What Should Founders Work On?

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As a business founder you are in the unique position of being able to choose exactly what you’ll work on each day. That’s a lot harder than it sounds.  There will always be a lot more you’d like to do than you’ll ever have time to do, and there will always be enough day-to-day work that you could spend all of your time doing just that and missing the big picture.  I’ve personally succumbed to both of those traps at various times in the last 15 years since we started DreamHost, either spinning my wheels doing relatively unimportant work or distracting myself from the real important issues with some shiny new technology trend.  I’m fortunate to have a group of senior managers and other founders around that have never let me stray too far, but not every company founder is so lucky.  This is a deceptively hard problem.

Founders, and especially tech founders, are usually motivated by solving some big problems in an interesting new way and they start a company to do just that. In the beginning of the company the pursuit of that singular goal is intoxicating, and doesn’t leave much room to even stop to think. The next thing that needs to be done is always right in front of you.  A bit later in the life of a company it becomes a lot less clear, though. Once you’ve had some success new “things to do” start appearing faster than you can possibly do them all and you need to figure out what really needs to be done and what doesn’t, what needs to be done by you rather than someone else, and what has the potential to help you reach your bigger business goals.  You also need to make sure your own personal goals are being met and that you’re having fun along the way.  If you’re not having fun you’ll burn out and that’s no good for anyone.

If you’re working on something that you want to do but doesn’t have the potential to push your business forward (however you personally define “forward”), that’s really a hobby and not a company.  Find some other way for this work to get done without involving yourself.

If you’re working on something you want to do that has business potential, but doesn’t really need to done, that’s probably a distraction from the core focus of your business.  It probably won’t actually have a positive impact on your own business and may even disrupt it by being a distraction to the rest of your team.   This is why so many entrepreneurs start more than one company.

If you’re working on something that needs to be done and has business potential but you’re not personally interested in doing, you’re chipping away at your soul piece by piece.  There will always be some things that you just have to get done, but if you do it all the time you’ll end up as a lifeless zombie walking the halls of your life. You’ve seen those people, and they usually work in government jobs like the DMV or the Post Office. Find someone else to do this work who really enjoys doing it.

The sweet spot is where all of those overlap. It’s those things that are core to your business, have potential for a big impact, and are also fun for you.  The best entrepreneurs have a keen sense for where that sweet spot is for themselves and their business and can stay sharply focused on it.  I’m not personally there yet, but I’m working on it.