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Howard Tullman
Finishing. Whether it’s a crossword puzzle or a new product launch, the ability to commit to and finish a task is a critical skill for startups. Here are four keys to completion.

18-Sep-23 – Not too long ago, I was walking on a newly completed strip of asphalt, and I spotted a dime laying on the ground. Old habits die hard, and I quickly stooped to pick it up and found that the coin was stuck firmly in the black goo and wouldn’t budge. I took out my keys and tried to dig around the edges of the coin, but I clearly had the wrong tools for the task. I thought for a moment that this was some prankster’s idea of a joke, like the old wallet-on-a-string ploy or Lucy whisking away the football from Charlie Brown just before the kick, but sometimes tar is just tar.

In any case, I went home and, like any good entrepreneur, stewed on the problem for a while, grabbed a screwdriver, mallet, and an awl from my basement, and headed back to the scene of the crime. That dime is now mine.

You wouldn’t be surprised to learn that certain family members concluded that I was totally out of my gourd – but the only really important question is whether this undertaking at that moment was the best use of my time. Some version of this exact question is what every new business builder and entrepreneur should be asking themselves multiple times a day: Is what I’m doing or about to do moving the business forward and closer to our goals?

It’s so easy these days to get distracted and lose your way and your direction. Time is scarce, resources are limited, and, if your attention is scattered, your chances of success are far less.

But that doesn’t mean that even the smallest undertaking can’t be important and meaningful in the long run. Finishing what you start is one great example.

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It’s not like I couldn’t spare 15 minutes in my day, but was rescuing this dime really something that needed to be done?

And please ignore the reality that, in the WFH world, the spousal list of chores is infinite, inchoate, and always lurking – so there are always other demands competing for your time. What’s critical about the decision to get the job done isn’t its importance or size or even ultimate monetary or other value. What’s crucial is developing, strengthening, and flexing from time to time the underlying behavior – or obsessiveness if you prefer – that drives so many successful people: The need to get things done.

The most successful people I know make sure that they try their best to finish whatever it is that they started. Unfinished tasks, large or small, don’t disappear; they linger, fester, and suck away energy, focus, and enthusiasm. If you’re lucky and work at it, you develop a mantra, a style, and a lifelong habit – like a dog with a bone that won’t let things go.

Everyone comes to appreciate that you don’t settle, quit in the middle, or do much of anything in a halfway or half-hearted manner. The level of intensity with which you approach any and every challenge rarely differs from one task or project to another unless you no longer care about what you’re doing.

And if you’re very fortunate, that drive and commitment will carry over into whatever it is that you do for a living. Entrepreneurs especially know that in building a business you can be proud of, there’s never really a finish line. And don’t think for a moment that people don’t notice or that it’s not contagious. The strongest leaders lead by example, and they sweat all the details – large and small – to make sure the job gets done completely and done right. We don’t go home when the whistle blows; we leave when there’s nothing left to be done. We stop when we’re finished.

Of course, we all know that not everything works out perfectly – or at all. It’s always a race to see how big you can get before you get bad. You need to learn how to let things go because not everything can be fixed, finished, or saved. Knowing how to stop an ill-fated or fruitless venture and how to do it fairly for all concerned is another critical skill set which takes years to master. It makes life down the line a lot easier to set realistic milestones and several checkpoints, benchmarks, and drop-dead dates before you commit everyone to stick to the plan and the schedule.

But there are still some things you can do to set yourself up for the highest probability of consistent success and to help you avoid biting off more than anyone can chew. Here are the four main cautions I try to always keep in mind:

1 Look carefully – really carefully – before you leap.

It’s great to be enthusiastic and to say “yes” to as many projects and tasks as possible, but the “ready, fire, aim” approach is guaranteed to cause you more heartache than happiness. Make sure you understand the scope and scale of each commitment before you jump into it. Everything in life generally costs more and takes longer than we hope or expect, and startups are no different. You don’t want to test the depth of the puddle with both feet.

2 Make sure you’re taking your team with you.

The true leader is the one who gets followed – whole-heartedly and with enthusiasm. If you’re spending too much time trying to talk your team into the journey, convincing them of its wisdom, or pulling them along beside you, there’s a good chance that you need to take a second look and catch your breath before charging ahead. Nothing good gets done if you’re working on it all by yourself.

3 Don’t try to get to heaven overnight.

Patience isn’t something normally associated with entrepreneurs, but starting out slowly and building over time gives you the power to course-correct, the flexibility of alternatives and options, and the ability to recruit partners, talent, resources, and support for the new venture as time passes.

You can’t push a rope. Feeling too much pressure to get something done quickly generally means that you failed to scope out the project and analyze the requirements and necessary timeframes correctly before you began.

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In the long run, doing it right is far more important than doing it fast.

4 Make sure the gamble is worth the risk.

In interviewing, we don’t hire the best person we see; we hire the best person we see for the job that needs to be done. It’s the same idea for taking on new projects. As attractive and potentially profitable as they may be, it’s always still a matter of “fit.” Are the risks, the costs, the other foregone opportunities, the team’s capacity and ability, and the upside of the venture all sufficient to make the undertaking worthwhile for your business? If any of the critical decision criteria are missing, it’s a pass. It doesn’t take a large leak to eventually sink even the sturdiest ship.

Bottom line: Success is not about starting, it’s about finishing. But starting out carefully and thoughtfully makes the whole process a lot easier, a lot less painful, and a lot more likely to succeed.