Tom Blomfield: Getting Shit Done

I was recently talking to a handful of successful startups founders about issues they were facing as they scaled up their companies. Unanimously, hiring and retaining people who “get shit done” seemed to be their biggest problem. I’ve been thinking about this for the last few days, because it’s a deceptively simple idea.

It’s deceptively simple because people have a very strong cognitive bias - practically everyone thinks they “get shit done”, much like everyone thinks they are an above-average driver.

Empirically, most people do not get shit done.

So what does "getting shit done” look like? How can you define it?

The closest I’ve come is someone who, when confronted with a problem, will fix it with a surprisingly good solution in a surprisingly short amount of time. They have an ability to produce an astonishingly high quantity and quality of work. It’s someone I am confident giving my hardest, ugliest problems to, knowing that they’ll solve it better than I could. And when they present the solution, you’ll see they found a bunch of other problems along the way and fixed them too.

These are the kind of people you should try to start companies with. If you’re already running a startup, they are your most valuable assets. Give them more equity than your board is comfortable with, and try to get them to stick around as long as possible.

In Paul Graham’s formulation, they are “relentlessly resourceful”. Somehow, they just seem to defeat any problem. There are many different strategies. You can plough through an obstacle with brute force applied in just the right place. Or you can avoid the obstacle by redefining the problem, changing the rules of the game to suit yourself. Perhaps simply refusing to give up, and working harder and longer than anyone would consider reasonable. And sometimes doing things that look a little crazy from the outside.

The opposite is uncomfortably common. There are many people who will talk about problems, strategise different solutions, seek input and group consensus, but never actually accomplish anything. When things don’t happen, they always have a list of reasons why it’s not their fault. In a startup, this person needs weeding out as quickly as possible because they’re dead weight.

Once a company is running, it can gain a momentum all of its own. This seems especially true for big companies with a stable customer-base and market share. Some large companies have such momentum that a large proportion of the employees could simply not come to work and the thing would keep going all by itself. Big companies seem to train managers to be “interrupt-driven”, rather than proactive. So if you’re hiring from big companies, watch out for this.

Consistently “getting shit done” takes a huge amount of energy and initiative, but it seems energising for the right kind of person, rather than exhausting. It is a particularly important skill in the early days, because the natural state of a startup is inertia and, ultimately, failure. At first, your company has zero velocity, so you need to apply an incredible amount of time and energy to overcome this inertia and get the thing moving. Nothing happens unless you make it happen.

My favourite example is the story of Instacart’s early launch with Trader Joe’s. Instacart is a grocery delivery service and partners with some of the biggest retailers in the world. But when they were starting out, they wanted all of the inventory of Trader Joe’s listed on their site, along with the price and photo for each item. A normal approach would have been to negotiate a business development deal, which would have taken many months, killing momentum. Instead, the founders figured out that they could probably purchase one of every single item in the store, and working for 48 hours straight, photograph it all in a studio that was empty over a weekend. In my book, that is getting shit done.


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