How to set goals in a start-up? Guidestones and stories.

Scene from the Iliad – The Fight Over Patroklos, Black-figure wine-drinking bowl in the style of Exekias, c. 530 bc, from Pharsalos, Greece.

OK, chewy one incoming…

This is a big topic, because it’s all about context. This question came in from my YouTube Video on the importance of shipping product, asking: “how do start-ups define the right goals?”

In my humble opinion, this question asks about a framework for identifying goals – since the context at the time of goal setting is so important.

For example, goals for a pre-revenue start-up with a product, vs a pre-revenue start-up without a product but good market insight are two completely separate contexts. Admittedly, at these very early stages the goals are pretty myopic: “Get to revenue ASAP through product-market-fit”, and “Ship the damn product” respectively.

If goal-setting is all about context, then the first thing a founder (and in turn your management team) needs to know is: “What do I want?”.

Now that might be answered with “I want a boat!”, so it’s important to qualify this in terms of scope, i.e. short- (1-5 years), medium- (5-10 years), and long-term (10-20 years). I’d argue that getting that boat sits more at as a long-term goal.

You need a long-term goal. Even if you don’t admit it, you really should have one. Dreams are important to motivate your decision making, so make sure you have them.

In my personal journey with Tyk, my goals were always very short-term from stage to stage – as someone that has failed many, many, many times over, for me it was easy at the start of Tyk to set the bar low.

You’ll notice, most of them are pretty personal:

Action / EventGoal
Initial launch / first paid offeringBe able to take my wife to a fancy dinner, maybe more than once
Pre-revenue with co-founderGet to 60k GBP in revenue in order to go full-time
Post-revenue at 60k GBP ARRGet to 120k ARR for my co-founder to go full-time (P.S. we didn’t reach this goal, we got an angel investor that took us full time)
Gone full-timeGet more time to think rather than fire-fighting: Get first hires in to relieve biggest pain points: Account Management (sales) and Customer Support
Initial HiresBe a sustainable business (job for life): Get to Profitability
Got to profitabilityMaybe I can buy a boat? Expand to new markets, in particular: North America

It was at that point that things got complicated, because at this point we had a crop of employees, were growing organically, but we knew we didn’t have the deep pockets needed to open up in the USA, we needed a war-chest. That was when we decided to go into the fund-raising merry-go-round…

Instead of boring you with the story, I want to illustrate that ultimately goal-setting is at it’s simplest when things are small and dynamic, because the goals are easy to see, they are very much oriented towards pure survival, and attenuating everything you are doing to hustle for that goal group.

I would say there’s no “clear plan” in these early stages, everyone is working at their hardest to each of their strengths, and wearing many hats. Yes, strategic decisions are made, but those decisions are guided by goals very much driven by survival, i.e. they are short-term.

When the company got complicated, goal setting became more difficult – your leadership team will bombard you with different things they believe will help the company, and it’s your job to help guide those recommendations into a clear focus. That’s what it is is – focus.

Story Telling

My personal preference is to keep things simple, I also waffle a great deal and like to think of myself as an auteur (I am, I assure you, not one of those). However, story telling is an important skill in a start-up, and I love to use the Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s story-telling approach of “but and therefore…” to guide your thoughts. Put simply – when you write your plot, always end each story beat with “but” or “therefore”. It enforces cause and effect.

In the end, your long term goal is the story you are telling for your company, for example:

“In order for Martin to get his boat, he needed Tyk to grow bigger, to grow bigger we needed to expand out of the UK and EMEA markets, therefore they opened their first remote sales office in Singapore, believing there was more traction in the east, and less cost to get started. But, they found the market difficult to find traction in, therefore they were about to give up, but they finally got their big break because of a hero account director named Irvin, therefore opening the flood-gates to business across the region. This therefore helped build experience and important lessons about scaling a remote sales team. But they paused, because they really wanted to get into the USA – that boat Martin wanted wasn’t a dinghy! – therefore, they needed money…”

Your start-up is a story, it’s a narrative.

Take your long-term goal: “I want a boat”, and make that your last page, every milestone to get there is a guide for the goals you need to set. I wouldn’t even call them milestones, they are guide-stones. These are not the goals in and of themselves, the guide-stones are the resources you need to get to the next point in your story.

Remember that your goal needs to be specific, not nebulous, it can’t be “I want to be rich and successful”, it needs to be something you can plan to achieve, now think of your start-up as your means of achieving that goal.

(Quick pause here – because I realise this is sounding really narcissistic. If I want a boat that’s one thing, but I have a team of 200 people, they absolutely do not give a shit if I get a boat.)

Your Start-up is your People, not your Product

The thing you need to understand is that every single person that is in your company also has a goal, something personal they want to achieve – they want to have three kids, they want to buy a house, they want to move out of their house and buy a bigger one, they want to pay off their mortgage, they want to relocate to Brisbane, they want to pay for their parent’s hospital bill, they want to have a fund set up for their kid to go to college, they want to get married and fly to Bora Bora…

All goals are personal.

A start-up is a vehicle to achieve those personal goals, and as a founder it’s important to connect with that fact. It’s not just your dreams, it’s everyone else’s that are along for the ride.

So when you are looking at your long-term goal, look at those of your team too – and then use those to weave the story of your company to set those big guide-stones that point you on your way to achieving those personal goals.

To recap: We’ve got personal goals, the goals of your team, the story you are writing for your company, and the guide-stones that get you to the next chapter of your story.

To set goals, you need to see the guide-stones, to see the guide-stones you need to understand the pressures you face now and a path to the guide-stone.

We’re getting more granular now, we’re going from “I want to have a boat” to “I want my team to succeed in their personal goals to help me achieve mine”, to “What’s the next step for us to get closer to our long-term goal?”.

To do that, you need to evaluate yourself, and your team a little (you’ll be doing this constantly).

Known Knowns

You are now at the stage where you are looking at needs vs. wants: Needs represent the pressure you are facing now (for example, one of your products is underperforming in sales, or there’s too much pressure on the dev team for product x) and wants represent that damned boat.

So first off, we need to address what needs you have to alleviate to achieve your wants. That’s tangible and real, because it’s probably a list of things your team have told you about. Now some of them might conflict with one another, so the ones to pick as a short or medium-term goal are the ones that help achieve your long-term want.

How to we get to our long-term want? We look to our guide-stones – ask yourself what is the next guide stone? Now ask yourself which decisions will help you to get to that guide stone – to that resource / scale marker that enables the next chapter.

Congratulations – you’ve identified a goal!

Known Unknowns

It’s also important to consider that there’s a whole bunch of stuff you don’t know about – and you know you need help to know about them (a great example is legal advice, or product marketing, or HR). These can actually be derived from your needs – your known knowns – since these are broad issues that can be addressed through acquirable expertise.

How do you see which of these things to prioritise? What team do you build first? What hire do you need to make? What agency to bring in?

Again – look to your long-term goal and look back, what’s the next thing that gets you towards your goal? Is it more sales? Prioritise product marketing. Is it scaling the team quickly? Prioritise HR. These are pretty straightforward targets – maybe not goals – but they are key in getting to the next stage in growing the company.

Unknown Unknowns

Then there’s the stuff that you don’t know you don’t know – you’re blind to it. To bastardise an analogy from Julian Jaynes: Your consciousness is like a flashlight in a dark room. It can only attend to what it illuminates, therefore if it is not illuminating a part of the room, it cannot be aware of it, and the one thing it cannot illuminate is itself. What you don’t know you don’t know is the stuff behind that light, it’s the thing that shifts out of the beam – it’s the stuff that lurks in the shadows ready to f*** you.

This are can only be addressed by out-of-band advice from a third party…

(So I guess, on a side-note: you’re a founder – you are fallible, and you probably don’t know a lot about a great deal of things, accept it. Advice is good – it may help you see a new path to a Guidestone to your end goal).

Finding goals here is hard, but important – you need to seek and consider advice from a wide array of sources, then apply your own judgement – what you know about your wants and desires, and what you know about your team’s wants and desires in order to really understand what advice to take, and what unknown unknowns to make known or internalise and action.

So far, so nebulous, thanks bro

I think to try and close this ramble down a bit – the real concern when it comes to setting goals is to know what you want, and focus on that relentlessly.

Imagine your start-up is a journey, or a story – and you are the author, as you get larger you invite more people to help you write that story. The story will change, because what you want is no longer the only want in the story. To get to the end of a journey, you need guide markers, those guide-markers come one at a time, they point from one stone to the next. You can’t find the next one without the last one – so don’t focus on the end goal, focus on the journey that gets you there. And that’s how you set your goals in your start-up.

I’m not sure that helped anyone – but if it did, thanks for reading!

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