HOW TO: Simplify 2021


Leo Babauta is author of The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential ... in Business and in Life, and owner of the highly popular Zen Habits blog.

Startup businesses are often smaller than more established competitors, with fewer resources, smaller staffs, less capital, and not enough time to get everything done.

That can be a major disadvantage ... or it can be a great advantage, if the startup is smart about it: using time and resources wisely, focusing on less, staying lean and being better at one thing than anyone else.

Focusing on Less

Large companies like Google, Apple, and Microsoft might be able to handle many fronts at once, from hardware to software to cornering the online ad market. But startups don't have that luxury. Instead, figure out what one thing you're going to do exceedingly well. Better than anyone else.

For example, there are tons of productivity/personal development blogs, but how many focus on simple productivity? Not many, and I set out to be the best when I created Zen Habits. If your startup focuses on just one thing, you can be highly successful with fewer resources. Try to do too much, and you'll fail.

To focus on less ask yourself:

- What do you or your company do best? Can you do it better than anyone else?

- What is no one else doing well right now?

- How can you narrow the focus of what you provide?

- How can you raise the level of what you provide from good to amazing?

Do Less

While bigger companies have lots of staff, which means they can afford to spend more time on things, you don't have that kind of time. You have a million things to do with very little time, and if you try to do them all you'll never get things done. Instead, learn how to be your most effective: focus on fewer tasks and projects. Choose the projects that will have the highest impact on your business, instead of doing every project at once.

Each day, choose three tasks that will have the biggest impact, and do those first. Any other tasks you get done that day will be gravy. Become a serial killer: focus on one project at a time, really attack it until it's completed, and then move on to the next project. Same thing with tasks: do one at a time, focusing on each one completely until finished, then move on to the next one. Single-tasking is incredibly effective.

A few tips to help you focus on higher-impact tasks:

- Ask yourself: what one project will have the biggest impact on my future revenues? Focus on this.

- Every day, pick three most important tasks to complete, and do them before anything else.

- At least one of the most important tasks should move that high-impact project forward.

- Delegate lower-impact tasks that still need to be done. Only allow yourself to focus on the highest-impact tasks.

Stay Lean

Many businesses fail within their first year, simply because they don't make enough money to sustain their overhead. But if you have almost no overhead, then small revenues can still produce a profit, or at least keep you viable after your first year.

Stay lean. Hire as few people as possible: smart, competent, talented, hungry people. And doers. They have to be people who get things done to be worth the cost. Add staff slowly.

Reduce all costs: work from home to avoid the need for an office, and keep your team together with remote, collaborative tools. The cost of a few computers, and a few cheap or free collaborative online services, is minimal. Anything you make over that is profit.

More tips for staying lean:

- Cut advertising to zero. Instead, leverage the power of blogs and social media for guerrilla-type marketing.

- Network with others online, especially those with blogs or websites, or in your industry.

- Stay out of debt — the overhead can kill you. Don't spend if you can avoid it, and if you don't have the money.

- Reduce processes, cut bureaucracy, avoid meetings, cut out travel.

- Reduce the number of real-world things you deal with, and deal mostly online.

Have Less Clutter

Finally, provide your customers will less clutter: too many things on a website make for a bad user experience, and will lose you customers. Keeping things simple helps you sell. Think of Apple's minimalist aesthetic, or Google's simple interface. It works, and it's simple, attractive, and useful.

Figure out what is most essential about your user interface, and get rid of everything else. Simple is best. Some tips:

- Don't have obtrusive or annoying ads, pop-ups, or too much Flash animation.

- White space is good — leave lots of space around things to keep the interface uncluttered.

- Fewer buttons and links is better — think the Apple iPod. Uncluttered is attractive.

Imagery courtesy of iStockphoto, Photo-Max, clocki, cmcderm1