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What does your business need *now*? (Next Steps - Part 1 of 4)

Now that we’ve completed our series on “First Steps,” we’re going to shift our focus to the rest of your life as an entrepreneur.

One of the hardest parts of being an entrepreneur—possibly the hardest part—is knowing how best to spend your time. When you’re employed, you don’t have to think about what to do next: somebody tells you. As founders, we don’t have that luxury.

So we go looking for advice. And, oh boy, do we find it. The web is chock full of business advice for entrepreneurs, providing an endless stream of articles informing you of “THE TEN THINGS YOU MUST ABSOLUTELY BE DOING FOR BUSINESS SUCCESS, #6 WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.” It only takes a few rounds of beer bonging business strategy from the proverbial internet hose before we feel pulled in all directions, left with more of a hangover than a clear route forward.

In our First Steps series, we talked about the process of roadmapping. But roadmapping is difficult when we don’t know what direction we’re heading. Entrepreneurship is a process of exploration more than a point-to-point journey: success is often rewarded with a set of new and unfamiliar challenges. As we overcome the final inflection point in our roadmap and enter a new phase of business, the tactics we’ve employed—and the advice they’re based on—may no longer work.

An entrepreneur experiences a special kind of paralysis reaching a new level of success. You’ve focused all your efforts on a single goal, and now that you’ve achieved it, you’re unsure what to do next. Should you keep doing what you’re doing, hoping that sustained effort means continued success? Or is it time to move on to something else?

Over the next few weeks we’re going to explore methods for answering these questions. Since our last series was titled “First Steps,” we’ll call this one “Next Steps,” and we’ll start today by introducing a concept called “The Hierarchy of Needs”.

Next Steps, Pt. 1 of 4: A Business Hierarchy of Needs

In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed that human needs can be arranged into a hierarchy, with material & survival needs (such as food, water, and shelter) taking precedence over emotional & intellectual ones (like the need to feel loved). As each level of our needs is met, our focus shifts upwards, and we become motivated towards more complex pursuits.

Although more philosophy than psychology, this “Hierarchy of Needs” has dominated popular discussions of motivational theory since the ‘50s. Many business schools preach it as the theory of motivation, even though the psychology community has mostly moved on.

But something doesn’t have to be true to be valuable. Maslow’s theory may not be good science, but we can use the concepts its based on to describe similar hierarchies for business.

Like humans, businesses have lower level needs that must be met before higher level needs can be considered. As a company grows and matures, its continued success allows it to climb this hierarchy, unlocking new challenges as it rises. The good news is that these challenges open us up to new levels of success; the bad news is that the old challenges don’t go away, we just get better at handling them.

Unlike Maslow’s, our business hierarchies are unique to who we are as founders and to the type of business we’re running. Agencies vs. startups, VC-funded vs. bootstrapped, partnerships vs. sole-proprietorships—each type of business faces different challenges, and each has a unique hierarchy of needs. In order to make this concept useful, we have to learn how to construct one for our business.

Once constructed, these hierarchies can help us when we reach the end of a roadmap, guiding us forward when we’re not sure what to do next. To navigate them, we have to know more about what makes each level unique: how and why they’re different from the level before, what new challenges they bring, and what changes we have to make in our business to ascend them.

Over the next few issues, we’re going to discuss these hierarchies, starting next week with how to construct one for our business. Then, we’ll begin exploring our newly constructed hierarchy, learning how to pinpoint our current needs within them. Finally, we’ll talk about how to apply these hierarchies while planning, using them to guide our roadmapping sessions.

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