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The 40% rule for startups

"When your mind is telling you that you're done, you're really only 40 percent done.” - David Goggins

That quote from Goggins is about pushing yourself beyond your physical limits. It applies equally to the execution of “the basics” in startups.

Almost everyone declares victory far too early in their functions. They implement the basics of their function to about 40% of their potential and then consider it done. What’s the reason for this?

I think it largely stems from the fact that most of us believe that hard problems need smart solutions. So instead of doubling down on nailing the basics, we look for sophisticated ways to avoid doing the hard work.

So how does this play out?

Your VP Sales comes to you with a suggestion: We should start using GPT-4 for lead assignment. We could match the lead’s profile to specific reps based on deals they’ve previously had success with.

That sounds awesome right!? And that’s the problem!

We get so caught up in doing awesome things that we don’t realize how much more juice there is left to squeeze out of the basics.

Implementing the new shiny toys or doing advanced optimizations sounds cool, but it usually takes a lot to implement them, they're brittle, and they complicate the process.

If the team is still struggling with the basics (which they almost always are), you actually end up degrading performance with those sophisticated “optimizations”.

I've made this mistake countless times, but in recent years I’ve found a simple way to immunize myself against the 40% rule

Review work samples from the team before you start implementing anything “smart”. I don’t mean a report either. I mean going through pull requests, emails, calls, whatever one by one.

As soon as you get into the details, you’ll see that you are far from maxing out the basics.