Startup life has intense time requirements. In the early phases, there’s a lot of nose-to-the-grindstone need, and if the company successfully scales, the internal and external demands on your time rise dramatically. With this blog, and my commitment to staying close to the everyday issues of the marketing industry, I’ve had to build up a lot of segmentation to effectively tackle the dual roles of blogger/marketer and CEO.
(via Ben Dodson on Flickr)
Thankfully, I’ve been able to dig up a few effective tactics that help make my time much more efficient, so I thought I’d share these in the hopes of helping others. You might not use them directly, but rather create your own variation(s).
I Hate the Phone
After noticing that 95% of all the business-focused phone calls I’ve taken in the past 5 years almost always result in a follow-up email thread that does the actual work (making an introduction, providing a resource, nailing down details of a partnership, answering an interview, etc), I’ve decided to end phone calls as a communication mechanism.
This doesn’t just save the 30mins for the call, it saves the scheduling time, and the reserved block of 30-60 minutes that the call would have taken vs. the 3-6 minutes the email usually takes. In rare cases, a call becomes necessary, even after replying with the above message, but thankfully, no one has yet taken offense, making this one of my most effective time hacks.
Granted, this is an expensive proposition for early stage startups – I didn’t get my first EA, Renea (who moved to our retention marketing team), until 2 years ago, and I didn’t get my first EA/PA, Jessica (who’s moving soon to join our operations team), until just this year. Here’s a sample of the big ways an EA/PA has helped recover literally hours in every day:
- Scheduling a coffee meeting, a webinar, a Skype interview, a phone call, etc. used to take 15-20 minutes of back-and-forths over 3-5 email exchanges. Now, it’s really simple – I just copy in Jess and the rest is done! At some point in the future, an appointment will magically appear on my calendar. That appointment will have the details of how I know the person, what they’re seeking, and often a direct link to the thread in my email so I can refresh my mind before we chat.
- I get my schedule for the next day in email every afternoon, with any details and relevant links. It’s a variation on the scheduling help, but it keeps me sane and is often a huge help, as I can
- Making special things happen fast – A few months ago, I went to a Techstars event and noticed that the poor folks didn’t seem to have the abundant supply of food and beverages that are typical of many tech companies. I emailed Jess while walking to my next appointment and that afternoon, cupcakes were delivered courtesy of SEOmoz. I can be in a bar and realize something needs to get done at the office, email Jess, and it’s in the bag. I liken her to a superpower I can call up to execute tasks from anywhere in the world.
- Pruning my email – when I’m on the road, particularly overseas, Jess will do a great job of pruning my email, unsubscribing me from non-useful mailing lists, deleting all my spam, and forwarding messages that are obviously appropriate for other folks over to them (bizdev -> Andrew, sponsorships -> Joanna, community -> Jen, etc). Once I get on my mail, I find a much cleaner, more streamlined inbox.
There’s a ton of others that are lifesavers – at some point I’ll have to detail them all.
Direct Flights & Small Upgrades
Flying is a pain, but several mini-hacks can make it easier.
First, I always fly direct if possible. If there’s more than a single transfer to get to a destination, I’m almost certainly doing it wrong. Airlines like Southwest, Airtran, and Virgin aren’t included in aggregators like Kayak or Hipmunk, so if I don’t find a direct there, I go to the non-code-sharing airlines as a next step.
Second, I fly Alaska or Alaska partners as much as possible. Since Seattle’s Alaska’s hub, they have by far the most direct flights from here to the rest of the US. Using them as a first choice means I get a lot of miles, which gives me status, which gives me better seats, faster checkin, free changes (even last minute), upgrades to first class ~30% of the time, and most important, the status line through security, meaning I can get to the airport later and still make my flight.
Third, if I have to go across the Atlantic or Pacific, I book premium economy. It’s $3-500 more (vs. the $2-3K more for business), but it removes about 50% of the zombiefication that usually occurs on flights exceeding 7 hours. There are almost never crying kids in the upgraded cabin either, which means more of a chance to get some Zzzzs. In the next couple years, I might switch to business for very long flights, as I have severe back problems that flying almost always exacerbates.
Fourth – and this is a small one – if there’s ever an airline with small upgrades like British Airways’ “pay-$50-to-select-seats-early” or Southwest’s “$28-to-be-first-on-the-plane” it’s usually worth it. You can be assured your carry-on bags won’t get gate-checked (which can mean the difference between the start of the customs line in Heathrow vs. the end) and you won’t have a dreaded middle or rear-bulkhead seat. You can also select closer to the front of the plans, which gives you a few extra minutes at the end of a flight (in long waits for taxis, this can mean a lot more extra minutes).
Fifth – no matter what, no checked baggage. I’ve found ways to pack for 2 weeks with carry-on only, and it’s excellent. Not only do you save the hassle of worrying about lost baggage or when baggage will arrive (at least an extra 20-30 minutes for each flight), you also get the benefit of being easy to move from one flight to another (e.g. if something gets delayed/cancelled). That’s saved my bacon and entire days of travel multiple times.
Three Workdays in One
My schedule each weekday is split into three parts
- 8:30am-10:30am Work from home, answer email, review projects, give feedback, build presentations, etc.
- 10:30am-11:00am Walk to work
- 11:00am-6:00pm Meetings at the office, interviews, one-on-ones, coffees with external folks, etc.
- 6:00pm-10:00pm Walk home, eat dinner and hang out with Geraldine
- 10:00pm-1:30am Blog, answer email, review projects, build presentations,
In this fashion, I get email buildup and then am usually able to tackle most of it each day. The remainder gets taken care of on weekends or Friday nights, when I can stay up really late 🙂 The recent caveat to this is date night, every Tuesday (or if Tuesday’s booked or one of us is out of town, another night – e.g. this week it was Monday and we watched Peyton Manning’s greatest comeback ever).
My last, but certainly not least valuable technique for preserving time is the delegation of big parts of my job internally. As I find myself consistently busy with any singular type of work, I work with our team to create a position that can relieve that pressure and take that stuff off my plate. Easy things were items like community management (where Jen and her team have done a phenomenal job), business development inquiries (where Andrew picks up 9/10 of the emails I get on this topic), media requests (which, when SEO/marketing vs. CEO/business specific, I can pass to Ruth or Dr. Pete), paid sponsorships (which go to Joanna’s acquisition & retention team), etc.
Now, we’re getting into the harder parts of my role – the high level evangelism, the team leadership and morale, the project/product reviews, recruiting & hiring, etc. Not all of these will evaporate from my workload no matter what we do, and there are responsibilities that should always be mine, but I recently found a firm who will hopefully help me build all the visuals for my slide presentations (and probably do a much better job of it than I) and we’re working on finding folks who can contribute to the product/marketing reviews at a senior, strategic level, too.
As a company grows, this should actually be a best practice for everyone – identify the tasks that are critical, but that you’re finding less and less time to do because of even more essential demands, then hire for those roles.
Hopefully, some of these hacks will help you get back more of your time, too. And if you have time recovery processes that I haven’t covered here, please do include in the comments!