How things get done

I’ve heard a lot of different theories about how things get done.  I’m interested in this topic, so I pay attention and see how the theories hold up. 

Here’s the best one: a combination of focus and personal connections.  Charlie Rose said this to Paul Graham, who told it to me.

It seems very accurate.  There are lots of good things that I keep meaning to do but never quite make it to the top of my list; I never make any real progress at all on those.  Conversely, I find that whatever I focus on most nearly always happens.  Small-ish startups seem to be able to do about three things at once, and usually they are whatever the CEO is focusing on.  Certainly anything that is not someone’s number one or two priority is unlikely to get done in the hectic world of a startup.

Most early-stage startup founders do a bad job of getting the company to focus on just two or three critical priorities—they chase whatever shiny new object appears that day.  This is somewhat expected—the sort of people that start companies generally like doing new things, not executing relentlessly on the same things.  But restraint is critical.  It’s very easy to justify taking on one more project by saying that it won’t be that time consuming.  Unfortunately, it will likely either be time consuming, or it won’t be worth anything.  Most founders know what to do; they just don’t know what not to do.

The Y Combinator version of focus is “write code and talk to users”.  For a startup that is just a few people, most other things are a waste of time (assuming the founders have already thought through the strategy of the company, and that “talking to users” also implies getting users).  For whatever reasons, many founders love to spend time on anything else—worrying about the details of corporate structures, interviewing lawyers, doing a really good job bookkeeping, etc.  All of this pretending-to-run-a-company gets in the way of actually running a company.  The best startups we fund come to office hours to talk about their product, how to evolve it, how to grow faster, and excited to show us new features their users want.  The worst come to talk—again and again—about everything else.

On the personal relationships part, most people eventually realize it’s hard to do really good things by yourself—most of them just require too much work.  Successful startups usually find that their biggest problem is hiring, and certainly hiring well is the highest-impact thing a founder can do for his startup (and the best thing an investor can do is fund great founders).  “Always be recruiting and promoting talented people” is very good advice.  Having good relationships with the people you work with is also very good advice.

I make it a point to meet and help as many smart people as I can; besides being fun and interesting, this is important to getting things done.  These are the people I tend to try hire or fund, and I think it’s the same for lots of others.  This is not really nepotism; I think working with your friends is a good strategy, and smart, effective people tend to like other smart, effective people.  The best hires I’ve made or seen other companies make are usually friends or friends of friends.  Partnerships and sales also rely heavily on personal relationships, for many of the same reasons.

It’s easy to not spend enough time on personal relationships—it seems in conflict with focus.  But it’s an important exception.  It’s also one of the most enjoyable parts of work.

When you combine extreme focus and great teams, magic happens.

200 responses
awesome post, especially the last line. just sent this to our whole team. thanks sam.
Boosted upvoted this post.
Hmmm, Learning to say no is a hard thing. This article makes a lot of sense to me today, have lost my focus on a lot of things in the last one year trying to do a lot of things. Now I am learning to say no. Now I am more or less trying to focus on the product and talking to the customers. But I am wondering if my one year old past-self would have read this article and realized the importance of just focusing on one thing without experiencing the futility of chasing multiple things simultaneously.
I’ve heard a lot of different theories about how things get done. I’m interested in this topic, so I pay attention and see how the theories hold up. This is tangential to the rest of the post, but you should get a copy of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, which is a compendium of short, fun descriptions of the conditions in which artists do their art. The similarity between artists and entrepreneurs is strong, even if stories about the eccentricities of the former are far more common than similar stories about the latter.
Great points, especially about focus. I was wondering how you deal with the small, essential tasks you put aside when focussing. For instance, I'll often focus intensely for a short period of time, and get an amazing amount of work done. But then a few things pile up. My house gets messy. I have some unanswered emails. Physical files in my inbox. Hard deadlines approach on a few other projects. I then find it very hard to focus on anything unless I clear all that. But it takes some time after it has accumulated. I do try to keep incoming emails clutter, etc. as minimal as possible, but they still accumulate. Do you have this problem, and have you found any solutions?
Nepotism is specifically the hiring of relatives when they're (probably) not qualified for the position. Hiring friends or friends of friends, especially if you know them via your connections to the task at hand is not nepotism at all.
Alexis Ohanian upvoted this post.
Stas Kulesh upvoted this post.
Great article. Very true. Focus and the ability to say no, especially when bombarded with opportunities, is one of the hardest disciplines to cultivate. And it gets harder the more you grow. The only point I would clarify is the definition of nepotism. That's when you show favor by hiring family members either needlessly or when there are more qualified candidates. When the same favor is extended to friends, or friends of friends, that's cronyism.
A posthaven user upvoted this post.
Focus means having to say "No" a lot. It also means letting go. All those tasks that look like they need doing seem less important after they are sitting on your desk for a few months.
Focus is not so much about when to say no as it is about when to say "Hell Yeah!"
I always enjoy rules that have exceptions. I agree about talking to people as the exception to focus.
Great article, especially the focus part, getting things done means say "No" to other opportunities, and only focus on what your team is really good at.
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