Prioritization is the linchpin to success.

Here’s how to get it right.

I want to talk to you about prioritization this week. For one it’s been on my mind a lot lately and two we just finished delivering version 1.2 of Charli our biggest release since 1.1 in January. I’m always impressed with what the team can deliver in a short amount of time even if part of me wonders what else we could have squeezed in with a bit of prioritization magic.

If you haven’t checked out what’s new in 1.2 already, go give it a try.  

Ok, shameless plug over...back to prioritization. It’s one of the primary skills that allows teams to stay focused on the right things and execute. 

As a startup leader, do you ever feel like your prioritization skills have gotten worse? Or you get too caught up in the details that you forget to “pull your head out of the sand” and re-prioritize? 😬

The younger version of you was able to march into any interview and confidently answer the staple question: “How do you prioritize a busy workload?” You made a daily to-do list and crossed each item off while still finishing work by 5 pm. You always knew what you should do next and why.

Now, things feel a little different.

For many of us in leadership roles at startups, prioritization has taken on a whole new weight. With increasing daily demands, impossibly squeezed time, and the constant worry of your funding runway ending, choosing the “right” priorities can seem like a near-impossible task.

I’ve been reflecting on this conundrum quite a lot as we move into a new phase of business growth at Charli. My previous entrepreneurial experiences have taught me that 👉 prioritization is the linchpin for success, so I’m trying to be very deliberate and conscious about how we choose our next steps as a company. It’s not an easy process, but it’s crucial.

The thing is, you can’t do it all. You might want to do it all, but you simply can’t. Overstretching your team leads to burnout...and a company is nothing without its team.

On the other hand, it’s unlikely you’ll find the silver bullet to solve all of your prioritization woes. There will always be choices to be made, employees’ time and energy to be protected, and simply “too many” great ideas to choose from. To add further stress to the scenario, startups are on the bleeding edge of innovation. Many times you are the first company to ever do what you’re doing -- and there’s no playbook for that. There’s no proven method or tested approach. You have to carve a path based on a wide range of unknowns.

So, what is a startup leader to do?🙍

Here are some ideas I’ve been mulling over. I think these will help direct your prioritization process and make you feel confident when making decisions. They’re inspired by my past experiences, and we’re living them right now at Charli.

1. Identify what you’re ridiculously good at

You started your company because you’re really good at something. That “something” could be a specific technology, process, skill set, etc. Whatever it is, you probably attracted other people who were good at it and grew your company from that core. Ask yourself: Have I stuck true to that “something”, or did I stray from it somewhere along the way? It’s good to re-evaluate this often to make sure your team isn’t getting distracted by all the shiny new things that pop up. 

For instance, at Charli, we’re really good at AI.💪 That’s what’s at our core. We’ve been tempted to pour our energy into perfecting our web-based UI because to do so is shiny and fun, but we know that too much of that would dilute our AI work. It pays off to know your strengths, be clear on your vision, and stick to it.

2. Look at what’s resonating with your audience

It’s critical for startups to test their ideas with early adopters. Sure, you can make decisions based on a hunch you have, or based on market data or industry trends. But you really don’t know how your product or idea will be received until you test it in the real world with real people. 

By closely assessing how your audience is reacting, you can uncover clues as to what you should prioritize next.🔍 Of course, your audience can’t tell you what needs to be done, but they can sure provide you with hints for success. Listen to them openly to see where your products’ strengths lie. Ask them for honest feedback about the value they’re deriving from it. And then double down on what’s working.  The trick is to pick up on the subtle hints and not get distracted by the noise of constant feedback.

On that note, if you’re using Charli and have some honest feedback I’d love to hear it. 

3. Question if your current audience is the right audience

That being said, be careful about the audience you pick, and don’t think your first choice will be the right choice. At Charli, who we thought would be our ideal user has shifted a few times as we’ve transformed our value proposition and honed in on our AI’s strengths. By asking yourself on a regular basis if your early adopters reflect the right customers, you can gain confidence with the prioritization decisions you make.

4. Balance short and long term goals 

This one is tricky. At Charli, we’ve had to make some tough decisions recently in an attempt to strike the right balance. For instance, we know our API will be useful in the future, but we also know it won’t be the thing that delights our early adopters right now. And right now, we really need adoption more than we need an API. However, if we put all our efforts into delighting users today, we’ll be selling ourselves short in the future. Our API will take some work, so if we’re going to make it part of our roadmap, we need to act on it soon.

Does this tug of war sound familiar?😩 Sometimes scenarios like this feel like a catch-22 and in some ways they are. Prioritizing short-term and long-term goals is a balancing act. While there is no easy answer, it helps to map out a few different scenarios (while acknowledging that you can’t do it all), consider the risks/rewards of each, and then make a decision and stick to it.

5. Keep everyone on the same page

When your window of opportunity is really only a year or two, every week and every day matters. That’s why it’s important to communicate your priorities to your team often and ensure each person is assessing their tasks based on those priorities -- at the beginning and the end of every day.  And right now, it is literally every day that we review, prioritize, balance, and communicate.

Another thing you can do is make ‘growth’ everyone's responsibility. Many companies hire a specific person who is responsible for growing and scaling their business. But in my mind, that’s too narrow. When everyone on the team is empowered to help the company grow, you’ll find better alignment. No one can hide and no one can point fingers. Everyone is involved and working towards the same priorities.

In summary, prioritizing what happens next in a startup is no easy feat, in general prioritizing in any business is challenging because there will always be a trade-off. In fact, some of the decisions you’re faced with could be some of the most difficult decisions of your career. Know that you’re not the first -- and you won’t be the last -- startup leader to be struggling with this. It’s the nature of the beast when you’re navigated uncharted territory.

💬 Want to continue the conversation? Leave a comment below about your experiences with prioritization.