How to prioritise your time when building a startup?

Learning from YCombinator’s startup school future founders

Adora Cheung brings a focus of opportunity costs into making progress on startups — you could build your product at no cost to you, but you are spending your time, losing opportunities that you could have had otherwise.

You want things to grow to understand if you are building the right thing, and you want to prioritise your time to get you this knowledge early.

This isn’t about working 24 hours on your project

Firstly, you need to spend your time so that you are happy. You need to balance this. This is personal — no suggestions are right unless they work for you.

Adora Cheung’s highest level grouping of time; source. Its very similar to how create pots on

“whether it’s 2, 6, 12 hours a day that you decide to work on your startup, it doesn’t matter to me for the purpose of this lecture. I just want to help you figure out how to spend those 2, 6, or 12 hours that you’ve decided to allocate your startup in the best possible way”

Real vs Fake Progress

Real progress actually moves things — usually things like growth (revenue or active users), but more generally KPIs.

Fake progress doesn’t entirely focus on KPIs — talking to press, awards, different metrics, conferences, etc.

Always pick real progress.

How to prioritise

“So here’s an experiment. Try journaling in great detail of each day in the past week every single hour. So hour by hour, what is it that you’re exactly doing and be honest on what you thought the impact was before you actually did it, and what it was in increasing your primary KPI.” — Adora Cheung

That reminds me of something.

Find what activities actually help your KPI

After journaling your time, you will have a better idea of what works.

Most of us are usually on autopilot — starting whatever lands at our plates, others are task focused and go for the smallest items as that increases throughput.

Alena is highlighting that when you start to recognise impact of actions you can prioritise to be more effective.

Keep your backlog:

When you are able to start, you should keep a list of actions you would like to do. But don’t start them yet (“the newest ideas always sound better”)

These will almost always be one to two things:

  • speaking to users (which can bring new users, understand if the product is even relevant, and defines what you need to make next)
  • building product (which should translate into bringing new users — when you share it)

Get some weekly cadence

Get weekly KPI goals.

Then, each week, grade the impactfulness of the items (High, Medium, Low) on your list — relative to how they will help your KPI.

Adora gives herself the KPI of “get 5 paying customers” and her list of actions typically have building features are usually at the bottom of the impact rating.

Next, add the complexity rating to this grid:

  • Easy (many in a day),
  • Medium (a day or so),
  • Hard (a few days or so)
Suddenly feature build seems wasteful, though do note this is clearly after MVP has been built.

Feedback loops are key

Again Adora strongly recommends reflecting on your weekly goals when the week is over. Review these:

And you should also review multiple weeks do reviews of your progress. Are you:

My work:

Feel free to use it as a template — it isn’t much. Feel free to use it as a prompt for yourself too.

Founder of and Product Owner @ dunnhumby; just genuinely interested in a lot of things. Built racecars, built electronics, now building software

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