Cutting the Startup Lawn: Lessons in BEHAGian Motivation

September 11, 2011

2:05 pm

I hate to cut the lawn, so I don’t do it.  Here’s why: I spend a couple of hours and the lawn looks great for a day or two.  Yet in a week, I know I’m going to get out there again, sweat my butt off with the gnats, mosquitos and my lawn mower. It’s drudgery.

On the other hand, I love to shovel snow. It’s difficult, back-breaking work, and when I’m done, it looks great.  And you know what else?  There’s a chance, especially with climate change, that I won’t ever have to do it again.

Shoveling snow isn’t easy. It takes more effort than walking behind a lawn mower. So what’s the difference?  In my mind, shoveling is an event with a beginning, a middle and an end. Cutting the lawn is a never-ending treadmill. (OK, perhaps I don’t have to cut the lawn while I’m shoveling snow, but you get my point.)

Is working at your company like shoveling snow, or is it more like cutting the lawn? That is to say, do people punch the clock and work into the wee hours of the morning every day on one long continuous project, maybe working toward an IPO three years from now?

When you read a 500-page book, do you read a 500-page book, or a chapter at a time?

Maybe it’s time to break that long-running, coma-inducing, treadmill-run-to-liquidity into a bunch of little BEHAGs or Big Hairy Audacious Goals. Break the major projects into the smaller important building blocks. Chop the work required to create a successful enterprise into smaller, more digestible chunks–ninety-day nuggets with a beginning, a middle and an end.  Promote these projects.  Give them names.  Track their progress, and get your people to work harder, pull all-nighters, and feel satisfied when they’ve pulled the project off.

Celebrate successful conclusions.  Reward the victors, and move on to the next BEHAG.

BEHAG War Story Time

I was running a company whose success depended on a major new release of a product. This was a multi-million dollar software infrastructure product used to manage large-scale telecommunications networks. Service providers had been introducing new services, like integrated phone, Internet and television, and these new services required managing a lot of new equipment. If we couldn’t support the new services, we would be out of business.

BEHAG 1 was product design; BEHAG 2 was develop the Alpha Code; BEHAG 3 was a total integrated BEHAG we called Operation Scarecrow.  Salespeople had to find an agreeable beta customer.  We sent a team of developers and customer support people to install and bring up the beta software for our first customer. We saw the beta team off with much fanfare and with a promise that if, in 4 weeks they had the product up and running with customer acceptance, we’d throw a party.

The Generation X beta team shaved their heads in a show of solidarity, and their foolish Boomer Generation leader promised that if they completed the task on time and on budget, he would allow them to shave his Boomer head Gen X-style.

bald boys

Author & crew of the hair-clipper ship... Dandy

Needless to say, two months later, I had rented the Dandy, a tour boat that does dinner cruises on the Potomac River as it passes the monuments in Washington, DC.  When I stepped off the boat, this Boomer was sporting a Gen X shaved head. You know what else? As in true kool-aid drinking cultish fashion, our VP of R&D stepped up, as did several other people who had stayed home to support the beta team.

Oh, and 3Com bought that company for $100M cash.  Now that’s a successful BEHAG.

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Glen Hellman (@glehel), is an angel investor, serial entrepreneur, and works for venture capitalists as a turn-around specialist. He is the Chief Entrepreneureator at Driven Forward LLC, frequently muses on his blog, Forward Thinking, and works with entrepreneurs to help them figure out what to do and get them to do it.

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