On January 5, 2014, Hunter Walk of Homebrew published a good blog post about how he spends his time as a VC. I enjoyed the column because it gets to the crux of how to be a good investor: one’s time is possibly a more scarce asset than one’s capital, so using time wisely is critically important for long-term success. Some say that since many people in the venture business are highly educated and have been run successful businesses in the past, and given that in today’s environment everyone in the venture business is working hard given how competitive the industry has become, choosing how to spend one’s working hours is one of the most important things a VC can do.
More broadly, the issue of time management is critical for most people, as I was recently reminded in an interesting video by Jennifer Aaker, Professor of Marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Jennifer talks about the power of what she calls “multipliers,” where she encourages people to be more effective in one’s day by combining multiple goals into single events so that these activities can turn into “doubles, triples, or even home runs.” The advice is clever and encourages people to think about how they can accomplish multiple things at the same time that bring together disparate individual objectives.
However, I would suggest that one of the most powerful multipliers is to factor an event by zero.
Or, said differently, one of the most useful tools a person has is the power to say “No” to things that are taking up time but are not adding much value to one’s life.
I have found this is one of the most difficult things for me (and others) to do. I am often asked by people to get together or to take on additional tasks and responsibilities in various contexts. Sometimes people want something from me (money, a job, my point of view) or sometimes others want me to do something for them. But saying “No” is an issue with which I have struggled over the years, and as I have discussed this with others I have realized that I am not alone in finding this to be a challenge. Over time I have come to the conclusion that this is an issue for people because most humans want to be polite and helpful to others when people request our time and attention. This feeling can come out of concern for people, or perhaps for selfish reasons such as wanting to be able to “call in a favor at a later date.”
That being said, in a world of crazy schedules that includes work commitments, family responsibilities, desire for physical exercise and other activities, spending time on those things that are substantively additive to one’s life is one of the most important things that a person can do in order to be effective with things that matter.
How do I attempt to accomplish this? A few ways:
1. In times of extreme busyness, I only put things on my calendar that are directly relevant to critical tasks at hand. When I began teaching two courses last September at Stanford in addition to my primary responsibilities at XSeed, I made the decision not to put anything on my calendar until January unless it involved an existing portfolio company, a new company in which I was actively considering investing, or included one of my students, my wife or my children. That meant I had to say, “No” to people who were looking to informally network, casual friends who wanted to catch up over coffee or any other requests on my time. Pushing off a meeting for three or four months was not always easy – I hoped that people did not consider me rude or perceive that I thought I was too important to see them. However, I needed to draw the line on those items that were not critical to the tasks I had at hand.
2. At XSeed Capital we try hard to get to “No” quickly with entrepreneurs if we are not going to invest in their company. The venture business is one of extreme second-guessing: Will this be the company that becomes the next Google or Twitter? If I spend time supporting this entrepreneur, can I help him or her be successful? Have I called enough customers to get input on the value of the product? I would suggest, however, that if one stays maniacally focused on whether a company has the chance to truly deliver huge returns (which is what VCs are supposed to seek) and how excited one is about an opportunity, a VC can quickly parse through the many good companies which exist but may not be a good fit for their firm. And by moving on quickly, a VC not only frees up time on his or her calendar, but it also allows the entrepreneur to move to the next potential source of capital that might actually fund the deal.
3. It’s axiomatic that good strategy involves not only what someone will say “Yes” to, but also those things to which someone will say “No.” However, there are a few things to which I try never to say “No”: regularly scheduled meetings/conversations with our CEOs, date nights with my wife and exercising every day. These regular operating rhythms are easy to sacrifice when dealing with the tyranny of the urgent, but I believe that these heartbeats of living also provide structure and patterns that provide stability to the craziness of startup culture. While sometimes these events get moved, and sometimes they are squeezed more than I would hope, I believe that never losing sight of what is important (regular touches with close teammates, family and one’s physical health) are critical to being able to realize that one’s life and career is a marathon and not a sprint.
When I worked at General Electric one of the common complaints of people in the business units was that we spent too much time reporting updates for people at “corporate” and working on various administrative initiatives (e.g. ideating, lean six sigma, etc.) that took away from our ability to make and sell products for our customers. The reply from Fairfield (GE’s headquarters location) was that we clearly could not do all that was asked of us, but we should make decisions as leaders to work on those things that we determined were the most critical. In order to do this, we had to skip doing certain things – even requests that would come from “on high.”
This feedback from HQ was both brilliant and right on the money: As leaders, it is up to us to choose those things that we believe are important, and to take heat in those areas where we find the strength to say “No.”
As individuals when it comes to our time, saying “No” is one of the most powerful things that we can do in order to be effective in our most important tasks.