Early Stage Distractions

Essay published on July 31, 2013

I've had several recent conversations with people running early stage companies, in which I walk away thinking about distractions. It's so very easy, especially when you have outside funding, to become distracted by things that aren't important. Being busy or working hard isn't nearly good enough to guarantee success in a startup. Focus on the wrong things can easily mean game over.

Before product-market fit, the only priority worth your time is figuring out who the customer is and how to deliver tremendous value to them. Focus on anything else is usually a case of trying to scale before you need to, which is a distraction.

A/B testing is a great example. It's easy to spend a lot of time working to get your conversion rate from 2% to 3%, but is the end result meaningful to the big picture? Most websites get far too little traffic to run meaningful A/B tests. This month the Help Scout site will see over 125k unique visitors and A/B testing isn't in our top 25 priorities.

Here are some other examples of seemingly worthwhile activities that aren't the best use of an early stage company's time:

Thinking about culture

Until the team is 10+ people, you shouldn't think one bit about culture. Occupy your time making sure those are the 10 best people to lead the business.


It's necessary to fundraise in some cases, but you should treat it like the distraction it is and move very quickly, without excuses.

Hiring Role Players

Hiring a "community manager" is a waste of money. This is a valuable opportunity to understand your customers and it's important not to miss it.

Business development and partnerships

Worthwhile partnerships are possible when you've built something valuable to customers, but certainly not until then.

Clearly all of the above are good things; just not for an early stage company. When you have money in the bank, it's easy to get ahead of yourself instead of focusing on the business fundamentals, which a bootstrapped company is forced to do from day one.

From my experience at Help Scout, these activities have been most valuable to the business over the first 2+ years (in no particular order):

I have a tendency to over-simplify things, but to me it comes down to one rule: any early stage activity that doesn't help you deliver tremendous value to customers or understand them more deeply isn't worth your time.

What would you do if you had a month of cash left? Start there and you are more likely to steer clear of costly distractions.

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