Warren Buffett and Bill Gates were once asked to write down one word that defined their success. Independently, they both ended up writing the same word: Focus.

In May, Keteka was fortunate enough to be one of the participants in the Booking.com Booster sustainable tourism accelerator program in Amsterdam. One of the deliverables of the accelerator was the “100 Day Start-up Challenge.” This is a plan for what your startup wants to accomplish over the next 100 days and is meant to help the team focus on only the most critical next steps for the business. At Keteka, the 100 Day Start-up Challenge forced us to decide what we Are Doing and what we Are Not Doing. It also helped us realize which areas will require support beyond the scope of the current team.

Focus = Saying No to Good Ideas

One of the most difficult parts of being a startup founder is that there is so much to do and no clear next best step. It’s like waking up in the middle of a dense forest – you can walk or run in any direction you want, but you’re not actually sure which way will get you out the quickest. As a result, it is tempting to try many things at once, without focus. This is generally accidental, I don’t know any founders who say “this month I’m going to work on so many small things that I won’t make any meaningful progress toward my main goals,”but that’s what they end up doing.

Generally, they start the month boldly walking in one direction through the forest, then decide to take a slight right turn, then get distracted by a fallen tree, then decide they should follow the river instead, then chase a small animal for a while, and so on. The problem is that there are so many tasks and projects that feel important that it’s really difficult to prioritize. Steve Jobs summarized this challenge nicely:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.

It sounds simple, but saying no to good ideas is extremely hard. Distinguishing between a good idea and an idea that’s good enough to merit your full focus is extremely hard. It takes a ton of (daily) practice to be as good as Jobs at deciding what to focus on, but in the meantime, founders can use frameworks to put a structure of disciplined prioritization around themselves.

The 100 Day Start-up Challenge

One framework we found effective at Keteka was the 100 Day Start-up Challenge. We took the team on a retreat to Cajon del Maipo (just outside of Santiago), where we developed goals for the second half of the year, plus what we needed to do over the next 100 days. We followed a simple process to get started:

  1. List everything that we would like to get done in the next 3 months
  2. Decide what we’re doing
  3. Decide what we’re not doing

The last step here is critical and often overlooked, which leads to getting distracted. When you decide ahead of time what you’re not working on, and have it written down, it makes it easier  to say no. If someone suggests that the team work on something that wasn’t part of Step 2, You can simply point to the list and say “we decided we weren’t working on that yet.”

The Keteka team on a retreat in Cajon del Maipo

What We’re Not Doing Yet vs What We’re Not Doing At All

It’s also important to distinguish what you won’t be working on yet and what you won’t be working on at all. In startup time (which is faster than regular business time), “yet” means that you will circle back to that idea in an upcoming quarter. “At all” means you may circle back to that idea next year….which actually means you will probably never talk about it again. This may sound a little harsh – your mind will say “it is a good idea, it’s just not the right time!” – but from my experience, it actually feels great to start chopping down the list of things that you’re doing. It frees up mental space and makes your potential path through the forest clearer.

Sometimes ‘What We’re Not Doing Yet’ is also dictated by resources, rather than strategy. For example, we had a lot of design changes that Booking.com helped us identify that we thought would greatly improve the customer experience on the website, but we lacked the technical capacity on the team to implement them right away. Strategically, those changes were perfect for the 100 Day Challenge, but we ended up pushing many forward because of our technical restraints.

This also taught us something important – if so many of our priority tasks are restrained by tech, then it’s time to invest in tech! It sounds obvious, but we had to go through that process to reach such a clear conclusion. (Speaking of, we’re hiring a developer, click here to see more information about the position!)

We recently had our first follow-up call with our Booking.com mentors and were able to report that we had accomplished almost all of the 100 Day Challenge goals that were not tech restrained.  We definitely got distracted sometimes, but I think this was one of the most focused and productive quarters we’ve ever had as a team and I’m excited to continue to use the 100 Day Challenge to maintain that focus and create the trail that will lead us out of the forest.