There's a principal in signal processing regarding measuring the quality of information coming through a channel called the signal to noise ratio. It is a measure of how much valuable information (signal) is included in a stream of data relative to the amount of useless information (noise). The formula looks like this – the power of the signal as compared to the power of the noise:
My father was a PhD in information theory and has a theorem named after him (the Bussgang Theorem), so I've always found this area of study interesting. I would observe that the start-up universe is a particularly noisy world to operate in professionally – in other words, there's a very low signal to noise ratio.
The SXSW conference is emblematic of this issue. I wasn't able to attend, but when I ask my colleagues who are there, the first thing they talk about is the overwhelming amount of noise, or sheer volume of new start-ups, that are being worked on by entrepreneurs. Online media blog DigiDay mused that SXSW has gotten so noisy that no one can stand out any more. We are living in the "NewCo Era", where the combination of the plummeting in the cost to experiment and the explosion of entrepreneurship and disrupting technologies is causing a proliferation of new companies to be formed. Rather than wring our collective hands about the dire implications of this trend in the start-up world, I'd simply observe that from the perspective of the entrepreneur, it is getting harder and harder to rise above the noise.
So how do the best entrepreneurs cut through the clutter and distinguish themselves and their companies? How can they grab the attention of customers, partners and investors in an era of overwhelming, defocusing flow? Here are the top five behaviors I have observed in entrepreneurs who seem to be unaffected by the amount of static around them and are able to stand out amidst the noise:
- Put on your blinders. I've noticed that many great entrepreneurs have the ability to ignore the inputs around them, even (gasp) to ignore their inbox. Some of their friends may brag about achieving "zero inbox" nirvana (i.e., having read and processed every email that comes in), but the great entrepreneurs I work with actually actively strive to avoid having
a "zero inbox". Instead, they consciously block out reacting to inputs and focus their proactive energy on their priorities. Speaking of priorities…
- Focus relentlessly on the customer value proposition. The entrepreneurs I love working with wake up every morning thinking about their customer. There are so many distractions when you are building a start-up, but if you solely focus on your customer and addressing their pain point every day, you will be in a strong position. One of my portfolio company CEOs sometimes looks bored during our board meetings when we cover topics like finances, operating metrics and recruiting. But when we get to the portion of the meeting where we talk about his customer, he totally lights up and is full of war stories and compelling ideas. You obviously can't solely focus on the customer value proposition, because you also can't run out of cash, ignore competition and neglect to build a world-class team. But that leads to the next characteristic…
- Focus on very few things. Great entrepreneurs are brilliant at keeping things very simple and focusing only on a few of the highest-priority, highest-impact items. I learned this lesson from a mentor early in my professional career. There is something to the "power of three" (keep your mind focused on only three goals at any given time) or even the "power of one". I try to maintain the discipline of writing down my three summary goals for the year on one-page and keep it in my folder at all times, pulling it out every few weeks and reminding myself of them. The priorities may change, but the discipline of focusing on very few things should never change.
- Avoid bright, shiny objects. A corollary to focusing on very few things is that you should actively avoid "bright shiny object syndrome". This is the well-known start-up disease of entrepreneurs getting distracted by the latest interesting new idea or opportunity. One of entrepreneur friend of mine is susceptible to this – his last three meetings were the most important ones in shaping his thinking and setting his priorities and he finds it hard to ignore the inevitable distractions that comes out of a positive partner conversation.
- Be a contrarian. Contrarian thinkers stand out from the crowd, plain and simple. The start-up world tends to encourage a form of groupthink. There emerges a conventional wisdom in the blogosphere that is propogated and validated thruogh the various social channels. But great entrepreneurs relish the opportunity to challenge the status quo and conventional wisdom and go against the grain. The best ones develop that contrarian point of view so fully that, over time, it wins out and itself becomes the new conventional wisdom.
The Economist had an article this week called "Slaves to the Smartphone" that bemoaned the "horrors of hyperconnectivity". Similarly, being a slave to your inbox isn't going to help you build a great company. So don't be afraid to ignore it.