What can we do right now?

Recently there have been a few occasions at Buffer where we’ve hesitated about next steps or thought about spending longer on certain tasks. As a result of my thinking around this, I’ve started to believe that the following question can be one of the most powerful questions for startup founders to say to each other:

"What can we do right now?"

"Right now" means faster validation

The reason I think this question is so powerful is largely based on the core nature of startups. Unfortunately for us startup founders, the key difference between what we do when we’re building a scalable startup and what you would be doing if you’re running a service business is that a large amount of the work we do every day is building things which are not yet validated.

There are three common scenarios in a startup where we’re handling assumptions which need to be validated as soon as possible:

  • we haven’t launched yet and so almost nothing is validated
  • we’re modifying the experience of a current feature
  • we’re adding a new feature we expect will improve one or more metrics

Therefore, a lot of what we spend our time building hasn’t yet been seen by our potential or existing audience. This is a key issue that many founders agree is vital to address:

"Usage is like oxygen for ideas. You can never fully anticipate how an audience is going to react to something youve created until its out there. That means every moment youre working on something without it being in the public its actually dying, deprived of the oxygen of the real world." - Matt Mullenweg, WordPress

Two examples from Buffer

Just in the last few weeks, there are times when between Leo, Tom and myself one of us has used the powerful “what can we do right now?” question to great effect. Here are a couple:

Getting a user on Skype for user testing

We’ve recently been working on an overhaul of the browser extension popup that you see when you use Buffer to add a new Tweet or Facebook update about a page you want to share. Initially, we thought about launching it to everyone without getting feedback. However, there are some new concepts which are quite different compared to the current version, so we decided it is best if we try and validate our assumptions about how clear the new experience is.

To do this validation, we’ve been connecting with a few users through Skype and enabling the new version for them. As they experience the new version, they share their thoughts and we ask questions to specifically get insight into whether they understand the different parts of the experience.

At first, we said to each other: “maybe we could do some user testing next week”. Then, in the same conversation we moved towards “how about this week”. In the end, we took it even further and said “why not today” and then finished by concluding “let’s Tweet right now and have a call with someone in the next few minutes”. Within 20 minutes, we’d done an interview and learned a massive amount. We’ve since done ten more user interviews and learned even more.

Hacking and hard-coding UI changes

Whilst conducting these user interviews, we’ve learned a massive amount very quickly. Some of what we’ve learned has proven that our assumptions were in fact incorrect. Part of the interface we have built for the new browser extension popup is not being perceived as we expected it to, and users are getting very confused about the purpose of that particular section.

As a result of invalidating this assumption, we’ve realised we need to make some changes in order to improve the clarity and help people “get it” faster. As we started to tweak the interface, we quickly agreed that we’d need to do more user interviews to check whether we’ve achieved the clarity we are aiming for.

When we first started to tweak the UI, we were doing it very thoroughly, checking that everything worked perfectly. After a while, since we knew we had to test the UI through user interviews again, we decided we should try and shortcut the process. We asked “what can we do right now” that would help us to learn whether we’ve improved the clarity. What we’re doing now is hard-coding these types of changes and leaving out large parts. Then we jump on another Skype call. If we find something that works, we can built it out further and add polish.

Validated learning is the measure of progress

The key thing that this process of asking the question “what can we do right now?” reminds me of is the way that Eric Ries defines the measure of progress in a lean startup:

"Progress in manufacturing is measured by the production of high quality goods. The unit of progress for Lean Startups is validated learning-a rigorous method for demonstrating progress when one is embedded in the soil of extreme uncertainty." - Eric Ries

When was the last time you asked your co-founder “what can we do right now?”. I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Photo credit: christopher charles

Enjoying the moment

When I look back on the times I’ve done the most productive work on my startup, it has always been when I’ve had a great balance of work and rest. It has also been at times when I have genuinely been enjoying the moment. Steve Jobs suggests that in order to do great work, we should love doing the work:

"Work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work, and the only way to do great work is to love what you do."

By saying “the only way to do great work is to love what you do”, Jobs implies that how good we are at something is correlated with how much we enjoy doing it. I am sure you can agree this makes sense.

Loving what we do

This need to love what we do has had me thinking for a while about how to maximise the amount of time I’m truly enjoying what I’m doing. We all have parts of our lives which we don’t enjoy, and it is easy to assume that it is inevitable that there are elements of our days which we won’t enjoy. I think that whilst this is very easy to agree with, a lot of the time it may actually be a choice, whether we realise it or not.

Last year I watched a video entitled Tea & the Art of Life Management which is a great discussion featuring two of my favourite authors Tim Ferriss and Leo Babauta. The video is fantastic and I can highly recommend it. I’ve watched it a number of times myself, and I always keep remembering it for one particular thing which Tim Ferriss said. He calls it Gratitude Training:

Lets say that you want to eat a peach for dessert one evening, but you decide to only allow yourself this luxury after washing the dishes. If, while washing the dishes, all you think of is eating the peach, what will you be thinking of when you eat the peach?

The clogged inbox, that difficult conversation youve been putting off, tomorrows to-do list?

The peach is eaten but not enjoyed, and so on we continue through life, victims of a progressively lopsided culture that values achievement over appreciation.

Ambition vs day to day happiness

The final sentence in the quote above from Tim Ferriss is something I find particularly interesting as a startup founder. As a founder, I read many articles, many videos and generally try to stay very up to date on the different techniques out there and try to learn from what has worked for others. This means that a lot of the time I am exposed to articles which show how much people have achieved such as how much a startup has been acquired for. With such a high concentration of this kind of information, it is easy to put a lot of value on ambition. We don’t start companies and aim to make no impact, do we?

However, going back to what Steve Jobs says, if we value ambition too much compared to day to day happiness, we are unlikely to ever achieve the things we are striving for. In a recent interview with David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals on Mixergy, Andrew Warner asked David a very interesting question:

When you launch something you say “we just wanted to launch something and see where it went” and on the other hand, “we’re going to build a hundred million dollar company”. How do you balance both those sides?

David responds by saying that the ambition is much less important than day to day happiness. He says that if you care more about the milestones and ambitions, you are much less likely to achieve them.

Choose to enjoy the moments

So next time we’re washing the dishes, why not actually find enjoyment in washing the dishes? It can be a very relaxing activity. When we’re trying to reach inbox zero, why not enjoy the great conversations we are having and have some gratitude for the amazing people we are in touch with and the fact we can communicate so easily. When a customer gets in touch with a question about our product, instead of seeing it as a necessary but unenjoyable task, why not be thankful that they care enough to get in touch, and look for something we can learn from them?

I certainly need to keep reminding myself that it’s a choice.

Photo credit: Dimitris Papazimouris