Productivity Hacks for Startup Founders by Jenna Abdou


The number of times my dad said “It’s a marathon, not a race, Jenna” during the beginning of my time at 33voices is equivalent to the amount of times Elrich proclaims he founded Aviato on HBO’s Silicon Valley. 

Despite everyone’s advice to take it easy after an accelerated senior year, I started working at 5 a.m. the Monday after graduation. I worked tirelessly throughout the day, gave up hobbies like working out and baking, and truly believed that the only way to achieve success is to maximize our time. 

The more my family encouraged me to scale back, the more regimented I became. I had no  greater satisfaction than checking a task off of my to-do list.

To my (and their not so) surprise, I came down with the flu and was forced to stay in bed for a week in September. Still, as I attempted to juggle my fresh coconut (it’s the best remedy to boost immunity) I tried to send interview requests. Instead of the positive response I hoped for, all I ended up with was a raging headache.

Getting the flu turned out to be the best thing that happened to me because it forced me to take a step back and reevaluate my priorities. Not only did my efforts to work harder result in five days of no work, they caused me to sacrifice my health, hobbies, and relationships just so I could say I clocked in a certain amount of hours. 

The most important lesson I learned this year is that productivity is linked to a healthy, and sometimes flexible, routine instead of strict regiments. With this in mind, I turned to my friends for their best productivity strategies and as always, I’m eager to adopt many of their techniques - Well I’m more interested in Julie’s snacks over Mike’s marathons, but hey, whatever works. 




Melanie Perkins, Co-founder and CEO of Canva 

  1. Focusing on the end goal: With every task that I do, I always have a strong focus on the long term vision of the task or project. Looking at every task in the context of the bigger picture provides motivation to see the task through. For example, when I was starting out with our first company, Fusion Books, and wanted to post thousands of letters - packing envelopes for days on end was certainly not the most exciting job in the world unto itself. Fortunately, with that particular task my co-founder, Cliff and I were able to rope our generous families in to help. However, it really is the context of the task - that it was to help build a successful company and get the word out that helped the task to be fun and have meaning.
  2. Writing lists: It takes a long time to turn an idea into a company and there are lots of little things that contribute to its success. Late night brainstorms, feedback from users, little thoughts and ideas can make a big difference - I keep lists that I cross off on a day to day basis, week-to-week and even lists that I wrote years ago that I am still working through. I find jotting things down is often the first step to seeing them realized.
  3. Long walks for brainstorming: Cliff and I walk whenever we can, it’s a great way to brainstorm ideas, strategies and plans for the future.



Vivek Sharma, Co-founder and CEO of Movable Ink 

When I was a kid my dad taught me to create task lists to get things done. I create a sorted list and give myself tighter deadlines on items where I might be a bottleneck. This might seem very basic but, shockingly, there are people who don’t have a task management process. I ask that my managers use the same tool so our conversations are focused and no one is confused about who owns a task. WeekDone and Asana are great, collaborative task management tools.

I say no to a *lot* of meetings. It’s easier, and a good idea, in the early days of a startup to add randomness in the path to product-market fit. Once you have something that works, the business propels you forward and you have to ruthlessly manage your time towards execution. This means that 90% of my time is spent on things with an end-goal in mind. This means no mentorships or ego-stroking speaking engagements. That said, I try to carve out 10% of my time on things that spark creativity or get me off the treadmill of getting things done.

A big part of freeing up time is delegation. In the early days, the business won’t move forward unless you will it forward. Once things click, it’s important not to fall into the trap of doing a job simply because you can. The second we figure out a piece of the business I find someone to own it completely (i.e “be the CEO of it”). This could be doing sales after building a reproducible process, on-boarding new clients, or managing your finances. I joke that a founder should aspire to do nothing. Your only job is to build a machine that can scale. Sinking yourself into a role makes you a bottleneck and doesn’t give someone else an opportunity to lead.



-- Julie Lorch, Director of UX at DoSomething.Org 


Man, let’s talk about snacks. I love snacks. Especially at 10:30 and 3, with a huge glass of water. My co-workers are smarter and nicer to each other when we’re snacking, and I’m convinced we come up with better ideas, too. Like, I wouldn’t be writing this post without the apple and handful of almonds I just ate.  Anyway, aside from remembering to snack, I workout everyday and always have a giant pair of noise canceling headphones with me. Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’d get anything done without snacks, cardio, and headphones.




-- Mike Townsend, Co-Founder of HomeHero

I believe that having a set routine of waking up, eating a set number of meals, and exercise frees up incredible amounts of attention and creativity that can be used to grow and be productive.

Startups can consume your life 24/7, but the goal is not to spend all your time working on your business, it’s to be as productive as possible. Your productivity is highly dictated by your emotional state and when your only indication of success or failure is your business, its hard to keep a consistent work ethic. To combat this volatility I’ve found it so valuable to have multiple outlets of competition, for me that is running marathons and triathlons.



Brittany Hodak, Co-founder of ZinePak

1) Schedule, schedule, schedule! It’s way too easy to skip something that isn’t in your calendar. I always say that if something isn’t in my calendar, it isn’t in my life. This extends to everything I do: work meetings, outings with friends, gym sessions, and times for specific tasks. It takes a lot less willpower to do something that’s scheduled than to “find time” to deal with an outstanding item on your to-do list.

2) Track it! For me, the saying “You manage what you measure” is totally true. I use the app Way of Life to chart my daily compliance of the tasks that matter most. It’s a lot less tempting to skip a workout when you know you’ll be reminded of the decision every time you look at your weekly or monthly performance report.

3) Match your activities to your values. Think about your core values, both personally and professionally, and write them down. A great book to help get you started is The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. Revisit your core values regularly and think about them before you make commitments. Time and energy are finite resources, and it’s important that you manage them effectively.  



Aaron Firestein, Co-founder and Chief Artist at Bucketfeet 

I have to do have a to-do list, or nothing will get done. I like to write out big tasks and then list all of the sub-tasks that need to get accomplished. I almost always listen to music while working. Instrumental stuff is best so I don’t get distracted (house, jazz, downtempo, etc…). I absolutely cannot start my day without coffee or tea. It’s in my head, but it definitely helps. 


Further Reading
  • Seedling Relies on Childhood Curiosity to Inspire a Creative Team — On a recent flight home, I spent over an hour browsing a children’s play website, completely enamored by sets like Design Your Own Superhero Cape and Invent Your Own Insects. After sharing Seedling with everyone I know, despite few of my friends having children, I wondered why the brand struck a such a meaningful chord with me.
  • How PowerToFly is Designing the Future of Work — In Katharine Zaleski’s letter ‘I'm sorry to all the mothers I worked with’ - Fortune magazine’s most popular article of 2015 - she describes the traditional workplace as “death by a thousand cuts for mothers;” Detailing the harsh challenges women face scaling their careers once they have children.
  • Maintain Your Company's Pulse: Four Processes to Streamline Scaling — When the founders of Hotwire reflect on launching one of the first online travel websites in 2000 they describe the early days as “complete and utter chaos. We raised $75 million, hired 100 people and grew as quickly as we could,” Gregg Brockway, the company’s former Chief Product Officer, said. Hotwire was acquired by Expedia in 2003, where Gregg and his co-founders Eric Grosse, Karl Peterson, and Spencer Rascoff remained to lead the team.


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