, there were 100 great ideas sitting on the shelf. More concerningly, there were 20 almost finished projects sitting on the shelf. As an example, the data team had built a rigously back tested recommendation engine, but there was no product requirements or strategy for actually solving a customer problem with it.

Where do you even start to build a great startup strategy?

Step 1: It’s ok to start broad

The goal is to explain why (not how) only a few key actions are critical to delivering a single goal. A north star metric or outcome is the definition of that single goal. Usually for a Saas business that’s some type of ongoing user engagement, assuming you have tied engagement to revenue.

For example on YouTube that north star metric was video watch time, given watch time has a proven causative relationship with both happier customers and more exposure to advertising revenue. At Mable that was hours of delivered care, again with an assumption that longer and more relationships was a better customer outcome, and revenue was a % of timesheets delivered. Find that north star for your company, and ideally make it as tied to the purpose and vision as possible.

If it could represent any company, it’s not strategic.

Next you need some strategic pillars to support this north star. Usually you will start with meaningless and broad pillars like “Our Customers” or “Our team”. These are generally too broad to be useful, every company has these same assets so they are not strategic advantages.

So now they need to be made more specific. We’re a growth startup, so “Our Customers” then becomes “Streamline customer onboarding” because we need growth above all else. This is the right decision if onboarding is both a key strategy for the current market, AND also a key competitive difference you have.

Step 2: Tie it to the business model

One way of narrowing down the strategic pillar is to put a specific metric on it. For example, maybe instead of just broadly talking customer onboarding, we could specifically look for monthly user signups.

By building a rough business model in Excel, you can then ladder targets up to a desired north star goal. For example if your north star is video watch time, then you can model how many new customer signups you need to hit that target and cascade these targets down to your strategic pillars. This is a good process in itself, because you soon understand what are the 5 or so key drivers of your business model – what’s actually correlated with hitting your goal.

Tying strategy to a business model

The danger at this step is that you get so focused on your target that you forget why you were even chasing it. A classic example is The Verge:

As you start questioning your goal metric, it’s worth doing some slicing and dicing. Is every customer signup worth the same? Are some stickier than others? Where are the best referrals coming from?

Step 3: The why

Gievn what you now know about the broad strategic areas, and the inner workings of your business model, what is the strategic lever you hold in your hands?

For example you might realise that some key customer signups are churning 50% less than others. Perhaps they are more empowered, have more time to invest or something else – discover that “why” behind their objective success. Another way of asking this is to send out a Product Market Fit (PMF) survey and to see who would actually be devastated if your product disappeared?

The goal should be an Egyptian style pyramid that captures the “why” behind each of the strategic levers that are unique for you:

A simple Strategy Pyramid

The struggle at this point is getting the pillars down to 3-5. If you’re a startup then growth is the goal (otherwise you’d just be a small business), so capture the growth levers on the top row of the pyramid.

There will no doubt be a ton of other fundamental problems that need to be solved as you scale. These might be HR systems, culture, risk management etc. that are critical to scale but not strategic growth levers. Capture these in the baseline of the pyramid.

Step 4: Deploy resources

The nice thing about this visualisation is you can communicate a really critical nuance – which strategic areas need all the resource they can get, versus which areas just need to be solved. For example risk might be something you absolutely need to manage at scale, but your customer value proposition vs the market isn’t safety. Therefore it’s a baseline problem that needs to be solved with a small team on a schedule.

Strategic growth pillars with a metric, accountability and resourcing attached

As your team grows, you can illustrate just how much resource has gone into each strategic pillar. The executive level conversation then uplevels to a triangular discussion that tests the three sides of this strategy:

  1. Why – Do we have the right why? Is our strategy working?
  2. Metric – Are we moving in line with the business model?
  3. Investment – Are we investing the right amount to move the dial?

Conclusion: Layer up your strategy pyramid

Congratulations, now you have an overall strategy pyramid. Each pillar of that pyramid has three dimensions that can be tested on a regular basis to ensure you’re delivering on your strategy. Good luck!

Are you a teacher or a teller?

Recently I was given Cameron Schwab’s book “What leaders can learn from football“, which was followed up by a webinar with Cameron to apply the book to the current COVID remote working situation. I’d like to share my key takeaways.

Boards are more distant than ever

There is an increasing gap between boards and the team. Boards are asking how we take advantage of this seismic change, how do we be more bold? Teams however are over the groundhog day of lockdowns, constant ambiguity and juggling their lives. How do leaders bridge that gap?

Firstly leaders must build a foundation of trust. This involves empathising with their teams. Listening. Starting every conversation with “how are you?”. Take 2 minutes to check in and connect. Recognise the struggle they are going through. Empathetic conversations don’t have to take a long time. You have to aspire to be a better human and it will resonate. Trust is the outcome of showing your authenticity and mettle through tough situations.

Name your 6-7 most meaningful relationships inside the company. That’s your measure of trust, buy in, clarity and connection. That’s your key to leadership success. You can’t maintain any more relationships than that.

Once trust is built, then as leaders our most important role is to reduce ambiguity for our teams. Leaders are makers of meaning – they create a story of “us”. They are makers of place – creating a sense of belonging. You belong to this team because of your attitude/character, your capabilities and whether you connect in personally.

The contradiction of a board is they have the least detail on the company, but are charged with making the really key decisions. What does winning look like? What do we need to be good at? Can we get an alignment between ambition and capability? If not, we have set expectations incorrectly.

Leaders overpromise to their board because of this, they overstate capability to match the board’s ambition. You need to be honest about what we are going to do – We can’t do everything, the most important thing is choosing what to do. Prioritising.

How will we know if we prioritised correctly? If there’s a gap between ambition and measurement. Do the board agree your measurable goals are ambitious enough?

Teaching and Learning

Your team cannot outperform your leadership. Leaders set the culture, which drives behaviours, which drive results. Your main responsibility as a leader is to create an atmosphere where your team can do their best work.

Transparency is the key behaviour, keeping your teams informed so they can solve problems and role modelling the standard of behaviour expected.

Again the building block of is trust. Carve your mistakes into the wall. In this way you use your own learnings to build trust into the team.

Leaders need to be connected in the future. Make sense of the world quickly and be decisive. Be a transparent learner and then great teacher. If you’re wrong it’s ok, bring those learnings into your team. Be able to adapt quickly. Be a great storyteller around that. Cross a bridge of vulnerability to teach your experience.

Authenticity from the top

Leadership has never been more important and expectations have never been higher. In business, we promote people to leadership before we teach them leadership. In sport, leadership is taught and expected from the start – every player needs to step up during key moments and lead when the ball is in their hand. An extraordinary number of people climb the leadership mountain and then find they don’t like the view. You have to get to the point where as a leader you can walk into a room and not have to fake it or you will burn out. People can smell fake leaders.

Work flexibility

By telling teams they can work flexibility, you’re actually putting the onus on them to go figure it out. The reality is that for some people remote work is an advantage, for others it’s a disadvantage. Not everyone is treated equally by this, but they should be treated fairly and with empathy.

The people who complain that culture is hard remotely, probably had a good culture by accident before. You need to be more deliberate. Put the challenge to high performing teammates, what can you do to help others? Leaders need to disperse responsibility to the team. Be surprised by the insights teams have into each other, then can leverage their perspectives and insights.

User manual

Developing my Leadership User Manual

Leadership User Manuals were popular back in 2018 as high growth companies tried to scale their leadership. Claire Hughes had probably the most famous example she created after leaving Google to join Stripe, where she took a very comprehensive and tactical approach.

Although I’m in a much smaller growth business, I do think it’s important for growth leaders to be self-reflective and communicate widely with their teams. To achieve this, I drafted and then asked my team to refine a leadership user manual of my own. This exercise in itself is a great test of psychological safety on your team! I’ve decided to share my manual publicly below, for me to reflect on in a few years, to inspire others to share and to provide an even higher level of personal transparency.

Scott’s User Manual

How I view success

Enjoying what you do (almost) every day. Australia is a land of privilege and we have a responsibility to do something that both makes ourselves and others happy. Even when you don’t enjoy it, feeling that at least you chose this path and are learning through the process.

How I communicate

  • When you’re not hearing much from me – You are doing a good job, and I appreciate your work.
  • “Please do this” – You need to do this now, and I shouldn’t have needed to tell you. Tell me when it’s done.
  • “To be perfectly honest” – This is an intervention because you’ve strayed way off track. Come back to me with what you will do next before you do it.
  • Bullet points – It helps me to structure my thoughts logically.

Things I do that may annoy or be misunderstood

  • I change my perspective on what should be done between meetings
  • I introduce a new idea or priority without much warning
  • I give directives without context
  • There are usually 2 reasons why I change my decision:
    • New data – When I hear new data, it might cause me to change my decision. I then sometimes skip steps in bringing my team along with exactly why I changed my decision. If this happens, please challenge me with “What data made you change your mind on this?”
    • An important stakeholder has had input – I will always name the stakeholder and be transparent with their feedback. My instinct is to test responses with the stakeholder immediately so I can better guide my team. When I then communicate to my team, it is very directive because I feel I have already tested a response and aligned on a narrative.
  • Not being clear on whether the problem you are raising is a delegation or an FYI
    • I’m sharing because I value transparency, but if there’s no immediate ask then it’s a stretch goal for a future quarter

What gains and loses my trust

  • Gains – proactivity
    • When you admit a mistake or weakness and ask for help.
    • When you preempt an extra question – I appreciate knowing the details.
    • When you follow through with something you said you would do
  • Loses – inconsistency
    • When I get information just before/after a stakeholder update. I lost face because I didn’t know something was wrong. I appreciate knowing the details.
    • When you stop doing something that was your responsibility because I stopped paying attention. I trust you to own your area especially when I’m not watching.
    • When after a pattern emerges (e.g. repeated issue) you don’t at least seek to put a system in place.

My strengths

  • Bringing order to chaos – structure, prioritisation, frameworks, data

My growth areas

  • I need to be more explicit when giving feedback, particularly around whether it was acceptable or not
  • As per misunderstandings, I need to provide more context when changing a decision

My expectations of my direct reports

  • Own your shit – Surprise me with ambitious goals, follow through on what you said and show me that you know the key details. Autonomy should be your goal, and then my role is to challenge you with greater opportunities.


  • My calendar is always up to date and public, I always accept/decline and appreciate edit access so I can reshuffle if necessary
  • Anyone can book my calendar at any time. I love drop in 1:1’s, particularly for a coffee or walk around the city.
  • 1:1’s are your time to drive the agenda. If I have no questions then I’m feeling confident in your ability.

Giving and Receiving Feedback

  • If I’m doing this well, then my feedback will never be a surprise. Tell me if you are surprised or if it’s consistent with past feedback to help me calibrate here. Surprises should never happen.
  • If you are not getting enough feedback, I hope you feel safe enough to ask.
  • If you ask and don’t get what you want, keep asking. I respect persistence when I don’t have a good answer for you.

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