In 2014 when I published my first book The 7 Day Startup, the prevailing school of thought in entrepreneurship was ‘Ideas don’t matter, execution matters’. I’m not exactly sure why, I think it might have a lot to do with the fact that ideas are impossible to sell but ‘hustle’ and ‘execution’ is an easy sell.
It’s much harder to motivate someone to come up with an idea than it is to inspire them to hustle, work hard and follow a set of steps to execute.
The problem for me was, this was not my experience at all. I had been busting my balls as an entrepreneur since 2006 and the results were awful. Then after working on one very slightly different idea, my fortunes changed virtually overnight.
In that book I had a chapter on the 3 things that I thought were the most important things for any startup founder. It was called ‘Idea, Execution, Hustle’.
In the years since, my thoughts haven’t changed that much, other than to say that I have grown to appreciate the value of luck and timing a lot more. Again, these 2 things are very difficult to sell so you don’t hear people talking about them too much. But hey, I’m not selling anything so I’m just going to tell you what I think works.
These days if I were to list all of the important things, timing and luck would be first and second.
Let’s go through them in order.
So many startup ideas are similar versions of ideas that have happened before but the perfect timing lead to a whole new level of traction. Traction is rocket fuel for startups, with traction a startup can lead to a huge company, without it, it’s just an idea – or even worse a laboring, average company. The first business I had that went well was WP Curve, my WordPress support business. It was a recurring monthly service for website support. It was the same thing I’d been doing for 6 years with my agency. But for a few reasons, the market was ready for this idea right at that time. SAAS (Software As A Service) ideas were taking off, productized services were being talked about more and more, WordPress-specific businesses were emerging (like WP Engine) and I launched a slightly tweaked idea at exactly the right time. A year before and people wouldn’t have really understood it. A year later and I would have been competing against 50 other companies doing the exact same thing. My timing for that idea gave me about 6-9 months headstart – enough to build traction and built it into a 7 figure recurring revenue business within 2 years.
My current business Black Hops also benefited enormously from fortunate timing. When we started, it felt like we were late to craft beer. There were other breweries that had a 10 year head start on us, there were other bigger ones with more money opening around the corner, the U.S. had been doing craft beer for years and years.
In hindsight it turned out we were right at the start of a massive boom in craft beer, especially in the state we live in and looking back we were very early and actually timed perfectly as the market transitioned from bottles to cans and new players who focused only on cans (like us) got a big boost.
We were underfunded to the extreme, we had $200,000 of money from the founders and $200k from investors to build Black Hops. The first year we turned over $600k, this calendar year we are set to turn over around $16m. I hate to think what we’d be up against if we started a brewery in today’s market with $400k. It would be extremely difficult. Turned out, it was impeccable timing.
These are just my examples but you see these examples in every story you read about famous companies. Tesla is one of the the most valuable companies in the world, run by the richest man in the world and it’s a story of perfect timing. Electric cars had been around for a very long time before Tesla, Henry Ford’s wife had one in 1914. Just a few years before Tesla the major auto makers were making electric cars and decided to shut down the programs because they were not viable. Early Tesla pioneers dug through bins in car yards and used the motors in early prototypes – they were scrap. But as fate would have it, all of this would turn around in a few short years due to advances in technology, innovation, the desire for clean energy and a number of other things. It was the same idea at a much better time.
Timing is one of those things you can’t really control. I suppose you could make a case for being early in things, but early adopters often suffer a worse fate than incumbents. Being early will more often lead to failure. Great timing often comes down to luck, which is number 2 on my list.
Luck is definitely not something you can sell. Most people try to ‘no sell’ it my saying things like ‘you make your own luck’. I don’t buy it. Luck is luck. It comes in the positive and the negative but it’s random and by definition can’t be made. If you could make it, it would be execution.
I consider myself to have had a few very lucky moments in my time as a business owner. I could very easily still be a struggling agency owner banging my head against the wall year after year after year. I was very lucky to land on one idea that got immediate traction. I was extremely lucky to have had a relatively random opportunity to meet with GoDaddy about selling it at exactly the right time. The person running the acquisition left GoDaddy half way through, it could have fallen down easily and my trajectory in life would be completely different.
When I finally did sell I bought a house for what seemed like a lot of money. In the few years since it’s doubled in value and if I didn’t buy it then, I probably never could have owned a house where I live. Not only that, it meant I didn’t have any more funds to put into Black Hops, which forced me to find external investors (a skill that came very much in handy having done 10 investment rounds in the years since and zero before that one).
This is all luck. I deserve no credit for it and had no control over it and I could never replicate it. It’s just luck and it’s part of every successful person’s story whether they like to admit it or not.
Execution is the bit we do have control over and that makes it super important. There’s no doubt that most of the stories above wouldn’t have worked without decent execution. Tesla figured out a way to build the best cars in the world under extreme financial strain and up against the most ruthless of competitors. The execution was awe-inspiring and if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be a trillion dollar company.
Closer to home I’ve always been very passionate about making sure I do good work and the people who work for me do good work. Without that, we would have been overtaken by people who didn’t have the same fortuitous luck and timing. But more to the point we would have had no chance of competing against the incumbents.
In ‘The 7 Day Startup’ I defined Execution as ‘Your ability to present your idea just as well as as the best in the world’. This to me remains as one of the biggest challenges faced by new companies (including mine). You find yourself in a market where you’re way smaller than everyone else, you have way less money, you are way behind and you have to somehow compete with incumbents who’ve been around for years. It’s a very bad situation, it’s not for everyone. It’s one of the reasons why I love entrepreneurship because most people are not willing to take on that challenge. But good founders will and they understand it’s part of the deal. You have to execute. You have to present a great brand, you have to make a great product, you have to build a great team, all of that against all the odds I mentioned above.
It’s close to impossible and that means when you pull it off it feels good, and often the rewards are just as extreme.
It’s completely incorrect to say that ideas don’t matter. Of course ideas matter and just because it’s 4th in this list doesn’t mean it’s not important. There are thousands of things that aren’t in this list.
The main idea for a company matters a lot. Beating your head against the wall on a bad idea, executing to perfection and hoping for good luck and timing isn’t a recipe for success. Sometimes the idea just isn’t right.
But even if the main idea is solid, that isn’t the end. Inside every business that was started with a good idea, is thousands of other ideas that also have to be good. Consider Black Hops for example. We had a fun name, made an interesting beer and then built a brewery. But that wasn’t anywhere near close enough to make it to where we are. In the 5 years since we opened 3 more breweries, brewed 250+ different beers, designed hundreds of unique cans with unique names and descriptions. We’ve had to launch brand new ideas taking massive risks to get ahead of the competition. We’ve had to innovate our arses off during Covid to keep the lights on. We’ve delved into other types of products. We’ve acquired other businesses. We’ve raised lots of money in lots of unique ways, often being the first to do so. This execution all comes back to ideas. Someone has to have the idea first.
That’s why creativity and creative people are extremely valuable, because ideas are more important than ever. Standing out is more difficult than ever and new concepts and new technologies are more accessible than ever. A good idea can change everything. Keep brainstorming, keep creating!
Hustleporn dictates that this should be first in the list, and there’s no doubt that working hard is important. But I’ve found that hustle isn’t as useful or important than the other things, for a few reasons.
Firstly, working 100 hours a week will get old eventually. Stress kills you, working too hard often leads to a lack of focus in other areas like health and exercise and often leads to a breakdown in relationships and friendships. You have to be careful working too hard.
But there’s another reason why hustle isn’t the most important factor in a business and it’s this. There is a massive downside to focusing too much on working hard and it’s the opportunity cost of burning yourself out on a bad idea when you could have been working hard on a good idea. Burning yourself out on a good idea is arguably a necessary component of a successful startup (all things above considered), it’s certainly a common theme. But wasting all that energy and mindshare on a bad idea is disastrous. You’ve lost the chance to execute a good one.
I see this all the time. I love that founders like to encourage other founders to ‘keep going’, but it’s often the worst advice imaginable. Sometimes the best idea is to give up, so you can free up your talents to work on an idea that’s timed better, that’s a better idea and that you can execute better. Hustle isn’t infinite, soon enough you’ll get sick of working 100 hours a week, don’t burn all of that juice on a bad idea.
Related: Perhaps you should give up
All that said there’s absolutely no doubt that hustle is a critical factor in starting and building a great company. Years of working for nothing, late nights, early mornings, 24 / 7 thinking about work, lost sleep, extreme stress and anxiety, that’s all part of the deal. If all other things above are equal, you can outwork your competition for sure. And at certain stages, things move so quickly and are so crucial that serious hustle is exactly what’s needed to get you into the next level of traction.
As a leader in a growing company, the team need to be inspired by the hustle of the founder or founders. It sets the whole culture of the organisation. Your competitors should know that you are willing to outwork them. Hustle is a virtue for sure, I love me a bit of hard work and I think if you look at the stories of most outliers of success stories in business, some extreme hustle is core to the story.
Bringing it together
If you are a new business owner, you should be looking for traction above absolutely anything else. Traction will lead you to focus on the right things and give you at least an opportunity to create something great and significant. If this is you, then my advice would be to keep an eye on how you think your idea is timed, this will be important. Accept luck when it happens and when you have bad luck, accept that too. It’s part of the deal. Execute well beyond what you should be able to. Be as good as your competitors, regardless of if they are more experienced and well funded. Value ideas and execute on new ideas where you can, it could be where you find the traction. Hustle, especially if you are onto something that’s taking off – then hustle hard! But be wary of pushing too hard on the wrong ideas.
If you run a business that already has traction I’d say this. Be grateful for good timing but keep an eye on what’s next. Be grateful for the luck you’ve had and don’t conflate that with your own awesomeness. It’s very possible that you’re in this position due to pure luck and it’s got nothing to do with you – don’t let your ego get out of hand. Accept that things could take a turn for the worse at any time, and that may not be your fault either. Make great things, continue to execute, do better than your competitors, be inspired by your competitors and aim to be the best. Cultivate a culture that embraces ideas from your whole team. Be careful shutting down ideas, and execute on the good ones where you can. Learn to delegate and back your team. Hustle less when things are going well, take time to enjoy it and back your team to keep the ball moving along. You’re lucky to be in this position and traction will help the flywheel moving along without you.