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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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A Small Set of Simple Moves

Comments (25)

I heard the phrase “a small set of simple moves” a few weeks ago from someone and it stuck in my head.  Since then I’ve been thinking about it regularly as a fundamental operating principle.

Building any company is hard, but when I look back on the success of many of the companies I’ve been involved in, it occurs to me that it is built on a small set of simple moves.  Now, these moves are rarely obvious, and are often hard to figure out, but once you nail it, you can do them over and over again all the way to greatness.

While running this morning, I was thinking about this in the context of running marathons.  I know exactly what I need to do to get in shape to run a 4:30 marathon.  Going from 4:30 to 4:00 requires a small set of simple moves.  Anyone that has run a marathon knows this, but also knows that it’s a bitch to knock 30 minutes off your time, even if you start from a base of 4:30!  The moves aren’t complicated but aren’t obvious to someone running their second marathon.  I’ve run 14 and have a coach so they’ve become pretty obvious to me.  Yet I’ve still never crossed the 4:05 mark.

The reason is that it requires conviction.  You now know the moves – now do them.  Over and over and over again.  Not so easy.  Especially when you get tired, have other things come up that get in your way, lose confidence, get distracted, or just get bored.  But – when you stick with it, execute the small set of simple moves, and then run the marathon in 4:00, it’s magic.

Just like building a company.  When I look at the great entrepreneurial CEO’s that I’ve worked with, they understood this innately.  They worked extremely hard to figure out the small set of simple moves that would work, and then just did them over and over again.  When they inevitably got distracted or bored their fundamental conviction pulled them back to the small set of simple moves.  Occasionally they introduced a new move into the mix, but only when they had conviction that it would be additive.  And – in a phrase that is trendy today – they “failed fast” on things that weren’t going anywhere.

I learned a phrase from my dad that I love – when I was a teenage he said “don’t make complicated mistakes.”  A “small set of simple moves” fits nicely with that.  If you are a CEO, have you figured out what your small set of simple moves are?

  • tedr

    Great post. I'll keep both those mantra in my head. Follow the small set of simple moves and avoid complicated mistakes.

  • Camilo

    I had the same revelation the other day while trail running. In this case I was running a trail I was not familiar with, so I did not know the terrain, elevation gain nor length. It turned out to be a challenging 6 mile 2000 ft of elevation gain, but I was able to make it by setting small goal and reaching one at a time. It is exactly the same way in starting a business or running one. You dont know the path, you have an idea of the end, but for sure what's gonna get you there is your simple small moves.

    As an entrepreneur sometimes you get into motivational slumps but these type of thoughts get us going.

    Thanks
    PS How was investor day at TechStars?

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      Investor day was awesome.  Simply awesome. 

  • Tom

    Reminds me of something I read in a recent issue of Fortune magazine…

    “You won’t become a general unless you become a good first lieutenant.”

    – Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired four-star general, in the Best Advice issue of Fortune, now on newsstands. This “barracks wisdom,” Powell says, was passed down from the old reserve captains to the young infantry officers at Fort Benning in the form of a fable: A young officer asked a general what it took to earn that rank. The general told him he’d have to have moral and physical courage, never show fatigue or fear, and always be the leader. The young officer thanked him and said, “So, is this how I become a general?” The general answered, “No, that’s how you become a first lieutenant, and then you keep doing it over and over and over.”

  • http://estatecreate.com Henry Yates

    Great post. The key for me was when you say "The reason is that it requires conviction." As you say, experience gives you the confidence to focus on the small set of simple moves and ignore the millions of other options/opportunities.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    Yup – you got it.  The idea of “having conviction” is so important.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/daveangulo Dave Angulo

    Couldn't agree more, endurance racing and building companies require a tremendous expenditure of energy, using it wisely is a key to success. Iterating small simple moves is incredibly efficient for making large changes in the outcome. You touched on 2 other things, besides conviction, this iteration model depends upon. Having both internal and external awareness of your situation and the wisdom from use of these moves in the past that allows you to apply them for maximum effect. At the end of the race, this is what allows someone to "make it look easy".

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      Right on the money.  The internal awareness is one of the most important things.  I can’t tell you the number of times someone stumbles because they aren’t digging deep enough “interally” to understand what’s going on.

  • http://thedreaminaction.com Ryan Graves

    Brad, I'm trying to figure out if you're saying there that are "common" small steps to the be successful in the entrepreneurial process of if the small steps are different for each team/startup/entrepreneur.

    Can you expand on that? Comment or new post, whatever…

    Cheers,
    Ryan

    • TJ Goan

      I want to 2nd Ryan's question. I'd love examples from Brad (or any readers) of both general and startup-specific "simple steps". I'm a first timer and I'd like to recognize those steps before I "get tired, have other things come up that get in my way, lose confidence, get distracted, or just get bored" so I can fall back on them.

      thanks!
      TJ

      • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

        I’ve written about a bunch of this in the past (although not as directly as “here are your simple moves.”)  I’ll try to focus some energy on it in future posts.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

      There are some common ones and some unique ones.  Figuring out which common ones to use (always a small subset of “all the common moves”) and then figuring out the unique ones is the challenge.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JChauncey JChauncey

    We tend to surround ourselves with complicated matters. Whether you are starting a business or just working on a team, breaking down something into its most simple steps is always the best way to get something done.

    Great advice as always.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/rajbala rajbala

    Seminal post.

    Applies to all sorts of aspects in life not just entrepreneurship.

  • http://www.andrewhyde.net Andrew Hyde

    I love this post, will think more about it when I am running (thing just make more sense when on a trail…)

  • http://bit.ly/19kduZ Greg

    Interesting to think of it as a simple recursive process. The hard parts are the insight to figure out the right steps and the grit and clarity to stick to them in the fray. It seems to me like the death spiral caused by poor performance is also a repeated series of simple steps, just the wrong ones! Lose customer focus, see profits fall, cut costs blindly, rinse, and repeat.

  • http://www.changebecomeschange.com Gina

    As I write this, I've got "small set of simple moves" printing, about 8-up on paper so that I can post this mantra in places I frequent: my computer screen (frame), bathroom mirror, car, notebook, back of my phone, etc. This is great. And you so accurately described why we give up on things or don't achieve greatness: we get tired, we lose focus, we get overwhelmed and forget. Achieving greatness doesn't need to be complicated, overwhelming and huge – it must be simple.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/heyrich heyrich

    This is a great idea and has been spinning around since I read the post a couple days ago. Although the business implications are there for me, the biggest revelation that has come for me has been something I've done instinctively as an athlete.

    Whenever I come up with a new goal (sign up for a triathlon, lose 10 pounds, whatever), I have a habit of coming up with some simple rules to help myself get there. "If you can bike there, you have to." helped me lose 10 pounds in a month. "Exercise every day." became a shared goal to work out 100 days in a row with @andrewhyde.

    These made things my life easier. I put my car keys in the drawer. And knowing that I *had* to exercise changed my though process from whether to exercise on a given day to "what should I do?" and "who can I do it with?"

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/heyrich heyrich

    This is a great idea and has been spinning around since I read the post a couple days ago. Although the business implications are there for me, the biggest revelation that has come for me has been something I've done instinctively as an athlete.

    Whenever I come up with a new goal (sign up for a triathlon, lose weight, whatever), I have a habit of coming up with some simple rules to help myself get there. "If you can bike there, you have to." helped me lose 10 pounds in a month. "Exercise every day." became a shared goal to work out 100 days in a row with @andrewhyde.

    These made things my life easier. I put my car keys in the drawer. And knowing that I *had* to exercise changed my though process from whether to exercise on a given day to "what should I do?" and "who can I do it with?"

    Lather, rinse, repeat.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MCavalcanti Miguel Cavalcanti

    Hi Brad,

    Great simple post. I learned about how to get my company better and how to run better.

    Do you have any reading suggestions on running my first marathon? I´ve run 2 half-maratons and a 25k run this year.

    Tks for sharing your knowledge.

    Best wishes, Miguel, from Brazil

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld Brad Feld

    I’ve had a few people asking me for a “how to run a first marathon” post..  It’s coming soon!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/MCavalcanti Miguel Cavalcanti

    tks a lot, i´m looking forward to read it ! :-)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/fiwedding fiwedding

    It's a difficult thing to listen to feedback from your initial users, the first 25,000, and do the opposite of what they recommend. You alienate your "support base" etc etc. Tough situation.

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