Entrepreneurs Don’t Think Enough. Here’s What You Can Do About It …

Posted on Nov 20, 2012 | 84 comments


Every so often I find myself caught up in a really hectic 3-4 week schedule where it seems like I float endlessly betweens meetings. Pitches. Intros. Board Meetings. Conferences.

And I get flooded with legal docs, end-of-quarter financial administration, recruiting, whatever.

I get sucked up in “Do” mode.

Startups Are for Doers

Now, I’m pretty on the record that being an entrepreneur is about being great at The Do. With an emphasis on the “D” in JFDI.

But getting caught up in the doing can often leave you directionless.

You need to take time out to Think.

I know it sounds obvious. And from experience I know that saying something so simple will bring the trolls out. And I have a penchant for feeding the trolls.

But trust me when I say that my observations across many startups (and other companies, frankly) is that not enough time goes into thinking.

Some of my biggest breakthroughs have come in what seems like lazy time. Every so often after a few weeks of go-go-go I work from home from a day. I walk down from my bedroom and stay at my computer un-showered and in a hat for 10 straight hours. Or I will get some good time in at a hotel just zoning out and thinking.

I have my best creative break-throughs this way. I like to think with blank pieces of paper and a pen. I’ve talked in the past about how I manage my own creative process. If you struggle to find moments of creativity you might read that post.

I also have huge creative spurts when I run. I zone out and think about how things could be different. And I often will get out a pen and paper afterward. Every now and again I like to drive from LA to San Francisco (6 hours) in stead of flying. It gives me tons of zone out time with visual stimulation to get the brain going.

If you’re not taking this zone-out down time I’ll bet you’re not having enough strategic reflection on your job, your company, your strategy.

Startups are filled with the stresses of the here and now and it’s hard to break out of this mold of focusing two feet in front of you. Frankly, I think venture capital is that way, too. How do VCs break out of group think when they are shuttling from one board meeting to the next, from one conference to the other and talking with all the same people?

I was at the Lobby Conference a few weeks ago in Mexico. My wife and I went down 3 days early and had some chill out time. I had one of the biggest mental breakthroughs about what I want to do differently at GRP Partners in 2013. I want to make sure that my sixth year as a VC doesn’t just become an automatic continuation of what I’ve done in my first 5 years. I don’t want to be on autopilot. I woke up super early one morning and wrote out my manifesto. I know, I’m weird.

I am inspired by the constant innovation in our industry by First Round Capital like the Dorm Room Fund, their expansion to Philadelphia (I hope they also have a secret plot to replace Andy Reid while there),  the exchange fund and other initiatives.  And I don’t want to be complacent.

How does this changing world affect me? My fund? How can I raise the bar? How does the world in Los Angeles intersect differently with venture capital? How can I play to my strengths?

Think.

I can’t make big leap forwards in Do mode.

Do you find yourself too much in email mode? I regularly shut down my email so that I don’t get pop-up alerts when I’m working. I turn off my phone so it won’t ring. I close my Twitter tab. These small dopamine-soaked distractions will cut into your Think time. Trust me.

Think.

Sometimes somebody in my office will ask if “they can just get 5 quick minutes” and they will see a zombie look on my face as I rush through my office. I can feel a spinning in my head when I know that I have something I need to get down on paper. I can feel the ideas needing to come out and I know if I get distracted I will lose them. I beeline for my office, give off my zombie vibe, shout out, “not now, maybe later” and I head for my desk. I need to think. Undistracted. No music. Concentrate. Think.

This is one of the positive signs of ADD that nobody ever talks about. I do get these extreme moments of clarity and the need to shut down all of the bullshit I’m working on (or usually it’s a meeting that I randomly need to leave because it’s driving me totally fucking nuts and I need to be alone) and I need to get something out. I learned about this behavior and how to channel it from my favorite book about ADD, Delivered from Distraction. Don’t let anybody tell you ADD is only a weakness.

And What About the Opposite?

And I know that it sounds almost silly to say that some people Think too much and don’t Do enough. But that’s exactly what happens to many people.

The number of times I’ve had people come to me and say they want to blog more. They think it would be good for them.  Think not. Do. (go on, click it ;-))

Or people who think all sorts of ideas about how they want to quit their job and try a startup. Or quit their startup to do something different. Or they want to travel more. See the world. Visit China.

The world is filled with over-Thinkers. For sure.

And then there is the missing link. It’s what connects Thinking and Doing. And that’s Planning.

For me the best way to put Thinking into action is to creatively brainstorm a plan of action. I literally will sit down in a brainstorming session and draw up a list of actions that would have to take place in order to make my goals a reality. Since I think visually I often do this in the form group lists with inter-dependencies or in the form of a GANTT chart.

Without dedicating time to Planning you will never optimally turn your ideas into reality. You will never connect your Think and Do.

We each have strengths & weakness in these areas.

I have written about the need for entrepreneurs to take inventory in themselves before deciding whom to hire as the rest of the team.

The Three Buckets of People

There is a sort of rhythm to people’s personality types that often slot them into one of three buckets.

1. I think the best leaders are Thinkers. They often need teams of people to help them Plan how to turn their ideas into realities. They are “shapers” not “completer / finishers.” The best leaders know this about themselves and surround themselves with people who complement them. Without c/f’s I’d be hosed. Just ask my wife.

2. The best managers are Planners. They are really good at creating lists of actions and monitoring performance of those actions. Manager isn’t a bad word. They are the absolute lifeblood of any organization. If this is you, you know the drill. You’re very organized. You keep meticulous notes. You are very good about getting things done and make sure others do as well. You keep the trains running on time. You’re not quite as creative in “breaking out of the box” and doing daring new things. That’s ok. You know that about yourself. And you’re comfortable having that crazy CEO around you. Secretly, you love that you know she couldn’t do her job effective without you.

3. And the best individual contributors are Doers. This can be your star Chief Architect who loves to code but hates having to handle the admin like testing, documentation, recruiting, etc. It can also be your star salesperson who doesn’t want to have to manage a team because he simply wants to earn his paycheck and get on with his life. I’ve written about these sales mavericks before.

A great team needs all types. And you need to identify your own strengths and weaknesses as an entrepreneur and how to surround yourself with people who complement you.

If you are a startup entrepreneur already my guess is that you have a heavy bias towards the Do that comes with the territory.

Make sure you take some lazy time to zone out and Think. Don’t put pressure on yourself to fill out every last minute of the day. And do your best after a good Think session to put your ideas onto paper and see if you can’t turn it into a Plan. Even if you have to ask for help from others to turn the Think into Do.

What Do You Plan to Do About Thinking?

This week is Thanksgiving. The classic American week where you have downtime.

Three years ago during Thanksgiving I told Nivi I would write down what I look for in an entrepreneur for a series of posts for VentureHacks. and it forced me to spend some serious time thinking about what I really look for when I make investments. It culminated in a series of blog posts I wrote while on Thanksgiving break that were transformational in giving me a mental model for what was important to me in venture.

This year I promised myself I would write a series of posts on what I believe is changing in the venture capital model and what I plan to do about it. My mental model on this is very different than how it has been framed in the press to date so I’m excited to have some downtime to think.

What will you spend your Thanksgiving downtime thinking about?

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Happy Thanksgiving to you. And good luck with your transition.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ha. Well, you can watch my actions next year. I’ve already started to put some into place.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    the hardest thing for any entrepreneur truly is …. not being a control freak.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I agree with what you’re saying, Ian. I didn’t mean to imply that Doers should just Do without question or a break. I hope people didn’t all interpret it that way. But … many Doers I’ve worked with really hate planning. And we often give our best Doers too much planning work because – well – they’re our best people and we assume they must be great at everything.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    reading books is GREAT for thinking. For sure. Nice to now know a face with the name, Robbie.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    On “a” I think people have too little time and too much work. You always have items on your to-do list so that people end up doing stuff that is less important because it’s an action whereas nobody creates a to-do for “creative thinking.” That’s why my biggest breakthroughs always come on vacation.

    On “b” – yes, getting out of the zone ruins things and shuts down creativity cold. Your example was more visual and descriptive than mine ;-)

    On “c” – I literally never thought about whether music sounded better at night. Interesting. I have more creativity driving in the day and mostly in the early morning. I read this book about art (http://www.drawright.com/) that made me realize that driving puts you in a creative place for physiological reasons. It’s a real phenomenon.

    re: headphones – I will check out. Great idea. And re: custom ear plugs – I am 100% going to get a pair made. At hotels I always sleep with earplugs – it’s the only way in a noisy city to get proper rest. Custom ones sound awesome.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Lindel. Hope to see you in March.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I have read everybody’s views on the changing industry. I have my own. Which is why I’m going to get them on paper and publish.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I have definitely put my 2012 on the right side of the Haimish Line. And did much of what I talked about in the post. Including spending this entire week with all my siblings and extended family sleeping in the same house. Except I woke up at 5am to get in some computer time before the madness. Happy Tday.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I have Kahneman’s book but haven’t read it yet. Thanks for the tips.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, that was silly and careless! But it was in the title so I didn’t pick it up in my post-typing editing process. Thanks! Hope Bob forgives me. And thanks for pointing out.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, I often thought about Gates’ Think Week. Lee – I did follow through with my partner on what we talked about. We just need to be more aggressive about getting you to spend time with him. He’s open but needed prodding.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Love the idea.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    My strategy is 9 year olds

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    yes … 2 birds

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I’m not sure I follow your logic

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks. you, too

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    “entremanure” … that’s priceless. I may pinch it one day ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    You’ve got to think about where you’re going and how to get there … that’s the amazing thing. You often don’t have to think about it. You often go into auto-pilot mode and your brain just works. And you barely remember getting there!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Nice to meet you, too, Nathan. I also met your colleague. if your travels bring you through LA make sure you guys stop by and say hello.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks, leo. hiatus was due to travel / fund raising which is nearly done. Hope you’re biz is progressing.

  • http://www.justanentrepreneur.com Philip Sugar

    Exactly. Its why promoting your best doer to manager fails. That is why you have to make sure that the best doer always makes more than the manager and everyone knows that. That way they don’t have to aspire to manage.

  • petermengo

    Wrote a little ditty about entremanure as well. Will post the link after the feast. Happy thanksgiving Mark! Enjoy the time with your family.

  • http://about.me/carl_rahn_griffith/ Carl Rahn Griffith

    Ironic timing; just realised I used this quote (below) in my blog, last night …

    “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action.” ~ Peter Drucker.

    One of the best lessons I received was from a soon-to-retire senior director at a German software company I was working with at the time, in the early 90s. I was setting-up the UK operation. I’d often go to aimless/dreary meetings over in head office in Germany or America but when he was hosting or participating in a meeting he wouldn’t let it conclude until decisions and actions/ownership was recorded.

    He taught me that, ultimately, it’s all about Execution.

  • http://www.bluecoastrecords.com/ Cookie Marenco

    yep, auto-pilot…it’s scarey sometimes how you can just arrive somewhere. I think that’s why I fired myself from my previous business and took on a startup. Too much auto-pilot not enough chaos to figure out.

    My analogy was meant to reflect driving to a new location.. like driving in Paris for the first time. If you don’t have a map reader in the passenger seat, trying to figure out the one way streets, you’re doomed. Okay, the first mistake is driving in Paris, my favorite city in the world.

    Most often, I took the role of map reader because even if I was giving bad directions, my driver was confident we’d get there (it’s a lot like being a fireman or CEO). We;d test other people in that position and I was amazed at how hard it was to communicate directions quickly without panic. ;)

    BTW, just read your post on creativity. Another yep, yep, yep post. Great work. I have all my interns and entrepreneurs in training reading your blog posts.

    Happy Thanksgiving, Mark! Enjoy!

  • http://blog.kwiqly.com/ James Ferguson @kWIQly

    Mark I guess the TL;DR version is needed.

    You draw a huge arrow contrasting thinking and doing.
    I argue; thought, learning, experimentation, debate and reflections are all actions and a major part of what Startups must be doing.

  • Assaf Lavie

    Happy to hear that. The UI is a bit unusual for project management, so I’d recommend to anyone who wants to get a true first impression to start with the tutorial: https://www.gigantt.com/r/tutorial
    Takes just a couple of minutes and you’re fully trained in Gigantt and ready to go.

  • AddOptions

    Great book report on The E-Myth by Micheal Gerber. Seriously, has nobody read the book? Everything you covered in this article was stated years ago by Gerber. Good combination of Think/Plan/Do with Entrepreneur/Manager/Technician.

  • http://www.larry.com/ LE

    On the custom ear plus keep the following in mind (important):

    1) When you get the plugs it will take your ears time to adjust to them in some cases. I went through about at least a week or two of pain on and off (when sleeping with them). After adjust, they are great. Don’t give up.

    2) It is entirely possible for the mold they make to come out wrong. After my first pair I ordered a 2nd pair (for the office and travel). They came out cut incorectly and had to be redone. I’m not sure I would have known this if it wasn’t my 2nd pair (like when you order the same dish at a restaurant so you know what to expect).

    3) Make sure you get and use this stuff (oto slik):

    http://store.microsonic-inc.com/528529-oto-slikand153.aspx

    You can probably get samples from the audiologist. This does two things. One it helps greatly with #1. Next the liquid blocks sound even further so you get more noise reduction. Don’t even think about using the plugs without this.

    By the way, I’m not Lindel!

  • http://www.facebook.com/elmar.platzer Elmar Platzer

    Great post and 100% agree with what you’re saying Mark. From personal experience, managing your mental and physical energy is also very important to ensure you’re capable of creative thought. Speaking from personal experience here when I was burning the candle on both ends, subsisting on 4-5 hours sleep per night for about 10 years in a stretch, I was barely functioning when I got the end of this insane period of my life. It took me about three years to recover from that and get myself back on track. One of the things I noticed as a result of the cumulative sleep deprivation was that my ability to think strategically and creatively was gradually deteriorating to the point where it was practically non existent. Back then my answer to an ever increasing workload was to simply throw more hours at it. Today it’s sleep and tackle the problem again the following day with a clear head, energy and passion. You’re a hell of a lot more effective that way as you’ll be able to effectively use everything at your disposal, including creativity, to resolve sticky issues. That said, sometimes you just have to burn the midnight oil to make things happen, just don’t make this your default operation mode!

  • https://www.lawnbagsigns.com/ lawnbagsignscom

    I really enjoyed this article. It is always nice when you read some thing that is not only informative but entertaining.

  • Adeel Vanthaliwala

    I did management consulting at Accenture for a few years – I think I was hooked on this mentality from there.

  • http://travelatus.com/ Valentin Dombrovsky

    Well, definitely “think” is a biggest part of my “smart work” concept. Though it’s right to say that you mustn’t “think too much” and do smth in order to have something done. :)

  • elbee230

    Great Post! I have been a manager for a long time while I was in the Corporate world. After I transitioned to self employment, I got used to being the Thinker, doer and manager. For me Daily Target Praxis -A tool from Simpleology helps me become better and better as a doer, thinker and manager.

  • http://twitter.com/peaness Ahmed

    Almost felt like I wrote this article. It totally resonates with me.