Hard Choices & Strategy

All companies face this problem. I believe it is the toughest challenge any startup company faces. It’s one we’ve always struggled with at 10to8 and one where we have failed more times than I would like to admit.

You get to choose what to focus on, the people working with you get lots of responsibility and – to any joiner at 10to8 – a brief that ‘if you discovered something we need to do, it’s your responsibility’.

A lot of the time such freedom is a curse. There are an unlimited number of things you could do, which makes choosing what to do & when to do it almost impossible. Consider that the two tasks:

1: “Update our data breach process for GDPR” (see a long boring article)

2: “Do something useful to help the business”

‘1’ is much easier than ‘2’. ‘1’ is well defined, clear and gives you clues of where to start: You know exactly what you’re doing and you know when it’s done. The latter is ambiguous, unhelpfully broad and who knows what you could do to get it finished! Being specific eliminates the capacity for creativity but provides a framework for productivity.

Many people have written and explored this topic excellently. At 10to8 we’ve been inspired by Netflix’s and other tech companies’ approach: to share as much of the decision making to as possible. We do this by formally assigning ownership to… Owners (pretty creative).

An Owner is someone who is responsible for understanding and setting priorities in a specific area of our work – a project. Within that project their priority and perspective is the law. This way individuals have complete freedom to think but have the direction and bounds provided by the scope of their project.

Projects are then either ‘on’ or ‘off’: we are either doing something or we are not, there is no halfway house. And everything is a project, from the product, to preparing board papers, to running payroll or customer support.

This approach collapses our planning question “What should we do next?” to “which projects should be ‘on’ and which should we be ‘off’?”. This limits the choices that can be made at the ‘top’ of the business and in turn helps us set our strategic direction.

Our system is not without weaknesses: It requires good communication and strong discipline. Good communication ensures the freedom that is passed to the Owners does not overwhelm them or ignore the company priorities – leading to badly prioritised work in projects. Strong discipline is required to limit the number of projects open at any one time so they can be advanced to the point they can be closed and something else worked on. The discipline of what not to do.

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Matthew Cleevely, CEO & Chairman, founded 10to8 with a few friends to help simplify managing bookings and make the world a little bit more organised. He helps out where needed across the business in strategy, accounting, finance, compliance, fund raising and people. Outside of 10to8 he works with wide range of high growth businesses to help them achieve their goals. He's also got an MEng in Engineering from Oxford and MPhil in Economics from Cambridge.

Richard is the MD and a director of 10to8, responsible for day to day running of the company. He has been with 10to8 for 4 years, joining after completing a PhD at Oxford. Richard previously worked in the City, and at several technology companies and startups.

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