Mike Lane is the CEO of Fluency, providers of Robotic Process Automation-powered solutions for the digital advertising industry.
The energy, excitement and pace of an early-stage company are unique. When you’re working to build something from nothing, the passion and focus you and your partners have bend your perception of what’s possible—and what’s sustainable.
The bootstrapping mindset means that as the company grows, you’re jumping on whatever new tasks pop up; that same mindset can make you think you’re keeping up with everything you’ve taken on, including tasks well outside of your wheelhouse. No matter what stage your company is at, at some point, you and your partners will realize that anything you do that’s outside of your own core competencies and responsibilities can be robbing your company of its full value. It’s a continual balancing act to understand the value of your time—and the benefit that comes out of your time.
When you’re building something from scratch on a limited budget, it’s easy to justify spending your own time doing something rather than spending money having someone else do that same job. With hindsight though, there were many times I looked back to our first startup and realized doing that was the personification of “penny-wise, pound-foolish.”
How much time is required to complete HR tasks like running payroll and recruiting? Maintaining search campaigns and optimizing the website demand? Accounts payable and accounts receivable? Chances are good that your investors and partners signed on to support you because you had unique and proven abilities they believed would help steer a company toward success—not because they admired your willingness to jump on every random task. Every hour these important yet extraneous jobs take you to do means one less hour for you to do what your investors and partners need you to do in order for the company to not simply grow and succeed but to do so in a shorter timeframe.
At my first startup, I was one of five co-founders, and I can point to plenty of times when we made decisions that “felt” right but cost us more than any benefits they created. Each of us held on too long to tasks we initially “volunteered” for due to a variety of rational, emotional and even cultural reasons.
Once you’ve accepted that time is finite and there are unforeseen costs to your good intentions, you can look for potential solutions to your needs. Keep your mind open: Today’s solutions aren’t limited to outsourcing; they also include AI and automation-based software to reduce workload while increasing accuracy and efficiency. An additional benefit of automation-focused software? It can grow and scale as your company grows.
As early as possible, realize that instead of addressing every single type of need, prioritize where your focus should be and make sure you are moving your time to the most important work. Your first year might be spent solely on product design and development, building and refining with a tight crew (a group of people who probably includes some of your biggest shareholders).
In year two, you expand to sales while some of your engineers handle things like onboarding. It might be four years before you have a staff big enough to require a formal HR function—or growth goals that demand marketing support. Regardless, be mindful of any functions you’ve ignored or purposely put off; the downsides to doing so are similar to the ones you incur by choosing to do too many extraneous tasks yourself. It is an exercise of awareness and balance.
I like to contextualize it by describing a bathroom remodel. You have your design in your head and sketch out a budget. You can spend many, many hours learning how to tile. You can spend hours learning how to do the plumbing. Then the drywall and painting. Anyone who has ever done this looks at their tile work after and says, “Wow, I should have hired someone.” Your simple bathroom remodel may take months to get done if you choose to do it yourself and learn as you go. The outcome? It’s usually less than perfect.
The reality is that you could have gotten a better outcome in a week if you had focused your energy on managing the project and finding the best contractors at the best price. Some people will counter with something like, “Well, now I know how to do some basic plumbing.” Yes, you will come away with some experience if you do it all yourself, but unless this is going to become a hobby or a source of income, you need to analyze what you get out of it. Sometimes, that’s learning just enough to know you don’t want to do it (or are not good at it).
What’s the value of your time? Consider these factors in that calculation:
• Pay rate: Your time is not free; successful people understand this concept. Certain things are just not worth your time. Developing this skill is critical for successful leaders.
• Opportunity cost: What could you be doing instead that will bring more value (today and tomorrow)?
No founder or leader ever expects that they could or should sweep the floors forever, but someone has to do it—and you were there. But before you continue robbing your company of its full value by wasting your time on important but non-critical tasks, take a step back and tell yourself, “Just because I can do these things doesn’t mean I should be doing them.” Your partners, your team and your investors will probably thank you for it.
Full transparency: I still pick up the mail for the company from the PO box. There are lots of other solutions for this, but I also swing by the post office on the way to drop my son off at school. He loves guessing how many items will be in the box today. So that one, I am currently hanging onto—for now.
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