Execution – a startup’s essential commodity

Wikipedia, that wealth of Internet answers, defines execution as “the act or mode or result of performance”. It also has the bits about chopping off heads and ending existence but we’ll leave that for journalists to discuss. Execution is a word I’ve grown to appreciate and use more and more frequently. Not the premature cause of death for bad guys, but the satisfaction of getting things done and seeing them finished. It expresses decisiveness and achievement. In the world of startups and young businesses, that’s so much harder than it seems and thus so satisfying when accomplished.

In my years in finance and Venture Capital, I’ve seen all sorts of individuals peddle all sorts of fantastical dreams and plans about how they will change the world and make themselves (and sometimes even the investor) excessively wealthy. Months or years later, that rocket has not left the ground. Whether or not it got funded, is almost irrelevant. The team simply did not or could not execute – they could not turn the dream into reality. If you ask them, they have all the excuses, some are even valid – but fundamentally, they failed to execute.

Yet every now and then, if you’re patient and thorough, you encounter those young businesses with a team who value execution way above the story and the glamour and the dream. They have one focus: get it done. These are the ones we look for. They are super hard to find. We don’t always get it right … but we have on occasion.

What’s important about execution is that it keeps bringing the goals you set, in line with reality. You say you’re going to do something, and you do it. You then evaluate what you did right/wrong and how to do it better next time. You set the next goal, and you go and do it. Simple … to write anyway. Hard to do of course.

Why is that? Well, setting a specific goal creates the chance for success, but also for failure. People don’t like that possibility … failing. So they keep the objective fuzzy, which means you can find a way to explain why you actually achieved something, even in a different form. “We didn’t sell any subscriptions but we got 100 Facebook likes which is very positive, and since our goal was to demonstrate traction, that’s been achieved…” Uhh, no! Set a specific, measurable goal, and then do everything you can to achieve it, measure and report and note the lessons learnt.

If you can show that your team gets out there and gets the actual business done, you will have a lot more leeway on other areas that you might not get as right. Execution makes people bend all their other rules when they invest. They may go outside of their usual sectors, or invest in an earlier or later stage than usual, if they find a team who execute consistently.

It’s tough to guess this upfront as an investor, so you look for a track record of execution. It was one of the ways that we came to invest into Snapplify. The Team had a track record of execution and rather than espousing crazy theories, they explained their real experience in the publishing industry, how the experience gave them additional insights, and thus how they could change digital book distribution. It was based on processes they had tested and knew would work. Over time, things evolved and some things worked, some things had to change, but the one message we’ve seen consistently with feedback from the industry and Snapplify’s customers, is that they deliver. The education market is fraught with failed contracts and well-publicised bloopers, but Snapplify has a reputation for coming in with a real solution to save the day when others couldn’t get it right. And consistently, they execute. As a result, they’ve won some pretty impressive contracts with government and large corporates, because of their reputation for delivering consistently. They are, above all, executors.

Being an executor is straightforward, deliver on your promises. If you can’t do it, don’t promise it. I’m not saying don’t be ambitious – it’s good to stretch yourself. But do it. If you’re looking for an executor, look for the track record of setting a target and achieving it. Look for someone who says they will do something by a certain date and then does it.

In the Elon Musk biography, Ashlee Vance refers often to Musk’s relentless drive to get things done. If he believes it can be done, then he will do it. No excuses, no exceptions. And it’s what’s turned the tide on his naysayers, the fact that he’s not just someone who dreams big, but he ‘does big’ … he executes.

You don’t have to do things on Elon Musk’s scale, but if you want to achieve great things in your business, be it start-up or later stage, then prize and reward execution. Getting it done. That kind of reputation spreads, and earns customers, friends and respect. It also keeps you around to do more and make those epic, world-changing moves – because you know how to get stuff done, and you’ll do it again.