The Underrated Technique That Makes The Difference Between Successful And Failed Startups

Imagine someone came up to you – an app entrepreneur at the start of your journey – and asked how much time do you take weekly to think about how you work, instead of what you are working on. Most would probably cackle at the absurdity of the question, wipe off tears of mirth, and say thank you for the good laugh.

Building a startup isn’t an easy process. It may be enjoyable, it may challenge you in many ways, but it also requires hard work. Laying the foundation work of your future business is like running a triathlon, where instead of changing gears two times during the contest, you change them countless times, with little foresight of what comes next or how long the next stretch will last.

‘How do you focus on your work in these conditions?’, you’ll ask.

The truth is you don’t always manage to. You become a creature of habit, donning different hats of strategic, executive or administrative roles, as the context requires it from you. Becoming a tech entrepreneur is equivalent with taking crash course after crash course in different disciplines, at different levels of complexity. It’s hard to just hit pause and take a breath.

But that’s exactly what you should do. When the going gets tough and you feel yourself pulled in ten different directions, that’s the best moment to take a breath and reflect.

Why reflection matters

You move forward as an entrepreneur by doing things for your app startup and gaining experience. But when you don’t take the time to reflect on how you’re doing, you’re missing out on opportunities to improve.

“Now more than ever we seem to be living lives where we’re busy and overworked, and our research shows that if we’d take some time out for reflection, we might be better off,” says Harvard Business School Professor Francesca Gino.

She co-wrote the paper Learning By Thinking: How Reflection Improves Performance, which came to the following encouraging conclusions:

  • You learn better when you couple experience with self-reflection – that is, you intentionally attempt to synthesise, abstract, and articulate the lessons taught by experience
  • When you take the time to reflect on what has happened, the outcomes of the experience are more productive; even if the experience was a negative one, there are still lessons to take away from it to do better in the future
  • When you reflect on your experiences, you build up your ability to achieve a goal, which in turn translates into higher rates of learning. Simply put, when you start perceiving that reflection is helping you become better at attaining your goals, you want to keep doing it.   

When can reflection make a difference

It’s hard to break the cycle of busy-ness and take the time to reflect on how your app startup is moving forward. Many times, you’ll feel like working for your product, meeting with partners, collaborators, potential investors should be more important than spending time with yourself.

Gill Corkindale, a London-based executive coach, writes that leaders do themselves a disservice when they don’t take the time to reflect on themselves, the issues they face, their people, their career, or their contribution. While an hour or two a week may seem a price no one can afford as a starting entrepreneur, think of the value that will build up over time, by improving what you are doing and how you are doing it.

In fact, reflection can be applied on several levels and it’s something you can scale along with your company. It’s something you can start doing small and then go big with.

  • Reflecting on an individual level

Start with sitting by yourself with pen and paper to reflect on where you are and what you want to achieve, and how can. It works if you do it by yourself, but it helps to have a confidante. You can do it with your co-founder, your spouse, or a mentor.

As a process, you should keep track of interactions, incidents, difficulties, but also good experiences, and then look back on them. Try to identify what you did well and what you’d like to do better. Then write these things down and see how well you manage to apply them. Sometimes they will be related to how you interact with people, other times they will be related to how you approach a challenge.

Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t manage to apply all the points from the beginning. Aim to use the notes as a nudge in the right direction and celebrate each time you manage to do something better.

  • Reflecting at the end of a work stretch

If you’re thinking that your app business is ongoing work, that’s ok. But consider that each big stretch of work has some type of milestone you are aiming for, and that even big plans have to be broken down into manageable chunks. When you reach a meaningful objective, take the time to reflect on how things are going. After all, it’s important to be gritty about your startup, but it’s also important to be smart about how you move forward. Consider:

  • What is working well?
  • What could go better?
  • What should you start doing, so you can get closer to your goals?
  • What should you stop doing, because the results are too insignificant to be worth the effort?
  • What should you continue doing that keeps you on the right track?

Taking the time to reflect on your startup, both from a goal- and process-oriented outlook, doesn’t just help you to keep up with the good work. It also allows you to catch red flags before they become crippling problems for your business.

  • Reflecting as a team

Finally, as your startup grows, so will the number of people who support you on your journey increase. When that happens, remember to scale not only your business, but also reflection as a process that involves every member of your team.

Reflecting as a team can take on an individual facet – where one-on-one discussions help each team member better fulfil their job. It can also become a team activity – where everyone focuses and improving the work processes and identifying potential problems.

Probably the most important aspect of reflecting as a team is to remember that everyone comes with different expertises and mindsets. That is why defining the common ground and the common goals at the start of each reflection-focused discussion is important. In this way, you turn the diversity of the team into an asset and an opportunity to build on each others’ insights, instead of a source of conflict and misunderstandings.

The takeaway points

In many ways, reflection is underrated. Why would you spend time thinking about past and recent experiences, when the future is so uncertain and tapping its foot in impatience to see your startup move forward?

Why would you take the time to understand your mindset, your work processes, as well as the mindsets and work processes of your team members? Don’t you experience these firsthand every day?

The simple answer is that reflection is what you need to shut down the autopilot in yourself. It’s what gives you the opportunity to identify your blind spots and what gives you the space to acquire and understand how to apply the new lessons experience teaches you. At the end of the day, reflection is what gets you from dreaming about becoming a game-changing app founder to actually doing it, one day at a time.

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