I never thought I’d end up in a wooden box at age 31, but here I am, surrounded by timber. I buried myself in the jail cell version of a hotel room. When I landed in Singapore, I found several “capsule hotels.” Since I was exploring minimalism, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take my experiment one step further. My two-square-meter capsule is the ultimate reduction to the essential. If anything were taken away in my cell, it would become a coffin. One light switch and one power outlet seems enough. Less would be impractical, but more already feels like a waste.
In startup-land, not many people think about minimalism. Growth equals success, and success is the result of focus and ambition. But ambition itself can be the biggest enemy of focus. During my 10-year journey from zero dollars to tens of millions in revenue, I was really good at doing “more.”
As CEO, I had the power to put anything on the agenda. The gravity of my aspiration pulled me toward doing too much of that. Out of ambition, I was shoving too much food on our plate. After eating up, the team and I usually felt a little sick.
The phrase “less is more” in an architectural sense was employed by the famous Bauhaus-affiliated Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. I’ve actually been living in one of his apartment buildings for the last 10 years, but applying these three simple words in my companies is still one of my biggest struggles—hence my experiments with minimalism and waking up in a wooden cell in downtown Singapore.
Now that I’ve successfully exited my company, I can better reflect objectively on where I should have done less. I’m pretty sure we could have achieved more and spared ourselves a lot of growing pains by doing less in several respects. So here is my list for you, you overly ambitious, overly energetic startup founder, a list of less to do in order to achieve more in the long run.
Set fewer goals
I remember sessions where we would set 15 quarterly goals. That’s not being laser-focused. That’s the dim light of a candle hardly seen from far away. Don’t just start by brainstorming your objectives and key results; decide first how many OKRs you want to set. Three should be enough. When you have found them, reduce them to two. Your goal is to produce a laser beam so narrow it will focus your organization’s energy and burn through the wall—and your competition.
The biggest problems we had on the journey from zero to hundreds of employees always revolved around people. Especially when we hired fast and compromised on quality. Take a week to think about how to move forward without hiring. There might be smarter solutions. Great companies produce remarkable results with fewer, very good people. Optimize for EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization) per employee. Recruit a small team of Navy SEALs, not an army.
Create fewer products
When I hear founders say something like “We already have a customer base, so we could expand and also sell them XYZ,” I usually smile. Most great companies start out with very few but very good products and sell a lot of them. New products should be added only when you have truly penetrated a market—which is rarely the case in the first year—or when your initial product isn’t working.
Clean the closet of ongoing projects
Complexity in organizations doesn’t just appear; it creeps up through good intentions. In startups, experimentation and new projects can be good. But give yourself a finite number of slots for those projects and treat them like experiments. Free up slots by either finishing or shutting down the initiatives. Killing projects for the sake of complexity is good. Celebrate it!
Default to “no”
The enthusiasm and positivity that got you in the founder seat can be hurting you. When you’re really focused on your goals, your default reaction to everything else should be “no.” The world needs to work really hard to convince you of something outside your goals. Say “no” and smile. Take pride in it. It took me 10 years to realize that saying “no” and letting opportunities pass can really feel good.
Declutter the office
The work your team does is both a reflection of themselves as well as their physical environment. It matters more than you think, so create an office culture of less. We sometimes made a point by having everyone clean their area for two hours on a Friday afternoon.
Regulate yourself through a mirror
You’re probably overwhelmed by your ambition and won’t realize you’re doing too much. It’s impossible to watch yourself without a mirror. Find an external perspective for balance. It might be an investor, adviser, friend, or at least the notebook in which you promised to pace yourself.
Make “less” a habit
Doing less is not a one-time project but a habit. Remember that “more” will creep in automatically. In a couple weeks, you will have forgotten everything you just read and started 100 new things. Create a rhythm of “less.” Copy this list into a calendar appointment with yourself in three months and remind yourself to do less.