There’s a lot of buzz on the internet about SaaS growth hacks, and you can find multiple lists with 99 tactics to try to grow your business. Grab a few of those, and you easily have 300-400 to-do’s.
While I’m all for running experiments, I think for the Founder who is truly looking to scale their business there’s just one “hack” you really need to use. You can use it at any stage of your business, and it’s called the 80/20 rule.
Today’s post on the 80/20 rule is based on an event I ran with Ward Sandler, Founder of MemberSpace for Founder Summit earlier this year. If you’re a calm, low-ego Founder interested in scaling, apply to join. We send out invites twice a month.
First, let’s start with the basics. What is the 80/20 rule, and why do I think it’s the ultimate ‘SaaS growth hack’?
It’s pretty simple: For many outcomes, roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of the causes. Or flipped and made specific to Founders: Roughly 20% of the stuff you do drives 80% of your business results.
So, figuring out what lives in that 20% zone and making those things your non-negotiables can have massive efficiency (and sanity) impacts.
That’s why developing a system to be ruthless about what makes it onto your to-do list is so critical. Because as you grow, the gap between all the things you could be working on and the amount of time you actually have available is only going to widen.
Finding your 20%
I can’t decide for you what your 20% is because I don’t know your specific business, but I do have some pointers to help you uncover them.
First up, there are two bad habits I think most of us have around time management, and they’re both about perception, so let’s bust a couple myths.
Being busy isn’t the same as doing work.
The first thing to realize is that just because something feels like work, doesn’t actually make it work, and it definitely doesn’t make it meaningful.
Responding to emails and not letting your inbox build up can feel like work because you’re super busy and you’re filling up your time.
I love the feeling of ‘inbox zero’ as much as anyone else, but answering emails often doesn’t actually advance the business, and it takes up a lot of time.
Up until very recently (and back pre-COVID when travel was a thing), I always wanted to book my own flights and my own hotel. And the bigger theme there was that I really wanted “control” over my own calendar. I wanted to know where I was going and when, where I’d be staying, what meetings were next to others, and how much time I had in between.
Eventually I realized this was taking up a lot of my time, and that it was pretty silly to think that I was the only person in the world who could possibly take care of that.
So about 6 months ago, I hired an Executive Admin, and it took literally 10 minutes for me to share with her, “Here’s how I like my calendar, here’s what I look for in flights, etc.”
These days Marie also manages my inbox. And that was an even bigger mental hurdle to get over, but it also turned out not to be that hard. She reads my email, alerts me to critical things I really need to respond to, and drafts responses for me on the non-critical stuff that comes up all the time.
For earlier to mid-stage SaaS bootstrappers, hiring a support person should probably come ahead of hiring an admin, but you can think about it the same way.
I talk to Founders every single week who want to scale, and don’t see that all the time they’re spending personally handling every support ticket is simply not moving their business forward and will not leave them the time to make big strategic moves to help them scale.
Sure in the launch stage, support is critical to a Founder for understanding their target customer’s needs and pain points and developing a product roadmap. But if you’re two years in and profitable, you need to seriously reconsider whether you’re the only person who can handle your customer questions and requests.
You can be doing really important work when you don’t look busy.
It might surprise you to hear that just having free time in my calendar to sit and think is in my 20%.
I used to think I’d do that in the shower, or on a bike ride, or in the 30 minutes after the kids went to bed and I was still up. Time to think sounded like a luxury, not something that needed to be built into my calendar.
But over time, I realized that I could create a lot of leverage in my thinking time because it gave me space to tackle my biggest problems, vs. just checking off the little stuff on my to-do list. So I don’t feel guilty about sitting and thinking, reading a chapter of a business book, or listening to a podcast on a business problem at 2 p.m. on a Monday anymore. I know I get leverage out of doing that.
The same goes for exercise. I can’t sit in a chair for 8 hours, and I’m pretty sure people weren’t actually designed to do that. It’s a huge part of why I went all in on remote work when I started SureSwift. I often find that some of my best work thinking happens on a run when I’m disconnected from my laptop and my phone, so I build in time for that.
Mapping your time to your results
If you’re spending a lot, or really any of your time on the left side of this graph, that’s the first stuff you need to be slashing from your schedule.
If you’re bootstrapping and running solo, you can use this chart as a guide to your time. Once you think about scaling and hiring (even if that means one additional part-time person), you have other people’s time going into that vertical axis, and you should do some thinking about how to get the most results out of that added time.
(And a side note — all those lists of growth hacks should get prioritized and run as experiments in that lower left side of the graph. Test one out. Does it drive results? Scale it. If it doesn’t — drop it. Rinse, and repeat.)
Scaling up? Narrow down to the things you are the best person to do.
If you’re building or scaling a team, you need to add one more layer to this chart. Just because something drives business results, doesn’t mean you’re the best person to do it.
There are things I’m not good at that I enjoy doing, but someone else would do a better job. There are also things I’m good at that I just don’t enjoy doing, and someone else could both be good at it and enjoy it.
So the 20% of things I spend my time doing have changed over time, and they’ll continue to change as we grow. First because the needs of the business change. And second, because as I hire more people I continue to try to hone my 20% to the stuff that drives results and that I am the best person to do.
If you’re hiring your first person, or first few people, the right side of that graph is where you should be looking at the work and applying the questions:
Am I the best person to do this or could someone else do it better?
Do I enjoy doing it?
Now look for patterns in the type of work, and you probably have the beginnings of a job description.
The reason I love the 80/20 rule is because it’s so widely applicable. It doesn’t matter what your vertical or niche is, or how big your team is, or what stage your business is in. And I especially love it for bootstrappers because when you’re wearing every hat in a business, you need some way of deciding what to do and what not to do, or you can burn yourself out very, very quickly.
I’d love to keep the conversation going — hit me up on Twitter and let me know if you’ve tried the 80/20 rule, or what process you use to decide what to spend your time on.