Why traditional goal setting can slow startups down, and how to recapture momentum

by ryanhvaughn. Posted on Sep 14, 2020    14    2

Just like in sports, momentum is gold when it comes to building companies. And no momentum is more important than the momentum that comes from the founder feeling like they’re winning.

But traditional goal-setting processes like SMART goals, while useful in most contexts, can actually be demotivating to founders due to the uncertainty inherent in building new businesses. Traditional goals, used incorrectly, can actively sabotage the very thing they’re designed to create: momentum.

Here’s a typical case:

You set your long term goal. Say it’s to reach 1m users. You chunk that goal down into milestones, say your first one is to hit 500 users in 30 days. Then you develop an action plan to hit that first milestone, say some SEO, paid Facebook ads and landing pages, and you lock in. So far so good.

You bust your ass, work nights, weekends, get the landing page/SEM/Facebook done, plus some. You sacrifice everything you can to hit that milestone, but you miss. Turns out your software went down. Or Facebook changed a term that made your type of ad illegal. Or maybe your goal was simply too ambitious..

Either way, shit happened and despite all your work you missed the milestone, and now in addition to the inherent difficulty of the job, now you’re also wondering if you even have what it takes. You missed your first milestone. Successful founders don’t miss their milestones, right?

With that doubt in your mind, you set a new goal, and cross your fingers.

I’ve seen so many people get caught in this mental trap — attaching their sense of self worth to their ability to produce outcomes. Our society tells us this is how it works.

It doesn’t have to work like this. Starting a company is hard enough without setting yourself up to feel like you suck at your job if (when) something out of your control happens.

The most effective founders attach their sense of accomplishment to completing actions, never to producing a result. This ensures that they can build momentum (read: the lifeblood of any new company) consistently through their own actions, regardless of outside forces.

Here’s what that looks like:

You set your long term goal. Say it’s to reach 1m users. You chunk it down to milestones, and develop an action plan to hit the first one same as above. You lock in.

You bust your ass, checking items off your to-do list. You work hard, and you finish your landing page/SEO/Facebook combo. Because you completed those things, you celebrate your competence as a founder. You actually, maybe, relax.

Then your software goes down, or Facebook shuts you down, or something else changes, and you miss your goal. Shit.

But you’re winning. You’re used to winning. You’re batting 1,000 on completing your action plans. So you iterate your short term goal and create a new plan, your best bet at which actions will help you get there, taking into account any new information. You don’t know if those actions will produce the result either, but you have no doubt you’ll get them done.

You always do. You got this.

You can imagine which way produces better results.

The best startup goal setting I’ve been around followed this process:

  1. Set goal, chunk to progressive milestones
  2. Set action plan to reach first milestone
  3. Complete action plan (this is where you either succeed or fail)
  4. Analyze, dispassionately, whether actions taken produced expected results
  5. Accounting for that analysis, iterate action plan to reach revised milestone
  6. Repeat

Your job as a founder, the standard to which you should hold yourself, is completing the actions, not producing the result.

So by all means, set goals. Big hairy ass ones. But don’t think that you have control over anything more than your actions taken in their service. Be ruthless about doing what you said you would do, and leave outcomes to the Universe to decide.


Finish strong this week all. If you liked this, check out four more stories this week at Second Mountain Startup, the weekly newsletter for purpose driven entrepreneurs.


MaxPast 6

Here is what I learned from my experience as an entrepreneur in about 20 years: I can't be motivated with long-term goals for more than 2-3 weeks, then I inevitably lose steam because of all these boring and painful tasks I need to do at the very beginning.

But even more important question is: How can you set up long-term goals at the very beginning, having little or no information? How does your "get 1,000,000 customers in a year" correlate with the reality? Only with real-world experience and real-world feedback you can finally pivot towards realistic and effective goals.

So, I personally prefer the following approach: I don't set "goals" but I rather set "directions of changes" according to Action Research methodology. The direction is different from the goal because it doesn't force you to set unrealistic expectations and develop unrealistic plans about the future.

For example: instead of "trying to get 1,000,000 customers" you should better focus on "learn how to get more customers through everyday theory and practice" and it will inevitably lead you to the maximum possible result. This result may be less or more than some abstract number you may get from your empty head at the very beginning, bit it will still be much closer to reality.

And, because I set directions, not goals, I optimize my work for pivoting as fast as possible, especially at the very beginning. Short one-day cycles of diagnosis, planning, action and analysis enable me to learn and take into account real-world feedback much faster than 3-month cycles, for sure. It also enables me to avoid getting stuck at some particularly long tasks for too long, losing motivation and strategic understanding of what I do.

Through this evolutionary process I can also pivot to better products or even niches much faster, especially if I set goals for my initial cycles like: "Get feedback from real-world customers as soon as possible." It works!

sir-draknor 2

I love both your comment and the OP's approach - both seem like huge improvements on the traditional way of thinking. Thank you both for sharing!