Course  Startup School 2019
July 22, 2019, Mountain View, CA., USA
Course Startup School 2019
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Adora Cheung - How to Prioritize Your Time
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About speaker

Adora Cheung
Partner at Y Combinator

Adora Cheung was co-founder and CEO of Homejoy, which was funded by Y Combinator in 2010. Before that, she ran product at Slide. She has a bachelor's in computer science from Clemson University and is an economics PhD dropout at the University of Rochester.

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About the talk

Topic: Business

YC Partner Adora Cheung shares her framework for how founders can efficiently make use of their time. She covers ways to identify and prioritize tasks, in addition to how you can measure their impact on your company.


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Blue eyes come inside my name Isadora one of the partners at YC, and I'm going to talk about how to prioritize time. I'm at you know is precious especially when you're working on a startup time Burns money and money is the very basic thing that keeps a start-up alive not to be too philosophical about it. But even if your personal burn is super low you can eat ramen days on end, which I don't suggest and you don't have to pay yourself for a very long time. There's always a high opportunity cost to doing a startup. So it's super important to use your time the best way possible to maximize

your startup's chance for Success, which means you need to be really good at identifying and prioritizing tasks that are going to be the most impactful for your starts progress, which I've noticed after going through thousands of weekly update from startup School Founders that allow Hunters are not doing this. Well, so hopefully this will be helpful. I'll let me first preface all of this by defining what time I'm talking about. So obviously there 24 hours in a day and I'm not here to tell you how to allocate those hours across your startup versus everything else that is

important to you sleep family friends hobbies. And so and so forth. Everyone has different situation. So it's hard for me to come up here give you a good generic advice on how to allocate more time across you think I'm just going to assume you're doing what's best for you whether it's to 612 hours a day you decide to work on your startup. It doesn't matter to me for the purpose of this lecture. I just want to help you figure out how to spend those two 6 or 12 hours that you've decided to allocate your startup in the best possible way. All right, so when it comes to things to work on your

startup, my guess is that you already have something like a task list in which you put new ideas on to eventually work on a new update that very frequently. So let's start from there that you have a task list of things to do. First I want to make a real clear distinction between real and fake startup progress. This is the easiest way to classify weather at asked goes into should do or the should not do bucket. Is it contributes to real startup progress? You should consider doing it and if it doesn't then don't this seems trivial at first, why would anyone do

anything that amounts to fix startup progress? But let me explain further. So real startup progress is when you're really focus on things that really move a needle for your startup and in the beginning the best way to show this is through growth in particular growth of your primary. Kpi a few weeks ago on kpi and goals. If you haven't watched it yet, please watch it. I talked a lot about primary and secondary kti's there's always a balance between what to focus on board for the purpose of this lecture. I'm just going to refer to the primary. Kpi as a thing to focus on growing. So to

summarize your primary kpi almost always has either revenue or active users and you should always be setting weekly goals for this to move the needle on the keep your eyes the highest leverage thing you can be doing all is what always comes in the form of tasks that involve talking to users and building an iterated in your product. Nothing else. This is in direct contrast with fake startup progress, which is one Founders focus on things that are not directly related to Growing your primary. Kpi. So common things I see in

weekly updates or things like attending conferences focusing on winning Awards. Now, we're convinced optimising the wrong metrics while you may convince yourself. These are good things to focus on there are actually many steps away from delivering real value to your customer. And so have all the things you could be possibly doing spending any significant time on any of these things is almost always a bad idea. The goal is not to optimize start up vanity, but actually delivering value to your customer doing the things that will help you directly help you increase your kpi.

Now that we have one way to filter what tasks you should be working on. Let's go a little bit deeper and figure out how to determine if you're prioritizing the right tasks this at first also seems trivial presumably you're doing what you believe is high-value work. I mean nobody ever says. Oh, let me do the thing that is going to help my start up the least right? But that's what I'm going to challenge their hundreds of things. You could be possibly working on to increase your primary. Kpi is what you're working on right now the best thing you can do to meet your weekly goal or have

you checked yourself into doing something else? The reason I'm skeptical is because it's actually quite easy easy for a low-value work to unnoticeably creep into your schedule and actually takes a lot of work and effort to not let this happen. So here's an experiment try Drilling in great detail of each day in the past week every single hour to hour by hour. What is it that you were exactly doing and be honest or what you thought the impact was before you actually did it and what it was in increasing your primary kpi. I think you'll be surprised by how much of it I was actually low-value

work in the reason is not because you're lazy or if not, it's more because we tend to be as humans on autopilot. So we don't give much thought to what we're doing with our time in our natural instinct is actually to go for a low-value work because it's usually the easiest and quickest thing to accomplish and if it fills our desire to check as many things off of a list as pause It feels really good to check things off. So but once you're aware of this preventing, it is actually quite simple, but it does take time fought in discipline. So first if you

aren't already you should keep a spreadsheet of ideas that can move your primary kpi and not to be too repetitive. But these tasks are almost always a variant of two things right one talking to users and to Building Product talking to users helps you with free things, right it converts them into customers and revenue or helps you convert them to customers in Revenue. It helps you understand if you're on the right track or not, and it helps you figure out if your product sorry it helps you figure out your pockets route map and then Building Product actually delivers a solution to the user to

see if it actually translates into more customers and revenue as you come up with these ideas. You should walk them into your spreadsheet and keep keep doing that as every idea you got What the key is don't do them right away. Just write them down. This is important because always switching to the thing you just thought of which always sounds better now than later causes a ton of whiplash for Founders and it's a primary coil parts in making no progress during the week then once a week go through each item in your spreadsheet and great the new Andre great old

items based on how impactful you think the task would be on achieving the weekly goal for your primary kpi. You can give to each task on your list high medium low. He's definitions are little arbitrary in the sense that it's all it's all relative. Whatever else is on your list, but in general High means that the task you believe that will help you meet your goal for the week with high probability medium is you're not sure but with okay Mobility you can hit your weekly goal and low is with very low probability. You'll see that it's actually pretty easy to figure out what

those low and high Valley tasks are when you compare them against everything else you could be doing which is why does exercise no matter how potensic it is is important to do. Let me go through an example. Say I am the founder of a business software Engineers a software company my goal for the next week and I just kind of lunch and my goal for the next week is just to get five new paying customers. So here's just a sliver of things I can do to reach that goal at the top. You'll see that the most impactful thing I can do is go to the offices of 10 potential customers who

were actually intro to me by a friend's or whoever and I know that if I show up to the office, I have a very good chance of some restaurants have a very good chance of convincing them to buy my product. That's why that's at the top of the list the next year or of meeting and packed because they involve me filling up my pipeline, which is one step away from letting you customers but necessary to do I'm also have the second thing here. I also have a video demos I can do which for me aren't as effective as doing in person but worth doing as well because they do lead to some new customers.

You'll notice that they're couple items at the bottom of this which involve programming so it very common mistake technical Founders make is to build things first and then go talk to users in according to this list to meet my weekly goal. This means they would be choosing the least impactful thing to do for that week, but what this method if they're honest about it, they have no choice but to get off your butt and go talk to users instead. Along with the impact that it may have on your meeting helping you achieve your weekly goal. We also need to consider a second dimension of how

complex the task is that is how long would it take for you and your team to complete it because there are many tasks within each Court of categories impact, for example, there's like four of here and medium and three and low answer the question is how do I stack rank lose it with in that category. And so this dimension of complexity helps so we can great complexity and freeways easy medium hard. So he's an easy task is something that you can do in less than a day. That means you can do a bunch of easy castellon today and medium tasks is something that takes one or two days for

you to do in a hard task is one that takes many days to do and you may not complete it within the week. So once you go great all of them you'll have again the second dimension here where you have impact and then also complexity. And so now you can easily stack rank all the tests on your list and pretty pretty easy to choose what you should prioritize. So give him the objective is to hit your weekly goal. The obvious choice is always to go something with the to go for the combos of high easy combos in high medium. That is something attacked that has high impact and is easy to do you

should always do those first and then go to high impact in medium meeting complexity and you what you really don't want to do is focus on these bottom things here write something that has probably very low probability in helping you achieve your goal and it's very hard to do take a long time to do there's really no point in doing any of those things. So just as important as selecting the right tasks to work on is making sure you don't try to do everything at once. Picking up task that you can complete and do well I doing too many things means you won't be able

to complete much with much of the tasks with much conviction and make it really hard to show progress from week to week. How do I know I am parked hiding my time? Well, ultimately, you know you've done well, if you're hitting your weekly goals consistently, so it's doing well as your grass look like that sadly most of us have grass that look like this. These processes are aware. It's decreasing in your kind of like stable for a while at the bottom. That's when you start doubting yourself as I get my working really on the right thing or not. And so what can we do

about this or how do we know so one way to do what you're already doing and start of school, which is writing weekly updates and being really consistent and honest about it. So the key components of weekly update is pretty straightforward. What was your weekly goal? Did you succeed? If not, what was the biggest block of the growth? What did you do? And what was the predicted impact? And what was the what was the actual impact and what it what did you learn this week or the big learning this week? And then by doing an ongoing evaluation of your weekly updates it will help you improve

how you select and prioritize tasks once in awhile. You should review all your weekly updates like from beginning the first one you ever wrote for your startup to the current one to last one and check for things like to feel like you're learning fast enough. Are you predicting the impact of each task? Well, did you let low-value work or even worse fake progress creep into your schedule is your biggest blocker the same thing for every week? A lot of people actually get in the wrong spot where they're not learning anything new and just doing the same thing over and over without realizing

it reviewing your updates will help you realize that and will force you to try to get yourself out of that bad Loop in terms of size 1 in terms of completing tasks. If you're finding yourself always running out of time to complete tasks. You felt was totally possible to complete in the week. I have two suggestions for you. When is perhaps our task is actually too complex? And you should break it down into. Medium in Easy tasks is maybe it is that your schedule needs to be rude jiggered a little bit. I recommend a modified version of what we call the makers

manager schedule. How much was popular popularized by Paul Graham? The essay is Lynx in the start school library. The basic idea is this their High context switching costs two different types of tasks, for example, coding and meetings like talking to users meaning it's hard to restart a ramp back up on a task, especially like coding and it's costly to exit at a time when things are finally flowing and you're getting stuff done. So if you find yourself switching back and forth too much, it may be that you're wasting time and need to rejigger thing. So you have a

continuous continuous chunk of time devoted to each one. So many people will actually split their divide other week in two days, right? So one full day there were to spend coding and then Text Will day, they'll spend meetings and talking to users and so forth instead of me having like one hour here whenever there when are there for people who need to get more stuff done in the day, then we'll do half the day those thin Coating in the half a day though. It's been talking to users. At 2 this is funny video of Founders out there. This is

incredibly important for you because you don't have the opportunity to divvy up the work across multiple people. So it's really important to get your schedule. Correct. So I'll end with one final piece of advice which is moving faster in the beginning or start up. Your primary objective is to move as quickly as possible to prove that you're building something people want the faster you figure this out the faster. You can pivot into something or have confidence that you have product-market fit and starts killing in building a tremendous business. Soap making

decisions about falling quickly is super important time is often wasted in indecisiveness. The key is to be okay with making a wrong choice in learning fast. So of course using the right thing to do at the gecko is the best thing possible, but it's also the case that a person who chooses the wrong task to work on today, but moves quickly learns why it's wrong and moves to the right one is a better off than the person that takes forever to choose the right tasks to work on and it's whittling the slums working on low-value stuff. In the meantime. That's all I have today on how to

prioritize time to summarize. We should be doing always be working on things that directly impacts your primary. Kpi do the things. I have a heist and pack to meeting your weekly goal and that usually always means what talking to users and Building Product any questions What do you think about using of the iris? The question is what do I think about using OK ours? I think I think the concept of yours is good. Meaning you have key objectives and then pass I think at a startup you don't need them. Like you just need something much more simple than that, which is

here is my weekly goal and hear the testimony complete it and then over time as you build out your team and you have like like and the 50-60 people and you didn't manage that work. Okay hours are a great tool to use. So the question is if you don't have product-market fit and users are turning what should you focus on a question? So you should definitely building finding finding finding what the problem is first. So what is the problem that you're solving? And then what is the

solution to solve that problem? And in that stream of thought it's finding 10 users with the common device. We give his fine 10 years that really love your product do that first before you start trying to grow. So there are some things that you need to do before you start trying to scale the business. How would you try to question his he's running a few to be hard tech company and to get users. You just need a lot of funds to get going at 100 yards what I can ask you if I can look

but he needs to deliver the amount of product that the user wants. I think there's a long answer to this trying to figure out the short answer the long answer it will there is a talk in startup school from last from the last one with Eric migicovsky who was the founder of table and he goes through all the steps used to think about before you need funding so that you have enough proof when you do go to investors what the show But two more directly answer your question. I think what you want to do is start to getting more customers in the

sense that not delivering the product when this ends up getting pre-sales or contracts. Cuz if you get more it would be great if they're prepaid to because getting a prepaid means that maybe you don't even need an investor to actually build a product suit try to do those pre-sales and preschool shows good to man good to man investors love. It do risks the whole entire thing for them and still be much easier for you do fundraising if you can get the prepaid contracts as well then maybe you don't even need your not much better position with investors for sure, but maybe you don't even need

need them. All right. Are you all right Google one so you can see what if your Market is spelled color to tell you to go buy your product or features of their priority rather than being at the very bottom. Okay, so I think the question is I showed an example of which there one of one of the things that was up more at the bottom was I should build this key feature. Answer the question is why don't you built that went if that's what the mark is telling you

the way I think about progress in this one not to get ahead of yourself to the example I gave was I want to get my goal is to get five new customers. How am I going to get that building a key feature like that might get me a thousand customers. It might but I really I just want to get 5 right now, but there was that little probability that it might get me a thousand customers and all I want to do the thing that I'm most sure to hit my weekly goal at some point. My weekly goal is going to be a 1000 new customers in

which I would probably say that hire the thing on the chart, just go back to it. So this right right. So what you'll see here is that I'm coding the big feature but it would actually have here is I'm getting feedback from users on the big future. So I don't really know that this is going to do anything. But if I go talk to him existing users and go validate that first then And I do validate that that's why it's meeting up here. Then I can pull up this task up much much higher. Executed a lot of

time you have any examples of a startup and misinterpreting the structure like using it in a way that was ultimately West household doing it in a way that wasn't necessarily helping him get that I'd like the next tomorrow be misinterpreted and send them off in the wrong direction with yourself about where the currency of your company is. What is your actual weekly goal? And you know how much time something actually takes I think some people sometimes overestimate the time it takes or again they let they let other types of work get in the way of the of the

one or two things that they need to do that week because it's just easy to do so, that's why I was saying We just get them like our brains go on autopilot all the time into the framework kind of widows away over time and that's how it can get a little bit wonky. Is this supposed to be like a company-wide thing or this is more like thing or for like like you've just launched her about the launch and you've got these weekly goals. I think that these can be this is

it from where they can use for teams also, so it's a little bit hard as you have many teams in a company and gets more the structure gets more complex with little hard to keep it that simple, but that's when someone mentioned that okay ours. It's like a good way to kind of structure progress in a company. Yeah for sure. I'm talking about like super early stage whatever the stage most people are in Seraph School. Write two more questions. Do you have any next week. You can if you signed and decide about a

few more people think the question is, is there a way to tell like a metric to tell whether you're if you're not making progress, it's not because you're not prioritizing time while it's because you're actually just you need people to anybody's I think if you go back to what I was saying was like when you evaluate all your throat and you just are sorry when you're valuing all the weekly update and there's really no room for improvements there. Then that's that's a sign I do

hesitate to Suggest that you just hire people to solve the problems. It may be that case, but hopefully it's something that the founders have done themselves already and that they can just off think that's the thing that they need to offload versus something that maybe software can be don't like software can solve or just you know team is not working well together or you know time is not being used well. You typically advised not to buy advertising at first just speaking customers and fights against those customers, you know

talking to them. When is the right time to start really do not Advocate you doing any kind of bee marketing like buying ads? Answer the question is obviously there is at some point there's a right time for this one is the right time to for us we say is right time is usually when you have product Market fit and you're ready to scale and you've already done the experience experiments necessary to show that your CAC is reasonable for whatever your for whatever the revenues come in the door on a per-user basis. Usually what we see when we say don't do

resizing really really really mean is what we the mistake that people make is to get the first 100 users are the first thing first time users. They got to go buy a lot of ads and I think it's a reflection of bad usually bad founder market fit. If you don't know where to find those first time users. Yeah, but even for a few to be type Enterprise company, hopefully you have talked to at least all those kind of users and you are building you've built something in which someone has at least committed to using the product.

sing for the product Should we follow up with our team to make sure we're on track? I think weekly stand-ups are great depends on how I don't like for Honor. That's too many for you know, but likes it's a four or five six person team weekly Sam's a great some people do daily stand-ups or some people do even to stand ups a day and personally, I think those are not as effective because to make progress, you know, it takes time. And so it's even if you are making progress It's hard to see it like in one day chunks, but for sure when weeks in

abs are great and reviewing this with everybody getting everyone the same page get on the same page in your company, by the way on the definition of your primary. Kpi is super important. You'll be surprised how many companies were team members just have varying levels a definition and then once you get that set then having everyone understand what the goals of the company are and then what are the tasks we should be working on.

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