Productivity for Exploration Stage Entrepreneurs

This article describes the challenges of maintaining motivation and productivity while exploring business ideas, followed by practical suggestions for how you might do so.

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As an exploration stage entrepreneur, it can be a challenge to maintain a sense of progress and motivation.

The ultimate objective is to find a business opportunity worth committing to – but that’s quite a binary outcome! Either you have nothing, or you have everything.

After 9 months searching, it can feel like you’ve made a grand total of zero progress. 

From a motivational perspective, it’s actually worse than that. Along the way towards finding that ultimate opportunity, you will likely explore, get excited by, test, and be disappointed by several other opportunities. You’ll get your hopes up, only to realise that you still have nothing.

It’s so easy to get excited in the early days, only to come crashing back down to earth with a bang. Many people give up during this comedown, and there are both macro and micro challenges to managing this emotional rollercoaster:

  • At a macro level, how can you keep yourself motivated after 3, 6, 9 months of “fruitless” searching?
  • At a micro level, how can you keep yourself motivated and productive on a daily basis?

The macro perspective: maintaining a growth mindset

The key insight here is to realise that entrepreneurship – including exploring opportunities – is a skill that can be learned. 

Finding an opportunity is not just a function of spending more time searching, but it’s a function of better searching – better identification, evaluation and exploration. The time you spend exploring is an investment in your entrepreneurial development, irrespective of the outcome.

Entrepreneurship has a learning curve, and it’s a steep one. Rather than giving up when the going gets tough, realise that this is the exact point where learning begins. You can be motivated by that, or you can use it as an excuse to stop (“I’m just not good at math”).

The “emotional progress” shown above roughly follows the learning curve as you move from unconscious incompetence (“I’m pretty sure I’m onto a billion dollar opportunity”) through conscious incompetence (“wuuuh I’m totally lost, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done”) then the conscious decision to put in the hard yards, continue learning and become competent. 

The rest of this article focuses on what you can do when you’re at this point of consciousness and ready to make the decision to optimise your entrepreneurial learning.

Focus on inputs, not outputs

“The score takes care of itself” Bill Walsh, legendary NFL Coach

You won’t notice progress and learning if you’re caught up worrying about tangible outputs (like whether you’re any closer to “scoring” an opportunity).

It can be useful to draw a comparison between the progress you would be making in a job. In a job, your learning would be marked by a (relatively) certain external validation in the form of a promotion. As an entrepreneur, the outcome is less certain (we’re talking finding a business opportunity vs. getting a promotion) and the validation is all internal (no one is going to recognise or reward your learning).

But, the matter of learning is just the same. You are working hard at something for a year: of course you are learning and getting better. That’s the type of person you are. You know you’d be moving towards promotion in whatever job you were working at, why should it be different now as an entrepreneur?

To regain this perspective on your progess:

1. Recognise that you are learning

As an entrepreneur, it’s up to you to recognise and reward your learning. This shift toward internal validation is very hard for us insecure overachievers! 

2. Trust that if you continue learning, you will get there eventually

“Business opportunities are like buses — there’s always another one coming” Richard Branson, Serial Entrepreneur

Trust the learning process and trust that a business opportunity will show up. This requires getting comfortable with uncertainty and maintaining belief in your ultimate success – but hey, wasn’t your belief that you can do this what drove you to pursue entrepreneurship in the first place?

Seen through this lens of learning, the reality of your progress towards an opportunity is revealed:

The reality of your progress towards finding & committing to a business opportunity

What progress?! What exactly are you learning?

Internal skills & traits

Remember, there is a learning curve in each of these skills! Don’t expect to be making lightning fast, intuitive decisions from day 1 if you’ve never done this before. Similarly, don’t expect to be fine and dandy not making any external progress if you’ve enjoyed the validation of being recognised as a top performer your whole life. Rather, recognise the value of developing each of these skills and traits, that you are motivated to develop them, then commit to doing so wholeheartedly.

  • Opportunity assessment & evaluation skills: remember that first opportunity you were so excited about? How would you assess it differently if you were presented with it today?
  • Decision making skills: exploration stage is a constant battle trying to decide which opportunities you should pursue, how much resource you should dedicate, which opportunities you should kill. This is painful, but look back at some of the opportunities you agonised over killing several months ago – would you struggle to reconsider an opportunity like that today?
  • Customer development skills: almost every entrepreneur gets burned early on by smugly assuming that they know something the market doesn’t. At this stage you’ve learned both the importance of customer development and how to do it. With each customer development process you run, the faster you become at getting the info you need to evaluate and make a call on an opportunity. Speed = more at bats = more likelihood of a home run
  • Business building skills: building an MVP is never what you expect in advance. There are always unexpected difficulties and compromises. It never feels good enough. What’s in your head before you begin is always different to what materialises in reality. You can only learn from experience
  • Co-founder assessment skills: whether or not you want to work with someone else, the type of person you enjoy working with, the stage you want to work with someone (pre/post ideation) and the process you use to evaluate their suitability – at one point all these considerations were overwhelming, whereas now you have already firmed up your intuitive sense around several of them
  • Resilience: the emotional stability not to get carried away with excitement nor to be too disappointed by the lows. Remember some of your earlier setbacks – how trivial do they seem now vs. what they felt at the time?
  • Authentic ambition: with each decision you make, you learn more about the type of opportunity that’s right for you. With each passing month that you pursue your own opportunity, you are choosing internal learning over seeking external validation. The questions that you have to answer in this pursuit lead you inescapably toward defining your own authentic ambition
  • Confidence: by making the big calls, by putting yourself out there, by “doing it” you slowly but surely learn to trust your intuition and follow your own gut feeling. This builds the confidence needed to back yourself and commit to an opportunity

External assets & knowledge

  • Network: opportunities, peers, cofounders, investors – look at the quantity and quality of new people in your network since you’ve begun your entrepreneurial journey
  • Sectors: a sense for which sectors are interesting for you to explore – it’s likely you’ve already written off large areas that hold no or low interest for you
  • Types of business: a sense for which types of business appeal most to you. Being better able to articulate these types of business leads to more clarity and more certainty about what you want

It’s your choice whether to view your progress through the lens of outcome (have you committed to an opportunity yet? Y/N) or learning (in what way has your experience got you closer towards committing to an opportunity?), but the motivational advantages of the latter are clear.

Micro perspective: establishing a working structure

We’ve already described how maintaining perspective can help with macro motivational challenges, but how does that convert into a structure for maintaining motivation in your daily work? 

This question of daily structure is complicated even more by the nature of the work involved in exploration: exploring for an opportunity is not the execution focused work most of us are used to, instead it is a type of creative work that brings a whole new array of challenges.

Execution vs. Creation

One of the biggest challenges for new entrepreneurs, or anyone who has never created professionally before, is learning to switch from execution to creation.

Execution entails defining a goal, planning in advance how to achieve that goal, then following that plan. While there can be subtle changes in intent and method, execution is characterised by a large degree of certainty over what you want to achieve. Success stems from determining the right things to be done, then getting them done in the best way possible.

Creation is different. You can’t know in advance what you’re going to create. Creation is an act: you learn what you’re creating by creating it, through the process of creation. What you’re aiming to do is inherently uncertain – even as you create, large parts of the creation remain unknown. It’s like an adventure with an unknown destination – you can’t know where you’re going to end up before you get there! Therein lies its appeal. Success stems from staying true to your creative curiosity, being guided by what feels most exciting to you.

Often the next step isn’t clear. You need to wait – either for external input (new information, a conversation with the right person) or internal intuition (a flash of inspiration in the shower) – and waiting is painful. You’ll likely start working in new directions that ultimately lead nowhere. There is no other way, yet you will still feel frustrated with your lack of progress and false starts.

Any work structure needs to take into account:

  • Sometimes there will be lots of work to do. These are the good times: you’ve identified an opportunity, you’re running a customer development process.
  • Sometimes you won’t know what to work on. These are the bad times. What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
  • Sometimes you will waste your time working in directions that turn out to be dead ends. This is a necessary part of the creative process. You will explore avenues that turn out not to be interesting. Is that a waste of time?
  • Input (effort, time etc) is not correlated with output. Putting your head down and banging out 80 hour weeks is probably not going to be the difference between success and failure here. You can’t just tick off a to-do list and end up with a perfectly formed business idea. How can you maintain the headspace to spot the 20% of opportunities that will lead to 80% of results?
  • There are multiple benefits of work. Sometimes you work to make progress, other times you work to feel like you’re making progress. This sounds like work you’d want to avoid, but done strategically it’s important. For instance, a weekly call with a peer can make you feel better about yourself while not actually bringing you closer towards your goal. A good or bad use of time? 
  • It’s important to have realistic expectations. You can’t rush this work. There is only so much you can do. Set clear goals, but ensure they are realistic. Is putting more pressure on yourself going to help or hinder?
  • Sometimes not working is the best use of your time. Fact.

Practically, given these considerations, how can you set up your day for optimal motivation & learning?

It may be useful to batch your work by activity type:

  • Deep work: deep work is the focused work you do alone; researching, writing, setting up a test or MVP. I do this in the morning. What is the most important piece of deep work you can do this week?
  • Outreach and engagement activities: the vast majority of learning comes from interaction with others. This is tangible (how many conversations with relevant people did you have last week?) and holds you accountable (you commit to showing up). I engage with other people in the afternoons. Who are the top 3 people you want to speak to this week?
  • Get “live in the market”: personally, I always like to be “live in the market” in some shape or form. This could mean anything from having ads running for a landing page to simply emailing certain people with a particular pitch asking for a call/coffee. I’m excited as long as I am testing a hypothesis (x pitch will lead to y result) and learning whether it holds. In what way are you (or could you be) “live in the market” now?

And consider the broader structure of your working time:

  • Define tasks to overcome creative block: what can you do when you don’t know what to do? Options range from building something to talking to someone, reading something, going to the gym or taking time off. I’ve written in more detail about entrepreneur’s block here
  • Spend time with a co-founder/team: how and when do you work with others?
  • Define periodic goals: there are various lenses you can use to consider possible goals. From goals you can control like interaction goals (# people you speak with; learning; feel good) or housekeeping goals (inbox zero, focus, feel good) to goals that are less directly controllable, like the number of opportunities tested in a period. What are your goals this week?
  • Accountability: a support group, a weekly update email: how will you ensure you’re accountable for hitting your goals?

Defining your own workstyle is an entirely personal matter, so there are more questions than answers here, but hopefully those questions get you thinking in a constructive way.

Do you have any other tips for maintaining productivity during the exploration stage? Please post any suggestions or questions in the comments.

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