Don’t get distracted by fake work

Back in the early days of my first startup, when I was a wide-eyed 22-year-old, an advisor warned me about something that I have thought about almost every day since. 

He was an older VC from Boston with a gruff edge, and he liked to get directly to the point. His response when we won our first business competition was: “It’s great that you’ve got some funding, but winning a business competition is not the same as building a successful business.” 

He went on to warn me about the danger of fake work. 

Early founders have a tendency to focus on things that feel like work. Things that seem like they move things forward but that aren’t actually the core mission of your business.

Remember: your only job is to build a thing that people want and are willing to pay you for.

There are two types of fake work: “playing startup” and “focusing on what you’re good at, rather than what’s actually important.”

Playing startup

One common trap is “playing the role of running a business”—doing the things that you think a “business person” should do, including going to networking events, giving talks, scrutinizing your competitors, meeting VCs for coffee (if you’re not fundraising), being clever on Twitter, or spending hours researching which corporate card is the best. (Incidentally, Pilot can help out with that last one.) 

None of these things matter if you don’t have product-market fit, so don’t waste your time on them. Attending that Bitcoin meetup isn’t going to suddenly cause your company to succeed. You’re better off staying put and spending time talking to your customers and building something they actually want.

Focusing on what you’re good at, rather than what’s important

I also call this the “working on priority #27” trap. This is one that I catch myself falling into on a daily basis. Priority 27 is tempting because it is real work—and it’s work you’re good at doing. Everyone enjoys doing things they’re good at, so it’s very tempting to spend time here.

You have to resist that urge. I have to constantly ask myself “Is this the most useful thing I could be doing? Is this a real priority for the business? Is this the actual best use of my time?”

An example: a while ago, I wrote an elaborate Python script to sync data between our CRM and a spreadsheet I use for tracking revenue. The other day, I wanted to add a feature to further improve the reporting. Then I paused. Was this really the best use of my time? No. I should be focused on growing Pilot’s revenue, not on incrementally improving my internal dashboard. Adding that  feature would not help me make Pilot more successful—it would  just consume my time.

The problem with this type of fake work is that it’s a form of procrastination. The thing you should actually be doing is unpleasant and hard, and you’re tricking yourself into thinking you’re making progress by doing this stuff. But you’re not.

This trap is real, and it’s constant. Your job as a founder is to build a product people want. Anything else is a distraction. It’s easy to forget that.