Sweat the Small Stuff

Here is something business schools and venture capitalists don’t tell you: in start-ups, little things compound to make an enormous difference.  The little things add up just like compound interest adds up – they are vital to the exponential growth of any company.

Sometimes the success of a company can be attributed to doing one thing really well.  But often, success is due to executing on many little things.    

Here are some small things that can make a big difference:

Billboards, company schwag, and advertisements can all boost your company morale.
For all of Rapleaf's success, one of the most motivating things for our team has been the big Rapleaf sign on our building.  It is real, tangible, and present … and that is important for a company that generally deals with bits and bytes.  When friends of our employees walk by the building, they sometimes text Rapleafers and let them know they saw the sign.  That’s real motivation.


Negotiating legal fees in term sheets

One of the little things in a term sheet that is really important is legal fees paid to the investor’s counsel.  Not only will negotiating the legal fees save your company a lot of money and hassle, it will also significantly increase the speed that the deal is done.

The entrepreneur who, when raising money, only focuses on valuation and ignores minor line items like the legal fees is doomed to a life where the little things are bound to take over.

Testing, testing, testing

All companies can benefit from controlled testing of their ideas to see what has this most impact. Consumer Internet companies, for example, can test every email, web page, and message.  Detail-oriented people who continuously A/B test and fine tune their site stand a much higher chance of success than those who do not.

You wouldn’t think that successful entrepreneurs would spend all their time in the weeds rather than looking at the big picture, but they know that not just the devil resides in the details.

Michael Birch, founder of Bebo (which sold to AOL), is one such entrepreneur who sweats the small stuff.  Bebo was, of course, very innovative, but its success was due to the dogged pursuit of tuning, testing, and iterating.

Thinking about your employees
Performing even seemingly basic tasks on behalf of your employees can go a long way.

Many start-ups neglect to do the little things for their employees.  I'm always amazed when I meet someone who has been with a company three months and still doesn't have businesses cards.  Or stories of employees coming to the office on their first day and they don't have a chair, computer, or even a desk.

The reason employees are neglected in large corporations is because large corporations are really bureaucratic.  At small companies, the founders are often "big picture" people who not too focused on getting the little things done and they sometimes don’t hire the person who is in charge of all the little things.   All start-ups should get a really competent office manager as one of their first 10 employees … the investment will pay off in spades.

Also, remember and celebrate your employees’ birthdays and other milestones, and be sure to honor their achievements around the office.

Subtle recruiting goes a long way
When you are in recruiting mode (as most start-ups are always in), signify that recruiting is a priority by putting a brief message in all your email signatures, on the back of your business cards, and in your daily communications. Doing things this small step may lead to your next crucial hire.

(And on a side note, Rapleaf is looking for amazing software engineers and salespeople — new MacBook Air or an all-expense paid vacation to Hawaii if we hire your referral. See more at www.rapleaf.com/careers)

Dialing for dollars
Sales is often about being meticulous and doing the small things. We've all been in organizations were the plodding salesperson beats the brilliant presenter. Did you send the proposal on time?  Did you make just two more calls per day than the other guy? Did you go through all your tasks and calls?  Did you log all the contact information? These seemingly small tasks can help your company close that next critical deal.

Getting your email delivered to an inbox
It is amazing how many new consumer Internet companies forget to focus on email deliverability and ensuring their emails do not get caught in spam filters.  Joe Greenstein, CEO of Flixster, likes to say that Flixster is an “email deliverability company with a focus on movies.”

Retargeting is one of the most powerful things a company can do to re-engage its customers and look big. Retargeting allows you to show ads to people who visited your web site wherever they are on the Internet.  So once someone comes to your site, they’ll see your ads everywhere (like on Yahoo Finance, Huffington Post, Fox Sports, and more) until they delete their cookies. Once you try it, you’ll never want to be without it.
I’m an investor in Retargeter.com which is the retargeting network with the biggest reach because they sit on top on the three largest ad networks (Doubleclick, Right Media, and Fox). 

Appease the customers

Customer service can be a differentiating factor that helps you get new customers and returning customers. One way to bolster your service is by automating your customer service systems. There are a bunch of free and inexpensive tools available to help do this.  And no matter what, answer all incoming support emails within 48 hours.

While many start-ups fail because they don’t come up with or execute on the huge compelling idea, more often start-up failure is rooted in not mastering the small stuff.

Doing the small things is like compounding interest: little changes add up really fast. If these "little things" are not your forte, make sure you hire detail-oriented people and build a culture that encourages sweating the small issues because the minor details can be the difference between a good company and a great company.

Special thanks, as always, to Michael Hsu for his edits.

7 thoughts on “Sweat the Small Stuff

  1. pwarden

    Great tips, thanks. On the deliverability front, I’m a massive fan of http://sendgrid.com. They automate the checklist you run through, with plans starting at $10 a month. I’m a bit biased because they’re fellow Techstars, but I’ve also been an active user for the last six months, and I’m very happy with the results.

  2. Danny Sullivan

    “Here is something business schools and venture capitalists don’t tell you: in start-ups, little things compound to make an enormous difference.”
    Auren I can’t speak much for time spent with venture capitalists and I’m not sure where you went to business school, but as a current MBA student right down the street from your office, I could not begin to count how many times my professors have emphasized the impact of doing “small things” well – in companies of any size, from start-up to conglomerate – during my 18 months of classwork so far.
    Some highlights:
    -In people management, this took two fronts: first, we spoke at length about the factors that were statistically found to be important to workers across industries. They were often little things – like frequent feedback, and a sense of importance re the work – that turned out to be more critical than, say, immediate opportunity for advancement.
    -Several lectures were then spent talking about the Japanese method of Kaizen – the focus on continual improvement via small changes that leads to optimal production processes.
    -In supply chain, an entire 3-hour session focused on the “tipping point”-effect of small changes that could apply to any process, like software creation, not just manufacturing.
    -In decision modeling, small changes made to constraints were repeatedly shown to potentially change outcomes in radical fashions.
    -In legal studies, the differences in law were poured over, showing the way that areas like security, tort, and intellectual property law have evolved and continue to offer subtle but important differences for companies.
    -Finally, the entrepreneurship classes have consistently spoken on “small stuff” topics – the importance of the cohesion of the leadership team, the realities of day-to-day employee motivation, the critical nature of basic logistics – in addition to larger, business model questions. And a day of classes – led by a lawyer and a VC – is dedicated to breaking down term sheets, line by line.
    I’m not even touching on the small things in finance, economics, or statistics because I think the point is made (and besides, I have a copious amount of reading to do). But trust me: they were discussed there too.
    I know it’s often fashionable to trash b-school (see also: Mark McCormack), and never more so than now when some know-nothings are trying to attach blame for the economic meltdown to the structure of business school curricula. But frankly, coming from someone who apparently deplores the wrong kind of “outsourced thinking” (See http://blog.summation.net/2010/01/outsourced-thinking-is-todays-biggest-problem.html) you’re guilty of just that sin in the first line of your very next blog post.
    So c’mon, Auren – time to follow your own advice.

  3. Auren Hoffman

    thanks Danny. appreciate your comments. sounds like you are in a terrifically interesting program.
    Generally i am very skeptical on the value of an MBA. while MBAs have serious value for people pursuing certain careers (like mngt consulting and private equity), they often have negative value for people pursuing other careers (like non-profit work, almost anything at a start-up, almost anything in engineering, and most things in sales). but there are some really good MBA programs and i am sure you are in one of them.
    MBAs are also really good for people who:
    1. need to build a network of like-minded people
    2. have trouble learning from books alone and prefer the in-depth interaction with others
    3. want to make a totally new career move and need time off to think about what they want to do and build new skills
    4. don’t need money now and can afford the massive investment (top MBA schools cost $180k + $200k in lost wages + lost opportunities for promotion)
    5. are more risk averse where the diploma is an important thing to fall back on
    however, i realize these are controversial views. college degrees do not carry much weight either and my biggest regret is actually finishing college

  4. Danny Sullivan

    Auren – It’s completely fair to criticize the value of an MBA. Despite the coverage of topics like those I list, whether it will be a good investment for me personally is a retrospective question. In some of the cases you mention, I absolutely agree that it will not benefit most participants monetarily.
    I am biased here, but doing a part-time program was a better choice than a full-time program for me. If you can tolerate the work load on top of your job and your life (and I realize this is a mighty if), lost wages/promotion opportunities are mitigated, and the ability to “learn on Sunday, try on Monday” deepens the educational value of the experience dramatically.
    I disagree with a couple other of your characterizations – the “like-minded people” crack being chief among them, and the idea that the people in those programs have trouble learning from books. Or do you really think the “small stuff” ideas stands out in books vis a vis hearing about experiences from classmates?
    But we can debate those elsewhere. On a separate note: have you written a post on why your biggest regret is *finishing* college? I tend to think college is something of a waste – particularly on the young! – but to have that be your greatest regret implies the loss of something else (I’m thinking a business opportunity, perhaps?) that should produce a provocative post.

  5. Auren Hoffman

    thanks Danny. yes, i got a lot of comments (and flak) for my tweet that my biggest regret was actually finishing college. i said it in a joking way … i loved college. but my life would not have been any different if i dropped out … and i would have better stories to tell at dinner parties.

  6. resume writing

    I totally agree to your point. Even though all the things you named here really are small and people often forget about them, sometimes it’s these small things that make a great difference between success and failure


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