When my cofounder Frederic Kerrest and I met with Andreessen Horowitz for the first time in 2010, we presented a detailed, numbers-driven deck. It included projected revenue, our overly optimistic customer goals, and details on what we saw as a massive market opportunity.
Their response? “Thanks, but try again,” and asked us to come back once we had a long-term vision. One of their biggest questions was how we planned to shift the industry and have a lasting impact on the world. Because we stayed hyper-focused on our short-term goals, we weren’t prepared to articulate those answers.
A few weeks later, we returned to Andreessen Horowitz with a broader and bolder presentation. We shared how we would build an “enterprise app store” that would enable any organization to use any technology. We won them over.
This early lesson taught us the importance of striking a balance between the short- and long-term, a method I now like to call the “barbell approach.” Just as a barbell requires equal weight on each side, when building a company, you have to balance your day-to-day to-dos with your long-term broader vision. For any leader grappling with prioritization in the early days and beyond, here are some tips on implementing the barbell approach.
Steer clear of goals in the middle
Maintaining equal weight on either side of a barbell implies that you place little to no weight in the middle. When it comes to goal-setting, founders should stay away from the medium-term goals that span out more than one year but less than three.
In the early days of starting the company, we admittedly spent too much time focused on medium-term goals. As many founders do, we found ourselves distracted by competitor moves and jumped at the chance to evolve our product to keep pace with new (and established) players. Take our move into mobility management: we launched a product because we believed that it was an advantage our competitors had on us. The product didn’t succeed because we lost sight of our overarching vision for the sake of “staying competitive” and achieving a medium-term goal.
Here’s a good rule of thumb: if you find yourself comparing your product to others in the market and playing copycat, recognize that you’ve lost sight of your long-term vision. If you want to build a sustainable business, you have to stay hyper-focused on execution and long-term goals.
Every short-term action should be in service of a long-term goal
When building a company, it can feel like you’re always putting out fires. But unless you’re strategic about the short-term, solving small, tactical issues will eat up all of your time and won’t add up to anything meaningful in the long run. To ensure that every action moves you further toward your vision, you need to prioritize what is important, not just what is urgent. Trust me, when you’re an entrepreneur, something is always urgent.
Sequoia Capital’s Pat Grady achieves this by blocking 90 minutes on his calendar every day for his “most important thing.” I’m personally not that disciplined. For me, it comes through in the way we achieve organizational alignment. Each year, we set a company vision, method, and targeted metric that we’ll work toward over the next 12 months. This cascades down through the entire organization. Every team and individual contributor must go through the same process of defining what they want to achieve over the next year, what methods they’ll use to get there, and what metrics they’ll be measured against. Other companies like Salesforce follow similar goal-setting frameworks.
The process can seem tedious, but the returns that you get makes it worthwhile. Ultimately, it empowers every team and person at your company to be strategic about what they prioritize on a day-to-day basis.
Tackling spontaneous obligations
Of course, obligations come up that you haven’t outlined in your 12-month game plan. The barbell approach can easily be pushed aside in these moments, but you must strike a balance in the way you set expectations and communicate with colleagues. For example, if I need a quick turnaround on a particular task, I state clearly that I’m not looking for a six-month research project that will sidetrack the team. Instead, I’ll say, “Come back to me tomorrow with three choices, and then we’ll talk details.” This creates a “progress over perfection” mindset and ensures teams can move quickly on high-impact projects.
The barbell approach to goal-setting has enabled me to balance priorities as a leader, and it’s also given me a new perspective on setting personal goals. When you stay focused on maintaining equal weight on each end of the barbell in whatever you do, you set yourself up for growth and sustained success.
Todd McKinnon is the CEO and cofounder of Okta.