This is our fourth post since beginning the newsletter, and the third of four in our First Steps series. We totally, 100% planned this, and we definitely did not just decide right this instant to call them a series.
Last week we spoke about the roadmapping process: how to start with our final goal and walk back to where we are now, building a step-by-step plan as we approach our current position. Today we’re going to shift our focus back to the end of the roadmap, to look at how changing our perspective on our goals can help clarify the rest of our plan.
Our goal is the most important part of our roadmap. Success—however we define it—is what motivates the rest of the plan and determines its direction. But sometimes the steps immediately preceding our end goal are unclear or uncertain.
Often, this is a consequence of our stated goal existing far off in the realm of possibility. We don’t want to just start a company; we want to be the founder of a VC-backed startup. We don’t want to write a novel; we want to be a published author. If we start at these sorts of indefinite end states and try to move backward, we find ourselves in the land of “What If,” unsure of how to proceed. This uncertainty makes it extremely difficult to identify the prerequisites that unlock success.
Our aim is to remove these layers of uncertainty, leaving a goal that is entirely within our reach. If we were to draw our finished roadmap, our real goal would be where our solid line branches off into various possibilities, with our stated goal existing down one of those branches.
Real goals are usually the same as stated goals, without any of the success, glamour, or fame attached—or simply with all of the adjectives removed. Dreaming of founding a VC-backed startup with a successful exit must be filtered down to starting a company. Wanting to become a published author must be simplified to wanting to be an author to become achievable through nothing more than our own action.
Whether we’re starting a company or writing a book, no matter how much we plan for it, the kind of success embedded in the stated goals above is out of our control. Luckily, these sorts of goals are always preceded by things that are in our control. Stated goals always have a real goal just a few steps ahead of them in our roadmap. It is impossible to IPO a company that was never founded, or publish a book that was never written. With the success part removed, we’re left with something we can control—a goal whose achievement is 100% within our reach.
Real goals exist at what I call inflection points: moments that test your previous efforts for success or failure. Everything before an inflection point is preparation for that moment, and success at that point unlocks everything after it. That doesn’t mean you’ve only got a single shot at success—if you fail to cross your inflection point you can always try again. But you can’t make any progress on anything beyond one until you’ve passed it.
Inflection points are the threshold you must cross to achieve your real goal. They’re your thesis defense, your Bar Exam, the kata performance that earns you your black belt. These tests separate wanting to be something from being it.
Sometimes, inflection points are obvious. The difference between wanting to be an author and being one is a single piece of finished work. That work doesn’t have to be published. It doesn’t have to be bound and sitting on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. But it does have to exist—somewhere—complete. A novel that’s been printed off and sits waiting in a drawer is still a finished novel. And its author has earned their title.
Other times, inflection points can be less clear. The difference between someone playing entrepreneur (“wantrepreneurs”) and a bonafide founder is not establishing an LLC, throwing up a website, or putting together a pitch deck. It’s a single sale. It’s when someone, somewhere, was presented with your offering and said yes. Money doesn’t have to be involved—an app download or a website sign-up counts—but what is required is an exchange of value. Cash traded for a product, a user’s time and eyeballs in exchange for a service—whatever the medium, value was sent and received by both parties.
This may sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many “founders” out there have never made a sale. In 2015, as the current wave of startup-mania was growing daily, an acquaintance of mine was very proud of calling himself a “3x Founder and Startup CEO,” even though all he’d done was put up three websites for products that would never exist. He built landing pages, had logos made, and put together pitch decks (outside of startup land we call these “PowerPoint presentations”) for these imaginary entities, but never spent a single moment actually building them. With all that energy, he got no closer to a single sale—no closer to being a real entrepreneur. He may have achieved the appearance of entrepreneurship, but without crossing an inflection point, none of that achievement was real.
Some startups require external funding before they can reach that point. In these cases, our real goal’s target isn’t the end consumer, but the VC or angel investor, and our inflection point is to secure funding. Everything before this point is preparation for it, and everything after sits locked behind it.
Other startups require co-founders and team members before they can even reach the point of funding. No matter how good of an idea you have, if you have no personal ability to implement it, and no money to hire someone else to, you’re going to have to recruit others to your cause. This means that assembling your team is your inflection point—until you’ve successfully recruited them, you can’t make any progress on any of the goals beyond.
Inflection points are where the current phase of your roadmap should end. It’s okay to have the broader vision in your mind, but planning anything concrete beyond an inflection point is an exercise in futility, an investment in the world in possibility, in things that may never come to fruition. If you can’t prove yourself at an inflection point, you may not be able to reach the planning you’ve done for the other side. There is so much work to be done, with so little time to do it: don’t waste your energy planning things that may never happen.
Likewise, the only steps in your roadmap that sit before an inflection point should be those that create momentum towards it. As we’ve discussed before, do you really need business cards to make your first sale? Do you really need an agent to finish writing your novel? Anything in your roadmap that doesn’t directly support crossing your real goal should be stripped out and set aside.
Go back to your roadmap. Look at your stated goal and be honest about any uncertainty it includes. Is success entirely within your reach? Is the step that immediately precedes success clear and concrete? If the answer to either of those questions is no, you may need to take your stated goal and carve away the layers of possibility until all that’s left is a certain, obvious core.
Strip your goal down and tell me about it here.
Until next week,