Building a startup you love: Set real goals you can achieve

by oneafrikan on September 2, 2009

This is an in-depth post, which is part of a series on Building a Startup You Love.
The original (short) version is at: Building a Startup You Love is Hard.
The first post was written for ISLabs, and is at: Starting up is a state of mind. Which is also linked to from this blog.

So I’ve held off writing this post for a while, as I felt I needed to eat my own dog food before writing something public about goal setting. I’ve just started a new chapter in life, so there was a period where I was figuring out what I wanted to do, and how I was going to go about doing it – and that required a lot of introspection and goal setting ;-)

There’s so much literature out there on setting goals that there’s little point in me trying to add to it. So instead of going into too much theory, I’m going to talk about why I think it’s important, what startups need to do, and what has and hasn’t worked for me thus far. I’m quite happy to state that I’m evolving, and so I’m pretty certain that how I think about goals will be different in 5, 10 and 25 years from now.

To start with, let me ask you this:

When you’re setting out on a journey for the weekend, do you get into the car and just drive, choosing random turns and directions as you go, or do you decide where you want to end up to begin with, and then find the most appropriate route there? I’m guessing that you probably start with the end in mind and work backwards.

Lay down a clear beacon you can work towards

So my general point of view is that we should be doing this with the direction of our business and personal lives too, and proactively rather than reactively. The problem in in my view is that we’re either too wishy washy with what we want to do, or we’re just not persistent enough about it to realise progress. Buzzwords here are focus and persistence. Either way, we’re generally held back by what the goals require (the focus and persistence part) rather than the individual goals themselves.

Over the last few years I’ve often argued the idea of setting goals, and one mate often brings up the John Lennon quote which goes something like “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” (which may of course be out of context with respect to John Lennon, but is in context here). I agree that life is about the experience and the journey, but also believe that you don’t get anywhere in life unless you know where you’re going, work hard and fight for it. There’s just too much competition today for it to be otherwise.

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, you’ll have read that The Beatles spent a long time working on their performance in Germany, doing 12 hour sets 7 days a week often the whole night through (I didn’t know that, so now their route to fame and fortune makes sense to me). It wasn’t conscious goal setting in the fuzzy way we think of it now, but it was a burning desire to be a great band (which is a goal in itself) and a relentless determination to succeed (which is a character trait of successful people). I would argue that in their context it’s the same thing as goal setting (We’re going to play gigs in Berlin until we’re good enough to break England), John Lennon was just to cool to admit it. So my take is that if you have a place you want to reach, then anyone who tells you not to set goals is going to hold you back. Remember to distinguish between the “how” (tactical work to achieve goal) and the “why” (the goal itself).

On another note, most people set goals internally in most areas of their lives, but somehow we’re socialised not to be outwardly vocal about them. My take is, don’t tell others if it doesn’t feel right, but be religious about your goals with yourself. If you can find people that will understand your perspective, even better.


I’m at 15% bodyfat, running 5km in 20mins, and living a healthy lifestyle.

Sharpen your saw

Abraham Lincoln once said something along the lines of “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” I’m pretty sure that’s not the exact quote but you should get the idea. If you’re familiar with Stephen Covey’s work, then you’ll be familiar with the context. If not, its the idea of figuring out what you’re going to do before you start so that you’re as efficient as possible while doing it. This applies to virtually everything you can think of, and produces a massive saving in time and energy when done right.

This has been a massive learning curve for me because in the early part of my career I applied brute force to pretty much everything I did, thinking that it was normal and good work ethic. If I needed to work harder or longer I did, making huge sacrifices in the “family”, “friends” and “fun” areas of my life. Now I can spot people who are applying brute force alone from a mile away, as well as recognising it in myself. Similarly, I’m finding that applying the “sharpen the saw” thinking is making a huge difference for me. A side effect is that I now have to reserve brute force for special occasions (I’ve taken a a lot out of the tank thus far), but when I do apply “sharpen the saw” thinking along with brute force the results are far greater than either factor alone. When I look back I don’t regret it, and I sure have learnt a lot from it, but I wouldn’t recommend the brute force only approach to someone who is smart and doesn’t want to make the same mistakes.

Building processes around common or repeatable tasks is another way to sharpen the saw. After each iteration of the process, build a culture which says “how can we do this better every time”.


In a startup, having everyone running around in a headless panic working extremely hard at anything and everything is not going to help much; having a clearly defined structure with priorities, roles, responsibility and expected outcomes, does. You don’t want to build a corporate mindset, but you do want to build a crack team of ninjas that can punch way above their weight every day, and adapt to changing circumstances at will.

So where to from here for the startup?

That was the theory, easy eh? Aren’t these lifeskills? So how does this apply to building a startup? You aren’t trying to convert me to a cult are you?

Good questions! The cult stuff comes last… The reason I’m writing this post is because I think goalsetting is one of the cornerstones of building a startup that will succeed, as well as developing yourself so you succeed. On one level, businesses come and go, but developing good life skills is something that will always be useful. On another level, your route to success is probably going to be shorter if you are focussed on very clear specific goals and you consistently work hard and smart.

Define what success looks like for you, don’t fumble around and be wishy washy.

Everyone has their own ideas and parameters for what success is, so you need to know what yours are ideally before you start. Some people want to earn a good salary of their own making, others want industry accolades, others want lots of people all over the world to use their stuff, some want to change their life and circumstances through an exit, and others simply like the idea of building things with new technology. It’s important to understand that we’re all wired differently, and so in a startup, especially in the early days, its super important to figure out two things:

  1. what the individual motivations are for the people involved
  2. the short and longer term goals of the business

When everyone is aligned in the same direction and feels like they’re achieving what they want to achieve, then you’re on the right track.

My own past experience of this has been painful and sad, so it’s something I’m acutely aware of. When I really dig down and ask the hard questions, it’s become clearer to me over the years that on the surface we had the same goals, but deeper down our motivations and aspirations were different. This difference created friction, which eventually led to things falling apart. Spend the time up front to make sure that everyone is on the same page 100%, it’ll stand you in good stead.

If you’re starting up on your own (go find a co-founder!), then it’s more about understanding why you’re doing the startup, and what you want to achieve from it, so that you push in the right direction.

Good places to start are:

  1. Why are you starting up?
  2. What kind of personal cashflow are you happy with?
  3. What kind of business cashflow is needed to keep things afloat?
  4. What kind of people do you want to work with?

Ask yourself what kind of business you’ll love. Then start.

Are you building a product that you need to ship? Are you selling your expertise and time as consultants? Are you a service organisation with many standard commodity products? Are you selling widgets? Whichever model you decide, you should be doing something that you’d love to do every day, good times and bad, good cashflow and bad. You need to be willing to get into the trenches and fight long and hard, so enjoying what you do is a fundamental requirement.

The best ways to start are either to start generating revenue while you’re working (moonlighting), or to build up enough cash to start and have a few months cover. If you’ve been let go by your (previous) company, then start right now on your revenue stream as you’ll be running out of time. I don’t want to encourage rotating credit through credit cards, but it is viable (if not expensive due to the high interest rates). Whichever way you go, make a clean cut, and move on. Progress is infectious, and the freedom you feel from starting something with your own bare hands is worth it.

There are many kinds of businesses, that do many different things, so there are no shortages of example to follow. The trick is not spending too long trying them all out because you’re going to waste a lot of time. I’ve seen quite a few people startup, then spend literally years figuring out what their product or business model is whilst getting deeper and deeper into debt, and it’s fairly obvious a lot of the time that the people involved don’t know themselves what it is that they do and how it differentiates them from the competition (they just apply brute force). Figure this out, then give yourself long enough doing it to decide whether you’re making any progress. Then in a fixed amount of time, be brave enough to draw a line in the sand and call it a day if things are not working out as you’d hoped.

Make sure you have a clearly defined direction

I’ve seen a lot of people mistaking hard work for progress. If you’re in a rowing boat, and you’re rowing furiously with one oar (and consequently going in a circle), are you making progress?

Direction is one of those absolutely essential things that you cannot, in my opinion, do without. Your direction is often the result of a long term vision, but on a day to day level, should be much smaller tactical (monthly / quarterly) goals that push you towards that vision. Both the lofty vision and the monthly / quarterly goals should be crystal clear so that you know whether you’re reaching them or not.


We ship an updated version of product X every 3 months, in all English speaking territories, priced for the middle and upper end of the market. Our targets are architects who use our product to manage complex architectural and building projects with distributed teams. Our revenue model is a monthly subscription, and we’re growing that at 10% per month. We require £35,000 revenue per month to break even and once we’re reached a monthly revenue of £50,000 we’re going to launch in Germany and Sweden.

Embrace your fears. They are only fears.

I’ve also seen a lot of people mistaking fear for a good reason not to do something, when in fact the fear is what’s holding them back, not the lack of opportunity itself. The only way to make progress is just to start. The lack of committal (for whatever the reason) is probably going to hurt you more than if you started and focussed. There’s never a “right” time to get started, so just do it and work things out as you go. Along the way, don’t let other people impose their fears and personal baggage into your thinking, as it will only muddle you further.

So jump off the cliff and make sure you pack your water wings ;-)

And that in my opinion, is all there is to understand about setting goals. The rest is all semantics and daily execution of the above.

I would summarise it as: do something that you love to do every day, state very clearly where you’re going, making sure the interests of the people involved are aligned, then do as much preparation as needed to make the journey as smooth as possible.

That said, the devil is in the details, so that’s what we’ll focus on now.

Use SMART goals

SMART goals really work for me. I first came across the concept when working with a life and career coach in 2003 (thanks Rachel) and over time have come to realise how important they are, and how to tap into them. To be specific, goals should be SMART, positive and in the present:

S – specific

M – measurable, motivational or meaningful to you

A – achievable or action-oriented

R – realistic

T – timely or trackable

It feels weird initially, but writing goals in the present tense does work. Your mind tunes out to negative and/or past or future tenses. Check in with your goals regularly to see if you’re on track. A weekly review is a great time for this. Remember too that setting goals you can’t achieve is no use and defeats the purpose, focus rather on goals that motivate and stretch you but that are still achievable.

There are loads of references to this on the Interwebs, so spend some time reading more to fully understanding the concept.

Practice the Golden Hour

Start every day by thinking about where you want to go, where you are now, and what you’re doing about it. Writing down your goals, and working through your schedule for the day could be a part of that too. I’ve read and heard about this for a long time, and I’ve always resisted doing it as I thought it was too “self helpy”, and then one day after listening to an audiobook on a flight, I decided to give it a try…

…And what a difference it makes! Today I’m more focussed and driven than I’ve ever been, simply because each and every morning I’m reinforcing my purpose. If I veer off track, I know it the next morning; and if I hit my goals then I’m happy, so it’s a very self motivating way of keeping on track.

Use a trusted system to keep your sanity

I’ve often felt that my internal unrest, that feeling of floating without any real direction, has been a result of not knowing where I’m at or where I’m going, so I’ve evolved a system for knowing where I’m at (it’s a combination of GTD/Kaizen/Pareto/7 Habits). So the take home here is that any effort you put into developing systems that keep you in control, and keep you aligned with your goals, is time and effort well invested. I’d hazard to say that as you get older, it will start to pay massive dividends, ‘cos you’ll simply start to pull away from the maddening crowd who aren’t doing it.

The corollary to the above, is that being very specific is the most important thing you should do within your systems. I don’t think that you can be too specific – at first I started off not really believing or understanding how the mind tunes into things that are specific, but after doing it I’ve found it makes a significant difference. I still don’t understand it however ;-)

As for systems, use what works for you, there are many options out there. Key benefits should be freeing up your mental RAM to do other more productive things, managing all the things you have to do, and flexibility for your own adaptation.

Examples are:

I’m earning £xxxxx per year at £1st December 2009;
as opposed to:
I’ve increased my salary.

And that’s it!
Post any comments you may have below and I’ll answer them as best I can. Good luck ;-)

This is an in-depth post, which is part of a series on Building a Startup You Love.
The original (short) version is at: Building a Startup You Love is Hard.
The first post was written for ISLabs, and is at: Starting up is a state of mind. Which is also linked to from this blog.


Great post, Gareth.

Informative, enlightening and great inspiration to draw on for an African web startup like ourselves.

Check us out, we’d love to hear what you think of GotIssuez.

I’ve Bookmarked and shared with my team and others.

by Mark @ GI on September 2, 2009 at 3:03 pm. Reply #

Thanks man ;-) Glad at least someone is getting something about it, other than to reinforce that I need to eat my own dogfood ;-)

Couldn’t register on the site man, might want to check that out…

by Gareth Knight on September 2, 2009 at 3:11 pm. Reply #

Really great post, just the motivation (and practical advice) I was needing. thanks.

by Geoff Candy on September 2, 2009 at 3:41 pm. Reply #

@Geoff: you’re welcome ;-)

by Gareth Knight on September 2, 2009 at 4:00 pm. Reply #

G Man, Good work man, awesome post, I’m working on a few new initiative at the moment, thanks for the wize words..
keep up the good work,


by Ian McMillan on September 2, 2009 at 4:16 pm. Reply #

@Ian: cool dude, good to hear ;-) Been stacked out my side – wanna try a coffee in a few weeks (when things have calmed down for me)?

by Gareth Knight on September 3, 2009 at 3:06 pm. Reply #

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