Based on meeting hundreds of founders over the years and my own experience, my number one piece of advice for founders is to avoid procrastination by taking action.
Besides simply not knowing better or taking bad advice, the main reason founders are held back from truly acting is fear. The fear of bringing something to market—and potentially failing—makes the best of us, myself included, spend our limited time and energy on thmake us feel like we're preparing, but are really just varying forms of procrastination.
Preparation or procrastination?
We've written previously about what founders should prioritize: learning about customer problems, building product, and showing it to people.
Tasks that many founders very commonly find themselves doing—tweaking the pitch, applying to programs, attending events, spreadsheeting—can certainly help you be more prepared for the above priorities, but only within reason. More often, we’re engaging in these activities because we’re feeling that aforementioned fear.
Pouring yourself into an idea and sharing it will always be a risk. Not being conscious of this dynamic makes it very easy to take preparation beyond its useful limits into perfectionism that trades off with what’s important.
To be successful, find ways of thinking and acting that coexist with the risk inherent to entrepreneurship. One powerful way to do that is to use systems.
Systems vs goals
In his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, Scott Adams describes the difference between goals and systems:
"If you do something every day, it's a system. If you're waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it's a goal."
James Clear in Atomic Habits elaborates with some examples:
- If you’re a coach, your goal might be to win a championship. Your system is the way you recruit players, manage your assistant coaches, and conduct practice.
- If you’re a musician, your goal might be to play a new piece. Your system is how often you practice, how you break down and tackle difficult measures, and your method for receiving feedback from your instructor.
In our case, the goal is to start a business that sells something that enough people will buy. The system is continuous learning and building.
Use systems to normalize failure
Among the many reasons to prefer systems to goals is that goals create a success-failure binary. You either achieve them or you don't. Looking at your startup through the lens of goals—find a co-founder, make your first sale—is sure to create pressure, which then tempts us to procrastinate, or rushes us into bad decisions. Systems define success as engaging in a regular practice—meet potential co-founders to find the best one, talk to many users to learn about how they’re the same and different—which naturally advances our goals and leaves us open to multiple definitions of success.
Goals without systems make every interaction you have as a founder a referendum on your company. Systems that accept all outcomes as part of your process get you where you want to go with far less stress. When we regularly put ourselves in the way of "failure," it becomes the path to future success. When we view success or failure as some abstract binary, we do things that let us avoid either outcome, both good and bad.
Build your startup on systems of regularly producing product and getting feedback, and you won't be caught over-prepared for fear of failure. A series of small actions that give your idea life in the world will always bring you closer to success than any document.