Dec 272010

It is  hard to believe that it has already been three weeks since I left my day job. Although I have yet to start on what I would consider to be my real startup, these past few weeks have been really busy. I’ve been working on an existing project, my email-to-Twitter service, and trying to figure out how to maximize revenue without continuing to spend a disproportionate amount of effort developing and maintaining the service (this is both fun and frustrating).  Now that I am on “Christmas vacation” (mandated by the big boss), I thought I would take a moment to reflect on a few things I’ve learned during my first few weeks as a full-time entrepreneur:

It’s tempting to move too fast

My last day as a full-time employee was on a Monday and I immediately hit the ground running on Tuesday. Since then I’ve been trying to move at a break-neck speed. There is an enormous sense of urgency and I’m now able to move fast without other commitments or distractions in the way.  Sounds great, right?

The problem is that it is really easy to get sucked into task after task and feeling like you can’t waste time by doing anything else. Should I  take 30 minutes to catch up on RSS feeds and my Twitter stream? No way. Take a shower and eat lunch? Maybe later. Can I just stop and think? Ah, when I have more time.

Obviously, this is not the most effective mode of operation because there are valuable benefits (both direct and indirect) to those other activities. I have to keep reminding myself: Move forward as fast as you can but don’t lose your balance.

Time truly is money

Perhaps the biggest shift in perspective when moving from a salaried day job to self-employment is the realization that you make money based on how you spend your time. This may sound painfully obvious — and it is — but it’s not something that I fully appreciated  as a salaried employee. After all, I had no way of measuring the impact of my contributions to the bottom line, and even if I did, it would not have affected my compensation in a meaningful way.

Now, everything  I do involves an ROI calculation. This is both good and bad (see point about “moving too fast” above), but overall I think it makes sense to operate in this way. There’s no denying it: my income is a measure of how well I convert time into money.

Multi-tasking is necessary but inefficient

Our intuition tells us that being able to do multiple things at once will make us more efficient overall. The truth, though, is that most of us are *not* able to work through multiple things at the same time: there is just too much cost associated with task-switching. We are often more effective when we focus on one thing at a time and move through our tasks sequentially.

This is not necessarily a new realization for me but it is certainly a much bigger problem. As an employee of a large organization, I always had a lot of different responsibilities but they fell within the general scope of a software engineer. As a solo entrepreneur, on the other hand, I am responsible for everything: understanding the market and competition, keeping up with news and trends, prioritizing features, designing the look and feel, writing the documentation, composing and sending marketing emails, reaching out to potential business partners, acquiring press coverage, monitoring analytics, supporting existing customers, and — oh yes — developing the software itself.

Figuring out which activities to prioritize and when to work on each them is tough.  It is very tempting to continually switch between tasks to ensure that I am making progress on everything that is important, but ultimately this tends to slow me down. For now I am approaching this problem like a software engineer: Schedule tasks as meaningful but atomic activities (i.e. must be completed from start to finish) and execute them in sequence.

In many ways, the issues I’ve described above are not unique to self-employment; everyone has to deal with time management and task prioritization. How do you deal with your insanely busy day? I’d love to hear your thoughts.