The Work Begins When The Milestone Ends

Today’s guest post from Chris Moody, the COO of Gnip, follows on the heels of the amazing Big Boulder event that Gnip put on last Thursday and Friday. To get a feel for some of the speakers, take a look at the following blog posts summarizing talks from leaders of Tumblr, Disqus, Facebook, Klout, LinkedIn, StockTwits, GetGlue, Get Satisfaction, and Twitter.

The event was fantastic, but Chris sent out a powerful email to everyone at Gnip on Saturday that basically said “awesome job on Big Boulder – our work is just beginning.” For a more detailed version, and some thoughts on why The Work Begins When The Milestone Ends, I now hand off the keyboard to Chris.

We’ve just finished up Big Boulder, the first ever conference dedicated to social data.   By all accounts, the attendees and the presenters had a great experience. The Gnip team is flying high from all the exciting conversations and the positive feedback.   After countless hours of planning, hard work, and sleepless nights, it is very tempting to kick back and relax. There is a strong natural pull to get back into a normal workflow. But, we can’t relax and we won’t.  Here’s why.

As a company it is important to recognize the difference between a milestone and a meaningful business result.  Although it took us almost nine months to plan the event, Big Boulder is really just a milestone.   In this particular case, it is actually an early milestone.    The real results will likely begin months from now.   All too often startups confuse milestones for results.   This mistake can be deadly.

Milestones Are Not Results

Milestones represent progress towards a business result.  Examples of milestones that are commonly mistaken for results include:

Getting Funded.  Having someone make an early investment in your company is positive affirmation that at least one person (and perhaps many) believe in what you are trying to accomplish.  But, the results will come based upon how effectively you spend the money; build your team/product, etc.  Chris Sacca has tweeted a few times that he doesn’t understand why startups ever announce funding.  Although I haven’t heard him explain his tweets, I assume he is making the point that funding isn’t a meaningful business result so it doesn’t make sense to announce the news to the world.

Signing a partnership.  Getting a strategic partnership deal signed can take lots of hard work and months/years to accomplish.  Once a partnership deal is finally signed, a big announcement usually follows.  The team may celebrate because all the hard work has finally paid off.  But, the obvious mistake is thinking the hard work has paid off.  Getting the deal signed is a major milestone, but the results will likely be based upon the amount of effort your team puts in to the partnership after the deal is signed.  I’ve never experienced a successful partnership that just worked after the deal was signed.  Partnerships typically take a tremendous amount of ongoing work in order to get meaningful results.

Releasing a new feature.   Your team has worked many late nights getting a new killer feature in to the product.  You finally get the release out the door and a nice article runs in TechCrunch the next day.  The resulting coverage leads to your highest site traffic in a year.   But, have you really accomplished any business results yet?  Often the results will come after lots of customer education, usage analysis, or feature iterations.   If no customers use the new feature, have you really accomplished anything?

Is it okay to celebrate milestones?  Absolutely! Blow off steam for a half-day or a long celebratory night.  Take the time to recognize the team’s efforts and to thank them for their hard work.   But, also use that moment to remind everyone that the true benefits will happen based upon what you do next.

Results Increase Value

Unlike milestones, results have a direct impact on the value of the company.  Results also vary dramatically based upon different business models.   Examples of common results include: increasing monthly recurring revenue, decreasing customer turnover, lowering cost of goods sold (increasing gross margin).

Announcing a new feature is a milestone because it adds no value to the company.  On the other hand, having customers actually adopt a new feature might increase customer retention, which could be a meaningful business result.

The Work Begins When X Ends

When I worked at Aquent, there was a point in time when we were doing lots of tradeshows. We noticed a pattern of team members taking months to prepare for an event and then returning from the tradeshow declaring the event a success.   They would put a stack of business cards on their desk and spend the next several weeks digging out from the backlog of normal work stuff.  The business cards would begin to collect dust and the hot leads from the show would eventually become too cold to be useful.

In order to avoid this phenomenon, someone coined the expression “the work begins when the tradeshow ends”.  This simple statement had a big impact on the way that I think about milestones versus results.  Since that time, I’ve used the concept of this phrase hundreds of times to remind my team and myself that a particular milestone isn’t a result.    You can substitute the word “tradeshow” for whatever milestone your team has recently achieved to help maintain focus.

The most recent example?  The work begins when Big Boulder ends.