In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about how to make plans during 2020.

With everything that has happened in 2020, you’d be forgiven if you chose to describe this year as the year of crisis. With this crisis comes uncertain and it can be quite challenging to make long-term plans in uncertain times like these.

In today’s episode, Steli and Hiten talk about if you should make plans in 2020, how you should plan in this year, why your timelines have to be shorter during a crisis and much more.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About today’s topic.

00:42 Why this topic was chosen.

01:33 Should you make plans in 2020?

02:43 How you should plan in 2020.

04:19 Why your timelines have to be shorter during a crisis.

04:59 How Steli currently makes his plans.

06:04 The right way to approach crazy times like these.

08:00 How Hiten approached the crisis.

11:59 How teams could deal with high pressure.

12:12 How you can adapt to the uncertainty.

3 Key Points:

  • You’re just planning, but not as far ahead as you normally would.
  • 2020 isn’t done with us.
  • During a crisis, your timelines have to be shorter


Steli Efti: Hey everybody, this is Steli Efti.


Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.


Steli Efti: And today on The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about how to make plans during 2020. So, making good plans is always challenging, but I find 2020, I mean… 2020 is a particular, unique year, in that it probably is a more challenging year for companies and startups and founders to make any sort of plan that people might have real confidence in, especially if it’s a longterm plan. So I’ve encountered this a couple of times this year already with friends that I thought it might be useful for the two of us to unpack this for our listeners, which is, “What the hell do you do?” If you run a startup, if you’re a founder and you want to plan, should you, in 2020? Are plans completely useless? Are they totally useful? And how should you think about making plans kind of the way that we approach this and the things that we’ve seen work well? I thought might help founders keep their sanity and hopefully accomplish more of the things they want to accomplish, even during an outstandingly crazy year like 2020. So, first of all, let me ask you this question. 2020, should we still make plans or would you advise anybody to stop making plans because this year is too nuts?


Hiten Shah: So, the… The… I’ve had, like, two or three conversations specifically about this, and I’ve shared something that… By the time I have two or three and I get the same question, and it’s a new question, I tend to like, have some kind of way to think about it or, like, you know, I’m driven crazy, you know? So I think that’s a really good question. The way it worked for me, and the way I was approaching this, not too long ago is I… Hang on, I just need to fix my mic. So I basically… When the sort of pandemic came along, I was taking things in a sort of hour by hour adjustment period, so to speak. So everything to me was thrown out the door because now all of a sudden, there’s this virus that we’re all dealing with and we have to sort of figure out what that means for us. And so I was taking it hour by hour because new information was coming in. This is like all up to about Shelter in Place. And then after Shelter in Place, I think the first few days were very similar and our, by “our”, meaning, like people were consumed with the news about it. Nobody knew what was going on obviously, and what was going to happen to us as a society like overall. Like what’s next? And then basically I… I realized that I was then going day to day and after that I was going week to week and I barely got to like a month ahead. And then the protests started and the rioting and kind of… And then it got global. And then I got back to like almost an hour by hour, just making sure that like, you know, people I knew were safe and accounted for and were kind of, you know, taking care of themselves and then more news kept coming in and opinions and all these other things. And then I went to about day by day. And right now, I’m still at about day by day. I think I’m about to be week by week soon, maybe starting next week. And what that means is you’re just planning not as far ahead as you normally would. Because oftentimes we’re planning the month, the quarter, the year. I don’t think we can do that. And it’s not because I expect anything new to show up, but I definitely, more than ever, expect the unexpected.


Steli Efti: Yeah. 2020 isn’t over, and isn’t done with us in my opinion. So that’s interesting. So first let me… I’ll share my side of things because there’s a good amount of overlap, but there’s some differences and then we can unpack those. I think that… I think by principle, I kind of follow a very similar strategy where, you know, once the pandemic hit and kind of the quarantine and all that. Even before that, I think that my… I think that my basic principle is that during crisis, your timelines need to be short. Shorter, right? Because it’s like the most adaptable that when… Because there’s new information, and information can be quite drastic in the way that it shifts things and circumstances and realities. It seems that the super longterm plans are very, very useful in a more stable environment. But when you have massive instability and where there’s huge volatility, it just makes no sense as a futile exercise to try to plan for the next six months.


Hiten Shah: Right.


Steli Efti: So the planning cycles shorten drastically. Now, they didn’t… I didn’t go to day by day for me, but what happened was that I moved them to week by week. That was kind of from the get go, my like, “All right, we scrap the quarterly plans, scrap the plans for the year, we have to plan sprint. We have to plan one sprint at a time and we’re taking these weeks one at a time”. And that’s what I did personally, but also what we did from a company perspective, which is another thing I’d be interested and curious about on the day by day thing. And, you know, then, the rights and civil unrest situation happened. Even before that things seem more stable, but I.. So people were pushing a little bit, maybe we should extend the planning cycles, maybe things are back to normal. And I think my opinion at the time was that things were not normal, but we had just gotten used to it. Right? We just had gotten used to some of the things that were going on in the world, but nothing that was happening seemed normal or stable to me. And then the whole civil unrest around the world situation happened. I think it… Funny enough, I think that their, the reactions emotionally, especially for many people that I knew were even much stronger than with a pandemic. And I don’t know if it was because of the subject matter, or what I suspect, it was also a compounding effect. Like, so much had built up, so much anxiety, so much stress, so much unhappiness and worry. And then something like that happens, such a crazy injustice and then kind of… It just explodes and people feel very strong about it. And so, we never got to adjust our temp… Plans for timing, and it just stayed week by week, up until today. And the advice that I’ve been giving to a lot of founders has been that, you know, during crazy times like this, you want to adjust and adapt fast. And so that means you can’t be rigid with your outlook of the future. You can’t be rigid with your beliefs of what’s going to happen next and making these three to six month plans right now, just seems… Just seems like an exercise to try to control the future and make things stable or feel safe. And I think the problem with that… The particular or… The pitfall that you can step into is not just that it’s an exercise that will be useless in two weeks when something new happens in the world, but it’s also that you might get sucked into wanting to believe in that plan, and then when new facts arise and when the world is changing, you might have a bigger tendency to want to ignore these and to hold onto your quarterly plan or whatever. Right? And not adjust, not adapt, not change quickly enough as the world is changing. And so I think we’re super aligned on the: shorten the timeline, it’s probably a good idea. Super longterm plans right now: probably not that good of an idea. Let me ask you on the day by day, is that something that you did personally? Or is that really what you did personally, as well as with your company and everybody in your team? You said, “We’re, you know… We’re scrapping all the plans. We’re just every day in the morning, we’re going to decide what we’re going to be working on”. I… It’s hard for me to believe that that would be the case, but I’m curious to hear that.


Hiten Shah: Yeah. I think, generally, a team needs some level of clarity from leadership, for lack of a better word. And the areas we actually took a more day to day approach, especially earlier on, before we could see the patterns, was sales. And that was because of lead volume, depending on kind of the business you’re referring to, or like you want to talk about. But just generally speaking for everybody, lead volume was different for different types of businesses. It either went to zero, or didn’t change, or blew up in a positive way. It was basically one of those three. But you had to take it day by day to really figure out what was going on, and what those patterns were and how they changed. For me, the same happened in marketing. And then when it came to product development, I think that… I actually truly think that, like, it wasn’t… It’s not necessarily about tasks that changed day to day, it was more about planning that changed day to day. What I mean by that is, we kept getting new information that made it so if we made up a plan tomorrow, that plan could be obsolete because of something new that happened. Or something we figured out from the day before. So that’s kind of what I meant, which is like… I don’t think that to me… This isn’t about, “Oh, someone’s day to day tasks are changing”, but the angle and approach they take might be very different based on new information coming in. For example, in certain cases, we saw a lot more traffic for certain types of traffic. In other cases, we saw like a need to rejigger the roadmap, or tweak things so that they were focused on people’s sort of needs right now, compared to what their desires were prior to all of these things going on. The other thing that I think impacted this for us, is the fact that we were… We try to be very aware of people’s attention spans and what kind of content and information that they’re looking for now, versus what they might’ve been before and what they might in the future. So, in particular, I wouldn’t say I’m going day to day on tasks necessarily, but as a team, we definitely have gone from week to week to month to month. And then back to sort of our day to day, week to week, month to month back to like, we’re pretty much like one week at a time right now, roughly speaking. And… But that has a lot to do with planning because the information that comes in… The volume of different things has definitely dramatically changed in a lot of areas, at least for my businesses.


Steli Efti: Yeah, I agree. Now let’s bring up, maybe, one of the tension points that could be out there, which is, you know, depending on the size of your team and what you were planning to work on, and especially also what team members you have, and what they were planning to work on with their purposes. Sometimes there are these kinds of more longer term projects that, you know, you might’ve put on hold at the beginning of the pandemic, still on hold social unrest, but there’s like a mounting pressure. When can we resume this, right? Maybe they’ve been a big project to redo the website or redo your branding, or to reposition yourself in the market or to invest in some more exciting innovation on the product development side. Some of these more complex, bigger kind of projects that a lot of people have a commitment to. You put that on ice when the world is kind of first getting noticed on the pandemic, everybody gets that, then there’s social unrest holding off. But eventually there’s this internal pressure, I would assume, with many teams. Where some teams are just like, “We can’t hold off forever. Let’s keep working on these things that we know are important that we’re planning to work on”. How do you deal with that? Because the thing is, there’s one thing… One interesting question that people bring up is, “Well, what if this keeps happening now? Right? What if every two months, you know, there’s something else crazy going on?” I mean, 2020… In most years, you would not believe that that’s possible, but this year, I think nobody would make a strong argument that it would be impossible for us to see three more significant negative events in the world before- [crosstalk]


Hiten Shah: You know, that’s the funny thing. Who cares? I’m here right now, I don’t care. What I mean by that is, I don’t care right now because those things haven’t happened, and I can’t predict them. And if they do happen, by now with the third thing, you should have a way to adjust. And that’s really what this is about, is how do you adapt and how do you adjust? So I don’t think about that. And part of the reason is like, I might just be so used to the uncertainty in startups that like, this is just an extension of that. Where this uncertainty has kind of extended to not just my business life, but also my personal life and the lives of many other people. Pretty much everyone on the planet. I mean, we’re dealing with like things that go global really fast now. And so everyone ends up dealing with that. So I would say that like, if you’ve done a startup for a while, you just have to figure out how to embrace uncertainty in whatever ways that you’re best at and learn how to like, just think of it in other parts of your life. If you haven’t done this kind of thing and you’re dealing with it because, you know, you’re working corporate or, you know, are a freelancer or something, not quite kind of in the same level of uncertainty, then you already kind of know how to do it now. You know, I think it’s… You know, it’s obviously not great that these things have happened in the world cause they are negative. By any means, like, that you can think about them, they’re not good. They’re not things we desire. That being said, they have taught everybody how to deal with uncertainty in a way that typically you learn when you try to start something new.


Steli Efti: There you go. And one of the things you can learn when you start something new, is that you have to make decisions with imperfect data. You cannot [crosstalk 00:15:25].


Hiten Shah: Very little info.


Steli Efti: Very little information. You cannot wait until you are a hundred percent certain that you’re going to be right. You have to try to be as insightful, as data-driven, as thoughtful as possible, but you have to make quick decisions. And then when you execute and the results aren’t there, you adjust, you change, you adapt. But you don’t just wait to get the perfect plan and a hundred percent certainty that this thing will work and it will work in exactly this way. And so I think that, in a time like this, you’re absolutely right. You can’t… We… There’s a quote, a beautiful quote that I can’t recall right now about like the worrying too… Like worrying about tomorrow is robbing us of our energy today, right?


Hiten Shah: Yep.


Steli Efti: It takes away all the energy to do shit today, right? Just to worry about for tomorrow. And then there’s this other… This Buddhist thing about like, you know, “Oh, you’re worried about something? Can you do something about it? If yes, why worry? If you can’t do something about it, well, why worry?”


Hiten Shah: That’s right.


Steli Efti: There’s no reason to worry.


Hiten Shah: That’s beautiful.


Steli Efti: If you think you can do something about it, that you shouldn’t worry, just do something about it. If you can’t do anything about it, what’s the point of worrying? You can’t do anything about it anyways. And so, I think this is the time where worrying is not helpful. Although, it’s very, I think, accessible and easy. Easy to do, and you just have to live your life today, as good as you can. And if tomorrow something crazy happens, we’re all in this together. You’ll figure something out, right? Just having the belief that you’ll figure a way around it. You’re just… And maybe, maybe sometime around this year, you’re going to have to change your plans more drastically, and nobody likes changing their plans drastically. Nobody. But that’s part of life, and especially part of startup life. So just creating that or adopting that mental flexibility to be like, “Even if we have just one week planned, maybe in the middle of the week, we’ll have to throw it away as the world changes”. That… If you can bring that lightness and that flexibility to the table, you know, I would assume it’s going to serve people really, really, really well because planning and worrying and then holding onto those plans and worries in a world that’s as volatile as this, is a recipe for disaster and for a lot of suffering.


Hiten Shah: Yep. If you’re normally worried about things, then just talk to someone who’s not like that, you know? And that can help you level set. Just to give you a thought kind of before we wrap this up.


Steli Efti: I love that. I love that. Find your most… Your least worrying, most optimistic, most adaptable friend or acquaintance and talk to them more often in 2020.


Hiten Shah: That’s right.


Steli Efti: I love it. All right. This is it from us for this episode. Stay safe, stay safe. We’ll talk very soon.


Hiten Shah: Yep.