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How to Prioritize Your Entrepreneurial Ideas

Meet Weston Bergmann, founder and lead investor of BetaBlox. This Kansas City business incubator has acquired 5 percent of roughly 60 startups in the last two years alone. He’s also an active angel investor and loves connecting growth capital to entrepreneurs in various startup communities across the United States.

I’ve invested in a lot of Kansas City-based early-stage ventures. One of the first companies I invested in raised a quarter of a million dollars to take advantage of a purchase order that would ultimately make them millionaires over the course of five years. Without getting into intricacies of the business, the product they were selling was marketed to youth soccer players. We spent months coming up with ideas, whiteboarding strategies and building a roadmap.

Then the holidays rolled around and my St. Louis-based cousins came in town to visit. My cousins were avid soccer players and a perfect example of the target market for this company. I spent 2 minutes explaining to my cousins what we were doing, and they spent 30 minutes explaining to me what all they would want from such a product.

At the time, they were 12 and 15—and in those 30 minutes, they mentioned every single idea that our MBAs, experienced entrepreneurs and myself had come up with in months of planning.

It was a slap in the face to our egos and intelligence.

So why am I telling you this story? Here’s the punch line: anyone can come up with ideas.

Everyone knows what features could be built. Ideas are a dime a dozen. The problem is that startups have limited time, money and resources.

What’s important is not what to build, but when to build it.

What features to add, what SEO strategy to take advantage of, what bells and whistles should be added, etc. are easy to think up. The anecdote above proves the point that there are a borderline infinite number of things that a company can be working on.

But how does the founder and his/her team decide which of those activities are important, and how many should they work on at once?

In a word: priorities. Using a consistent system to prioritize those tasks is vital to the productivity of an entrepreneur.

Introducing Kanban

Kanban is a strategy for prioritizing workflow. It’s used very heavily in a lot of software circles, but honestly it works for just about any business that wants to increase the productivity of its team.

I hear you. You’re thinking: “So you’re going to make me more productive by adding another thing to do?”

Yeah, your first reaction might be a digital eye-roll, but don’t knock it until you try it. Prioritizing workflow can greatly improve the productivity of a startup.

  1. Write it down.

    Write down some of the most important things that you need to build or do over the next several months. For the sake of this exercise,  keep it to around 10 or 20. Things like:

  2. Post it.

    Traditionally, each one of those bullets would get its own Post-it note, or notecard, or whatever. Then the team would put it up on the wall as a big visual way to represent an individual's - or a team’s - workflow.

    As tech-savvy as the people who utilize this system are - a great deal of them still prefer to use Post-it notes. It’s part tradition, it’s part to show a workload to a non-tech savvy boss or client and it’s part because sticky notes are fun.

    For the sake of this article, I’m going to use a table. Assume the table is shared on some sort of a platform that my entire team can see and update (such as Google docs or Basecamp).

  3. Table it.

    Create a table with four columns entitled (Backlog, Researching, In-Progress, Testing) and put your list of things to do in one at a time in each of the rows underneath your backlog. 

  4. Move it.

    As things start to progress from more than just a list of things to do (or build), you move them to the right, and eventually right off the table.

Transitioning = Waste = Bad

Now that you’ve got the basic principle of Kanban down, let’s explain some things to make this a lot more useful.

First off, it has been proven time-and-time-again that an entrepreneur only working on one thing at a time can get that one thing done faster than if he/she was multitasking. Every time a second, third, or fourth task is put on the plate of the entrepreneur, more time is wasted as he/she transitions to and from the different activities.

I’d be writing to the wrong crowd if I said that it was smart, or even possible, for an entrepreneur to do only one thing at a time. Kanban states that there should be no more than three things in any column at once (except for the backlog). This is done to make sure that too many things don’t leave the backlog before the previously decided upon priorities are completed. Additionally, this is done to make sure nothing gets bogged down in one particular column for too long.

For example, let’s rearrange our Kanban board:

In the case of the above table, assuming you are going by the rules of three, you shouldn’t be doing anything else other than finishing the things in the in-progress column. For example, if you finished researching “Add shopping cart to the Wordpress site,” then where would it go? It can’t go in the In-Progress column because you’re not allowed a fourth row. In order to progress the shopping cart, one needs to first finish one or more of the activities in the In-Progress category.

Why Make It Visual?

Let’s pick on a shoemaker from the eighteenth century for a second. If you were to walk into a shoemaker’s shop, it’d be very easy to tell if he was too busy or not. If he was busy there would be incomplete shoes everywhere, he’d be sweating, he’d panic when you walked in, etc.

If he was light on work, the place would be clean, he’d greet you accordingly, his calendar would have nothing marked off, etc.

Now back to the digital age. The majority of the things listed on our board require work that is impossible to tell if someone is busy or not. Sometimes you either fool others, or yourself, into thinking you’re not as busy as you actually are. This is the case because there isn’t a pile of half-created shoes you’re sleeping on, but instead just a computer. The board is meant to be a way to visualize that workflow so both your team, and yourself, are aware at any given moment how busy you actually are.

Making things visual lets you compartmentalize things that are in different stages of development. This increases the likelihood that you won’t be spread too thin in any one particular area and cuts down on transitioning time between activities.

Why Your Team Should Do This

Your team should mostly be doing this so you can all decide what the priority builds are. Something that hasn’t been mentioned is that the backlog of activities should be in order of the things that will go next into the research phase. By visualizing everything amongst the group, it can be decided as a team what is being worked on, and when.

Secondly, it’s important to see how busy everyone on your team is. It’s all too easy to outsource something to someone when you don’t know how busy they are. It’s a lot safer to designate more or larger responsibilities to the people that have the least amount of things on their plate at one time.

Why You Should You Do This Even If You Don’t Have a Team

Working alone and deciding what to do next is not something that comes naturally to the average person. Even prolific entrepreneurs suffer from the “What should I do next,” issue — despite there being a million things that can be done.

You should do this because you don’t have a boss telling you what to do and when. It’s your job to use the board as your boss so you don’t take on too much at once, or kid yourself that some things are further along development than they really are.

Remember, when it comes to startups in Kansas City it’s not important to work hard for many hours. Instead, it’s important to productively use said hours on things that actually provide value to your business in a prioritized way. Using this system it will be impossible for you to lie to yourself or your team about what’s been getting done, in what order and how long it takes.

Good luck!

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