How To Manage Effort At The Start

Effort, like time, has value. In this post, I’m going to share a first principle rule that has helped me manage my effort and energy for every new project I’ve started. Most importantly, it’s helped me avoid overcapitalising on tasks that add very little, if any value, to creating a revenue-generating business. 

I know many people who are thinking about starting a side hustle or a business. 

It might be as a result of job loss. You might be wanting to achieve a milestone that requires more income. Or, you might just have an itch that needs to be scratched. 

No matter the motive, this rule should be kept front of mind at all times. 

The 70:30 Effort Rule

The tasks involved in starting a new project fall into two buckets: Controllable and Uncontrollable. 

Controllable tasks, as the name suggests, are within your control. Subject to having the cash and time, you or someone you employ can predictably get the job done. 

Registering a company, appointing an accountant, engaging a marketing agency to develop a brand and talking to intellectual property lawyers are controllable tasks. 

The truth is that these tasks don’t generate insight that takes you closer to identifying or securing your first customers or revenue. 

I agree that they enable you to transact with customers but here’s the punchline: You don’t know if anyone wants what you’re selling!

You might think you know the ideal customer for the product you hope to sell. 

You might think you know the market. 

But until people start buying your product, the vast majority of your time must be dedicated to capturing value. As a result, only 30% of your time should be devoted to controllable tasks. 

‘You’re right’.

I hear that from many first time entrepreneurs. They know they are investing too much of their time on controllable tasks. And that’s because ‘controllable’ is comfortable. 

One answer usually greets me when I dive deeper into why they’re investing more than 30% of their time on controllable tasks. 

It’s confidence (or a lack their off) to talk to future users and customers about their vision for the future. 

So let’s talk about the 70%.

Venturing into the uncontrollable

At the onset of any project, well before a company is registered or a brand is built, I want three questions answered as quickly as possible:

  1. Can I articulate what I’m thinking?
  2. Does anyone else see the opportunity?
  3. Is the opportunity big?

I can’t express the idea (Q1), quickly check to see if I’m delusional or not (Q2), and determine if it’s worth my time pursuing (Q3), then I should kill the idea and move on. 

Even if I can articulate the idea, get some early validation that there might be a there, there and run some numbers on the opportunity, there is still one (big) problem. 

What I know right now is my biased version of reality

The reason I dedicate 70% of my time to these unknown questions (or uncontrollable tasks) is that it takes time to get the answers.  

It takes time to identify and connect with people. And each time you talk to someone new, you’re likely to receive a fresh perspective which takes time to process. 

Turning theory into practice 

I’d like to share my process for how I get the answers to these questions and above anything else, develop the conviction to build a side hustle or even a company. 

As I’ve written about before, it starts with a one-page business model canvas. This 25-minute exercise in which I also add thoughts on the size of the opportunity and the team that could execute is Step 0. 

My process then moves to coming up with a project name, organising a method to learn and then speaking with 50 people. 

Step 1: Select a working name (controllable)

I do love this step. It’s where all the thinking I’ve done to date comes together into an identity. But I want to stress that this is a working title. It’s not the end name of a product or company. 

The name that you come up with right now serves one purpose and one purpose alone: To help people identify your idea.

To resist the urge of building a full brand around the idea (because I still don’t know if people want what I’m selling), I keep reminding myself that I’m very likely to throw this name away at the end of my 50 conversations. 

That said, when I land on a working name, I buy the associated domain. GoDaddy is my preferred domain provider.

I usually won’t spend more than $20-$30 on a domain, and because dot com typically isn’t available, I get creative. I might buy the dot io or dot life domains. I avoid country-specific domains like name dot com dot au just in case I want to double down on the project and turn the product into a globally applicable brand. 

Be In Motion, a brand I built in 2017, is an example. Before it was a product, I looked up the availability of BeInMotion dot com. It was for sale but very expensive. Instead, I picked up beinmotion.life for $12.95. This registered trademark product lives on today under that domain. 

Step 2: Using Trello to organise what I learn (controllable)

If you’ve ever done user experience interviews, you’ll know that the cardinal sin is poor organisation. I’ve experimented with a bunch of methods, but I keep coming back to Trello

It’s a brilliant workflow tool. In one glance, you can tell what’s being worked on, and where something is in a process. 

Imagine a whiteboard, filled with lists of sticky notes, with each note as a task for you and your team. That’s Trello! 

Best of all, it’s free. 

I’ve created a workflow template that you can start using right now, which includes an interview guide

Sign up to Trello if you don’t already have an account.

If you have a Trello account, here is a readymade template that you can start using.

Copy this template into your account and get started! If you have any questions, shoot me an email.

Step 3: Speaking with 50 people (uncontrollable)

I love this step because I know that after speaking with 50 people about the idea, I will have pitched 50 times. 

Why is that great? I’ll be great at delivering the pitch thanks to the practice. I’ll also know if I’m closer to a winning idea or closer to my next one (because I’ll be killing off this one)!  

When I think about finding the first 50 people to speak with, I plan with three questions in mind:

  1. Are they an ideal future customer (or potential evangelist) of my idea?
  2. What is the most efficient way to share the context of the idea?
  3. How do I deliver value to them during the interview as a first impression? 

After all, conversations create connections that build community.

The truth about the first question is that you won’t know until you speak with people. You can, however, have a hypothesis about the factors that make them potentially ideal future lovers of your idea.

For me, age and interests are the two guides I use most often when compiling my 50 person list. Typically age is broader than interest, for example, women and men between 30 and 50 years old who enjoy giving blood. I could be more specific, but my idea is so new that I need to cast the net wide to learn as much as possible.

Question two about context is the most tricky. You’ve been thinking about your product A LOT. The people on your list will be learning about this for the first time.

Context matters. 

While recording a video or audio file and sending that to someone for feedback is an option, I recommend a different approach. It involves sending a direct message using this template:

Hi [name]!

I hope you’re well. I’m Phil, and I’m creating a new product experience to help people [insert pain point or aspiration]. Given the research I’ve done on this opportunity, I’d love five minutes of your time to hear your reflections. 

Please check here for a time that works for you. 

Thanks very much and look forward to returning the favour, [your name]

The link above goes to Calendly, a scheduling service that helps streamline the booking of appointments. Also free, it links to your calendar, and it’s a great time-saver, but there is a bit of friction for someone to click and find a time to book. As a result, I always remain open to talking whenever the interviewee can. 

Finally, delivering value and a great first impression is a mix of enthusiasm, humility and being prepared. 

I do this by valuing the interviewees time, and I tell them that upfront. I then share that wherever this idea goes, I will repay them with a front-row seat to the product development journey. At this early stage, this means that I will share the summary findings of the first fifty conversations with them. And if the idea becomes a thing, they will be the first to receive it for free.

The questions I typically ask are in the interview guide in Trello.

Where do I find these people?

Usually (and equally) from three places: Instagram, LinkedIn and friends.

This mix of channels helps to smooth out the bias that might come from speaking to friends alone. 

On Instagram. I search for accounts using keywords that relate to my idea and then send the account owner a direct message. 

On LinkedIn, a simple direct message or invitation to connect tends to work. Pro Tip: I find people with a native LinkedIn URL (e.g. linkedin.com/in/firstname-lastname-44924037) are less likely to respond than those with a custom LinkedIn URL (e.g. linkedin.com/in/philhsc)

I reach out to friends via WhatsApp or email.

And then what?

After speaking with 50 people, you will have the data and insight to make an informed decision on whether to proceed or not. 

And if you’re wondering if speaking with 20 people is sufficient, it’s not. 

That’s because 50 conversations are barely enough to iron out bias or for you to become proficient at pitching your idea. 

One last thing about effort

It’s easy to forget this 70/30 rule at the beginning of new projects. The thrill of starting a new project is intoxicating but remember this: Your lifetime is running out!

Make the most of every day and learn as quickly as you can. 

Building the future is a craft. This process is a way to accelerate your version of that craft, and I hope it helps you.