When I left journalism school, I and half of the grad students in my class entered the job market as freelancers. (It’s a tough market for journalists, even today). And then a peculiar thing happened: all of these amazing, Columbia-educated journalists who’d written for The New York Times and NBC and Time Magazine started approaching me for help — despite the fact that they were far better writers than me. In the past, I had run a website consultancy, so my friends asked my advice on building a website, promoting themselves online, getting clients, managing invoices and taxes, and so on. Essentially, they needed help becoming entrepreneurs, which required an entirely different skillset than the journalist’s craft. While some of what we freelancers needed was practical (sales skills, websites, etc.), what we really had to do was start thinking of ourselves as startups.
But truthfully, startup skills are not just useful to the self-employed app developer or forced-into-freelance journalist. The habits — and the mindset — of successful entrepreneurs are becoming increasingly valuable in every 21st century workplace.
Having spent most of my life around entrepreneurs — and having attempted to mimic their best moves in my work as a business owner, then freelancer, and now startup founder — I’m convinced that the following habits will make anyone twice as successful, not to mention employable:
1) Systematizing Repeat Tasks
Entrepreneurship, by definition, is the art of creating systems that generate more value for less effort. Startups realize that the opportunity cost of doing mundane tasks adds up quickly, preventing them from doing the high-impact work they have set out to do.
Though this is a mindset more than anything else, there are all sorts of tech products you can use to automate repeat tasks in your work right now. Sanebox for hiding email you don’t need to see during the day. LastPass and Dashlane to save all your passwords, so you never have to keep track of more than one master login. And one of my favorites is IFTTT, which lets you set up automatic If>Then triggers for almost anything. For instance, IFTTT sends me a text message on mornings when the weather forecast says rain (so I don’t have to waste time looking it up or heading back to my house when I forget my umbrella), and it sends all my gMail attachments automatically to be backed up to Dropbox, so I don’t have to hunt for files online when I need them.
If your time is worth $25 or $50 or $500 an hour, then fork over the $15 for someone else to do your laundry for you and work on something for two hours instead. If you have to do tedious data entry to create a report every week, set up a spreadsheet to pull in and add the numbers for you. This is the entrepreneur’s philosophy, and it can make you more productive than almost any other thing.
2) great storytelling
“Those who tell the stories rule the world.”
This Native American proverb is painted on the wall of my office, reminding everyone in the company that narratives — and the ways you tell them—matter.
Entrepreneurs are constantly pitching. Ideas, products, investment opportunities. The most important element of a successful pitch is the story. Great startups are fantastic at painting a big, ambitious picture that gets people excited. Indeed, if there’s one skill that will get you noticed and remembered, it’s the ability to give a great speech, make a riveting presentation, and write compellingly. Entrepreneurs spend more time preparing and honing these details than most lackadaisical powerpoint junkies out there, and that’s because for a startup, everything hinges on them.
3) carving out “heads down” time
Interruptions eat up a huge amount of the average person’s work time. Great startups have the habit of finding ways to protect their people from needless distractions. And smart managers block off swaths of their calendars for “productivity time.”
4) split testing and iterating
A hallmark of the Lean Startup movement, entrepreneurs are wont to constantly pit two or more approaches against one another and let data inform their decisions. What should the home page call-to-action say? Split test two different sentences and see which gets more clicks. How do I get more people to respond to my emails? Test different subject lines, lengths, and endings like “Thanks for your help in advance” versus “Warm regards.” What kind of outfit makes me look more professional? Try two different styles and keep track of the compliments.
(I realized this habit had spilled over to my regular life when I found myself “split testing” salsas at a taco joint the other day.)
Truthfully, we’re not all as good at making decisions with our guts as we think we are. But a good split test doesn’t lie, and entrepreneurs are constantly pitting their test winners against new ideas.
5) looking for 80/20s
There’s a strange phenomenon in work that almost always holds true: if you examine your life, you’ll often see that only 20% of the things you do account for 80% of the results you get. Being productive and being busy are two different things. If you want to quadruple your productivity, focus on the 20% first, and if you can, cut the other 80% that just makes you busy.
6) rather than planning, doing
Too many of us have meetings about meetings, and end meetings with lists of follow-up conversations to be had later. But startups, for which every second counts, have a habit of taking on-the-spot action. Instead of promising to email an introduction for you, a startup founder will pull out her phone and write the email while you sit there. Then the issue doesn’t have to take up future brain- or calendar-space.
7) ditching meetings … but taking every networking meeting
Most meetings are worthless. They usually have too many people, who feel obligated to talk because they are there, and they’re almost always too long.
“Meetings are typically scheduled like TV shows. You set aside 30 minutes or an hour because that’s how scheduling software works,” write Jason Fried and David Hansson in their book, Rework. “If it only takes 7 minutes to accomplish a meeting’s goal, that’s all the time you should spend.”
Startups often hold meetings while standing up, so the desire to get the meeting over with outweighs the desire to dilly dally on unimportant things. And often they simply cut meetings in favor of asynchronous coordination over email.
However, entrepreneurs also know the importance of serendipity in their work, so they make a point to network as much as possible. “I take every [networking] meeting,” says Michael Ventura, CEO of digital innovation agency Sub Rosa. “Because in our industry, you never know what could happen.”
(P.S.: The way I solve the dilemma of having networking meetings eat into important work is by dividing my weeks into “heads down” days and “explore” days.)
8) asking “why” like a five-year-old
Entrepreneurs aren’t satisfied with the status quo. They ask “why” over and over again until they get to the bottom of things, rather than ascribing superficial blame on people, or worst of all, accepting the explanation, “That’s just the way it is.”
This relentless inquisitiveness in fact, helps entrepreneurs find and fix the 20% wrong that causes 80% of their problems.
9) seeing every “it can’t be done” as an opportunity
This is the mindset from which innovation springs. To an entrepreneur, convention means average, and impossible means profit potential. People who see the opportunities in the can’tsin their work — and seize them — create positive change, get promoted, and work happier.
What’s the deal with the Content Strategist? At Contently, storytelling is the only marketing we do, and it works wonders. It could for you, too. Learn more.