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Doing a Reset for Startups

For the past year or so, I've been taking singing lessons out here in L.A. I had previously taken quite a bit of singing lessons in NYC but never could quite progress to where I wanted to. Long-story short, I've made a lot of progress with my current coach -- so much so that I ended up performing in a showcase a couple of months ago.

I mention this because our coaching sessions follow a very similar format. We work on exercises (sort of like scales) for about 10-15 minutes, and then 1-2 songs for the remaining 10-15 minutes. Gerald (my instructor) and I had noticed a little pattern on some of the exercises. I would start off right on pitch-wise for a number of them -- and then after maybe 3 scales, I would go off a little. He'd give me a small adjustment or simply sing one of the notes -- and I'd be right back on. He would emphasize the need for me to concentrate. Sometimes I did lose concentration, other times I was concentrating my absolute darndest. I chalked it up to maybe lack of focus, or even just simply missing the note.

I asked Gerald a question at my last session where I said, "How many notes am I missing when I miss?" I thought it was just a note or two. His response? "You miss about 1 out of 4. You get the first 3 scales right, and then you seem to go off. But when I correct you or even tell you that you're off, you get right back on." This was really surprising to me. I didn't realize I literally shifted -- I thought I was just a little off when I was off. He then said that I had to focus on every scale individually. For some reason, this clicked in and I just did a mental reset every scale -- in the half second or second before he played the next one, I would just briefly tell myself to clear my mind, breathe in, and start fresh. I then did the next 12 scales perfectly (in his words.) He immediately went, "What are you doing differently?"

One of the things I like to tell startups, when there's some sort of significant event in their lifecycle (usually a funding event) -- for them to do a reset. In the case of my singing, I think what was happening was that I was constantly orienting myself around the previous scale I did. So I would be on, on, on -- but almost on auto-pilot, and then I would be off. My teacher would tell me I'm off, and then I would get back on. No matter how hard I tried or focused, I couldn't stay on for a longer period of time. So how did I then stay on? By resetting every time. Telling myself that I was starting from zero -- the fact I got the last one right didn't matter, and that I had to get the next one right too.

I think it's very similar with startups. It's very easy for a startup -- whether it's around strategy or personnel or just any area where there is natural forward momentum -- to keep pushing along the same path. Companies sometimes try and address this problem through offsites, strategic planning exercises, or what not. They're not a bad way to go (though I've historically seen those exercises go for naught -- people just go back to what they're doing.)

In my case, I usually just have a simple conversation at a strategic time. (The only difference is I typically like to have this conversation somewhere social -- just to break the mindset -- so it's not taking place where all the other conversations take place. So instead of a conference call or meeting room / office, it's grabbing drinks or dinner.) Let's say a startup just closed a new round or is about to close a new round. I'll say, "Now that you're about to close a new round, this is a good time to take a step back and think about the overall strategy of the company, how you're staffed against it, and whether you have right team in place." It's not quite that hokey, but you get the idea. The point is to do a reset. There's a great story in "Only the Paranoid Survive" [link] -- Andy Grove's amazing book -- about his early time at Intel when the company was still primarily in the memory business. They were getting slaughtered on price by Asian manufacturers and he and Gordon Moore were sitting around trying to figure out what to do. They then did a thought exercise where they essentially said, "Ok, we're going to get fired. So let's fire outselves. If we did that, what would the new management do?" They realized they would exit the wildly unprofitable memory business and put the resources against the more promising microprocessor market. So that's what they did. It's hard to reach that conclusion though without giving yourself that mental thought exercise. The day to day momentum of dealing with the immediate fires and problems are too great. 

One of the things I love about business is there's this great tension between long-term and short-term. You need to think strategically about your business -- where to allocate resources, who to hire, and how to deploy them -- but then you're also staring at the day to day management of the company. You're not always doing big PowerPoint presentations about your vision or making a key hire. You're going to meetings where small tweaks are made. You're rallying a team around an idea. In short, you're getting small wins. In both cases -- overly focusing on one area is problematic. If you're always thinking big picture -- you're not getting things done. In the words of one of my old bosses, "I now get to hear [so and so] pontificate." That's not useful. If you're always stuck in the weeds -- you can be doing a lot of work which is either not productive or counter productive. So by pushing forward hard on a daily basis -- you're getting lots of things done but it's still critical to step back from time to time and do a reset. Ask yourself -- as if you're an outsider and seeing these issues for the first time -- what you want the company to do, stand for, and how to organize your limited resources against those goals.