Peter Drucker, a leader in the development of management education said, “Do first things first, and second things not at all.” In essence, in your business, avoid time-consuming activities that produce little results. Instead, focus on actions that propel you forward and that provide tangible outcomes. “First things” are really about prioritizing.
This is sound management advice, but when you’re a startup, how do you determine those first things when everything seems to matter? At such an early stage, you’re a volatile, uncertain force. Figuring out where to begin can be paralyzing. It doesn’t have to be, however. By keeping "first things first'' top of mind, here’s what we did at Notion that pushed our hardware startup forward.
Don’t drown in your long-term vision.
As a general piece of advice for any startup, hardware or otherwise, it’s important to not be overwhelmed by the big picture. Perhaps your vision is to be the #1 on-demand delivery service in the world, or to be the first brand people think about when they crave a coffee. For us, it's to shift mindsets from home security to home awareness.
Having big goals like these are critical, and using them as a foundation for decision making is important, but don’t allow your long-term vision to overwhelm and deflate your momentum.
Your first thing is intangible.
Our first thing was born out of necessity and useful for anyone thinking about starting a company. Determine whether or not there is a market and a need for your product. This advice weaves it way through so many articles online, and it’s no different for building hardware.
At the time when Notion was just a concept, both myself and our technical co-founder, Ryan, were employees at local companies. We knew in high school that we wanted to eventually build our own company. Before jumping ship, however, we needed to know that Notion had legs. We conducted research and interviews with actual customers. We looked at the competitive landscape. We studied products on Kickstarter and knew that our market timing couldn’t be better.
To build or not to build.
Once you’ve validated your market, for hardware startups, you’ll need to make the decision about building a physical prototype. In essence, this was our next “first thing.” When speaking with the tech community and industry experts, they all wanted to see something. For us, it was a necessity to build. It didn't need to be beautiful. It was big and clunky but functional. Investors don’t care how pretty your product is initially, they just want to see that it works.
By developing a prototype, you’ll prove to yourselves (before leaving your jobs) that you can deliver on a concept, you understand the associated costs, and whether or not your team is capable of doing what you said you could.
When identifying “first things,” be brutally honest about the impact of each decision. Ask, “If I do X, will it get me closer to Y?” For us, building a prototype opened so many doors. It was the reason we got into Techstars, how we attracted our first employees, raised pre-seed and seed rounds, and excelled at our Kickstarter campaign.
The linchpin to leaps and bounds.
If you decide to build, you’re going to need a builder. We spoke with many product development companies that provided prototype quotes upwards of quarter of a million dollars. For a startup, these figures were jaw-dropping, and that was just the prototype. How would this be sustainable long-term?
To avoid going down that expensive path, try rounding out your team instead. It may delay product development, but it will be worth it in the end. If you’re networking like you should be, it shouldn’t take too long to fill that void. In the early days, hiring a solid head of hardware will be one of the most important decisions you make. His or her skill, passion and smarts will allow you to build your hardware and iterate in the most capital-efficient way possible.
Never stop testing.
Even with hardware, continuous testing will only serve to make your product stronger. Your prototype is going to look ugly but that’s ok. If you can show your concept and put it in the hands of investors, or even customers, you will be better off. With constant iteration, your ugly duckling will eventually turn into something beautiful.
Yes, testing is much more difficult with hardware, but if you’re really creative, there are some interesting ways to emulate function rather than building. This lean approach will save you time and money in the long run. We did this extensively when we were honing in on our setup process. We were able to create the perception of the product before we dove into anything more permanent.
Talk it out.
Just because you know your “first things” it doesn’t mean that everyone else does. Even though your startup is small, someone has to take the leadership reins and be that pillar of communication. Being clear about goals is time consuming. Sending an email or slide deck is not enough to align your team.
There’s no shortage of goal-setting methodologies and tools. Verne Harnish created the “Rockefeller Habits,” where a company’s roadmap to success is mapped with a one page strategic plan combined with core values. Alternatively, companies could embrace KPIs and use software like Results.com for implementing their performance indicators..
We adopted Google’s approach to setting Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). In this system, objectives are set for each individual in the company, a critical “buy-in” function of this system, no matter their position. He or she then defines his or her own measurable results that act as a grade on whether or not the objective is met. OKRs worked well for us, but it’s worth mentioning that as an early stage company, we had to tailor this system to fit our needs. Regardless, it kept us on track and our team aligned.
While there’s no right or wrong strategy, we at Notion have found some of the above “first things” key in executing in the fast-paced, early days of our company. The only wrong strategy is not having one.