Big ideas are hard.
Whenever you want to accomplish something big, the path to make it happen is seldom easy, or even clear. And that is what makes big accomplishments rare: they take a bit of guts to get the glory.
Whether you want to start your own company, get a new job, or launch a project – you have to have the courage to make it happen. You have to make forward progress even when your future is unknown.
Every great discovery involved someone taking a chance, believing in their idea, and taking steps to make it happen.
We just launched our Kickstarter last week. And it has been more successful than we anticipated.
And this is great – our project is happening. However, because we didn’t see this success coming, we are struggling a bit with the planning. After all, how can you plan to hit a target when you don’t know yet if that target is going to be 1 foot away or 1 mile away?
This post is all about taking on your big idea, and the strategies we are using to plan when we have no clue what is going to happen next.
Moving forward on an unclear path
I used to have a major problem with procrastination. Whenever I was assigned a really big coding project and I wasn’t sure how to craft a solution, I would avoid working on it. I didn’t know what to do, and it just seemed so big and scary. Then I learned a trick: write down the smallest thing to do to make progress.
It was usually as simple as a Google search (although back when I was coding, it was more searching the code repository since Google didn’t have much information and wasn’t even the dominant search engine – oy!), or having a conversation with someone who knew more than me. The key was figuring out something small (<15 minutes) that was easy to do to move forward.
This way you can slowly chip away at something a little bit every day. And this is great because this way, things happen.
But there is a dark side to this planning-as-you-go strategy. Sometimes you end up in a situation where things take a turn and go in a direction you hadn’t really thought through. Which is why you need to be prepared to handle problems along the way.
There will always be problems. But don’t fix problems you don’t have.
When I was working at Amazon, one of the key lessons I learned was not to fix problems you don’t have yet. If you work as an engineer long enough, you will be bitten by a shortcut, like some little thing you didn’t do because it stood in the way of shipping. And in a startup, this is especially true. You have limited runway, limited time, and you have to get things out the door. And this is also true for a Kickstarter.
With Kickstarter, you don’t know if your idea will get funded. You don’t know what rewards people will choose. You don’t know how much it is going to cost to fulfill each reward. There are so many unknowns, and yet you have to figure out, in advance, exactly how much you need money you need to make this happen.
This usually involves lots of research, on top of building a prototype and creating the marketing collateral to get people to pledge your project. You have to balance the amount of time you spend planning for potential outcomes that may or may not happen, with the few things that you know definitely will happen.
We honestly weren’t sure how much money we would raise (or will raise, since we are only 5 days in at this point). We don’t know how many notebooks we will have to print, or how much shipping is going to cost. We could wait until the Kickstarter closes to figure all this out, but then we wouldn’t have notebooks until February or March and we really wanted people to have them in January. This means we are planning on the fly.
When you are flying by the seat of your pants, things are bound to get messy.
Here are the lessons I am trying to embrace in the whirlwind of our campaign:
– Plan for the worst-case scenario. Come up with your worst case scenarios and plan for contingencies.
When we started the campaign, the worst thing that could have happened would have been that we didn’t raise our funding goal. If that had been the case, we would have been out all the time and money we put into creating the design and campaign (about $10k + our time).
Now our worst case scenario is if the run of notebooks we planned to print and have the cash to pay for (you have to pay 50% down) won’t be enough for the demand. If this happens we will likely have to do two print runs, which isn’t cost effective for us but will be the better user experience (since only some people will get their notebooks late).
Thinking through these scenarios helps you plan and set expectations accordingly. You have to manage your risk.
– Set expectations. No one expects everything to go perfectly. But you have to keep the dialogue open and the conversation going. By engaging other people with your challenges, you might find interesting alternatives or options. And as long as people know what to expect, they may not be happy, but at least they won’t feel misled.
If someone asks you a question, and you don’t know, don’t be afraid to say it. I once launched a software product that buckled under the amount of traffic on launch day. The system just couldn’t keep up.
All my boss wanted to know what when it would be fixed. The thing was, I didn’t know – no one did. We first had to diagnose the problem and only then could we even start to design a solution.
So instead of ignoring his emails, or not answering, I told him I didn’t know and then gave him a specific time when I would give him an update. That way he knew what to expect – and that is the key.
– Manage your time. When you are running 100 miles per hour with a ton on your plate, your priorities become even more important.
You have limited time and you need to make sure you spend it wisely. If you have a spare 15 minutes right now, how are you going to spend it? Is that 15 minutes going to make a big impact?
I have found that maintaining a detailed list of all the things I could be doing is super helpful to utilizing my free moments optimally. And in addition to making sure the work I do matters, this also saves me time from even thinking about what I should be doing.
– Seek out help. You don’t want everything to depend on you – enlist help and get buy-in from other people besides you.
For example, if you were asked to take on a big project, but you were thinking of quitting your job – you don’t want to end up in a situation where you can’t make the best decision for yourself without leaving others in a lurch. Make sure you have redundancy and look for people to lend a hand.
And if you are soliciting advice, be open to what other people say. When you are making decisions on the fly, you aren’t necessarily thinking through every point so talk with other people so you can make sure you are doing as good of job as you planned.
– Manage your anxiety, your own way. Whenever you do a project or launch a product, you always have the fear that people won’t want what you’ve got.
The thing with Kickstarter is that your success or failure is really public. Whenever anyone visits your campaign page, they can see how well you are doing. And in that way, launches with crowdfunding can cause a bit more anxiety than traditional product launches.
When you tell people about your stress you will hear things like take breaks, step away, etc. That advice doesn’t work well for me. I feel better when I making forward progress. You don’t necessarily have to listen to people who tell you not to work on it 24×7. Taking breaks works for some people, but for me it makes me feel better to work all the time. Do what works for you.
Ultimately you need to ship. You need to get you work out there. Don’t let lack of planning, or not knowing all the answers hold you back. Manage your risk, make things happen, and then manage the plan.
Have other tips and advice? Let me know in the comments. I could use them right now! :)