How do you run nine companies and still have time for skydiving? Stop doing 90% of the stuff you don’t need to. Sujan Patel reveals his secrets for how to prioritize your work.
Today our guest is Sujan Patel. He is the managing partner of Ramp Ventures and this episode is Work Minus Everything. Hi Sujan, how are you?
Good. Excited to talk about this topic today.
Yeah. It’s a big topic. We start off saying that you’re the managing partner of Ramp Ventures but that’s only one slice of who you are. So why don’t you give a little bit of background to people who maybe aren’t as familiar about everything you do.
Yes, absolutely. I say manager partner of Ramp Ventures because it’s something you can say in one sentence or one phrase but I do a lot. So Ramp Ventures, we own and operate seven SaaS companies. And our business is essentially buying, growing and potentially sometimes selling software businesses. We focus on the B2B space, we actually hyper-focused on–if I was talking to a non-technical person, I’d say, B2B software. If I was talking to someone in the industry, I would say B2B SaaS, specifically self-service in the sales and marketing tech space and HR tech–so three categories. Self-service is a very specific thing.
This is all part of why I’m able to do a lot with little. When I say little, small teams, very very small budgets, if anything. And also obviously splitting my time between multiple companies and on top of that I also run a marketing agency, we’re a global agency called Web Profits and so in combination of everything, I have nine companies that every day add stress to my life, that I think about when I wake up, when I go to sleep and what not.
And this topic, we’re saying Work Minus Everything because what we really want to get down to is how does somebody run nine companies? Essentially we’re talking about prioritization, how do you focus on what you want to do? So once you start off just telling us what you feel is the difference between productivity and prioritization?
Yeah. One big thing is, as a company, as an individual contributor to a company, so whether you are employee low level, entry level or an executive or founder, everybody has the same amount of time in their day: twenty four hours. If you really think about it, you probably have eight and some people have sixteen productive hours in their day. I don’t know about you but I’ve got maybe five to six good hours in me and the rest is just like maybe I can do some spreadsheets, some brainless work but I’ve got a good couple hours in me and then I’m kind of done.
I look at this as more – not just like privatization or productivity, I look at this as brain power. So how much brain power can expand in a given day? I’ve actually burned out in the past running one business where I had thirty employees working for me, most of them were direct reports but we were doing a lot. And I learned this from actually failing miserably at this and ended up doing a fire sale of this business because I just wanted to get out. And at the end of the day, I’m happy I went through this experience but ultimately productivity comes after prioritization.
Let’s say you’re in the marketing role, that’s my role at Ramp Ventures. I do all things marketing or anything that touches the customer. But ultimately if I were to go take ten initiatives on, I will have to split my time between ten different things. Now if you think about the ten things and look at prioritization, I ask myself the simple question: Ok I’ve got ten marketing ideas. How impactful is each of those ideas going to be? And it’s doing the math on how impactful they will be from what matters to you.
So for me, it’s number of customers, its revenue and it’s a business metric ultimately. So if I look at every ten marketing ideas, I’ll probably have some that are really awesome, some may have a lot of potential, some that maybe aren’t going to do so well and so immediately stuff gets categorized like high impact.
Then if you think about execution–let’s just say, you have three or four good ideas. They’re gonna move the needle and then you’ve got five, six or seven OKAY ideas. So off the bat, let’s kill those six or seven ideas that just maybe don’t work or can’t be the most impactful.
Then if you look at those three or four ideas that are like the things that are going to drive the business forward, not all of them will be, from a completion standpoint, they aren’t going to be something that can be done in a week, maybe some will take a day, some will take three months. So you think about how long things are going to take. And then you look at where you are as a business, as an individual in that idea.
So if you’re at zero percent at four ideas then it’s really about what’s the best? What’s the thing you can do to get the quickest momentum? What’s the least time to get the biggest impact? It’s very simple. Choose the one that’s going to take the greatest, maybe some things take foundational work where it’s going to take a year but you have to chip away at it. So you’re using that to get from zero percent to fifty percent. I like to focus on, again, the highest impact, least amount of time, least amount of work stress on the team and start with that because it’s like Eat That Frog, it’s a productivity book and the gist is, do the hardest thing first.
My case is get a big win and then when you have the big win and an easy win if it takes say two days versus a project that takes two weeks then you’ve got momentum to go build that two weeks thing. And if you need to get development time, you need other people buy in. Well, then you have a way you can share. And so “Hey we just did this, here’s the next thing on the block, it’s gonna take this much time.” So now you can get your colleagues and teams, team members bought in.
So I have a big question that I encountered a lot in my life is that it’s very easy for me to justify any task that comes around as being important and maybe little urgent or that it’s a big thing. And maybe it’s just not stopping enough to really ask those deep questions, but how do you really convince yourself that a project is not worth doing right now or at least delaying?
Yeah. So the biggest and most impactful thing that has come for me is that I do not ever do things that come up right away. There’s urgent and immediate things. I’m a part of EO, Entrepreneurs Organization and we have a really simple two axes chart. There is, on the top right, urgent and important. On the top left is urgent but not important. Bottom right is not urgent, but important. Bottom left is not urgent and not important.
And so what you’re talking about is spending a lot of time in the first quadrant where you’re doing things as they’re coming. They are really really important. As things are coming about, everything’s feels like a freaking priority, like everything is going to be huge.
First of all, this requires taking two steps back and being less productive sometimes. And I think that’s okay. You have to give yourself a little bit of permission to be able to do that. So if you acknowledge the fact that you might slow down for a week before you really speed up, you’ll be in a healthier mind set to go through this.
But ultimately what I’m referring to is, think about everything that comes in, prioritize your day, prioritize your week and prioritize your quarter. So I like to come up with anything that comes to the door. If it’s a new initiative, I put in the ringer with all of the other initiatives that are going on and every week my team and I go through all initiatives that we got, ideas, whatever. And that new idea will come up and we will discuss it. Well, that allows people to do and allows me to do it and my team is – everybody has a voice, they can put their ideas in. Frankly, not everyone’s ideas are going to be the greatest and not even that it’s everyone’s ideas, not all of your ideas even if you come up with five out of five wins, maybe your six to tenth one is gonna not always be the greatest maybe seven is gonna be amazing.
But what it does is allows you to have a place to document things. I use a spreadsheet and then every week, we just say, okay, what are the new things we want to go work on? And sometimes we don’t have the bandwidth for new things. Sometimes there’s a lot of bandwidth. And then when we look at all the new things we can work on, what we’re doing is we’re weighing them against each other. And I think that’s often missed exercise that – what it ends up doing, at least in my case, in my experience, is that it gives you the excuse to just work on things as they come instead of work on things that are important and impactful.
So you said weighing things against each other. So what are some of the things that immediately you look at, hey, this is definitely going to be a better use of our time than another option, what are those metrics you use?
So first and foremost is the impact. There’s three columns here: the idea itself, a little bit of notes, maybe you have some context like “Hey this worked for XYZ company” maybe some articles or content you can link to, and then there’s the impact. So everyone coming up with an idea has to list the impact. So ultimately, if you just sort by greatest to least impact, now you know what’s ultimately for your business, of what you thought of, what’s going to have the biggest to least impact.
The next thing is to look at the time it’s going to take. So the thing to consider is, “Is this something I can do? Is this something that’s going to take multiple people to work on?” And then another thing is, is this gonna be something that takes dev time. So anything that takes dev time, they have their own workflow and things like that. So what I’m effectively doing is adding things to their plate which may not be happening tomorrow, it may be another day, it might be next week, it might be next month or whenever they can squeeze it in.
And so that’s kind of how I look at it. And the other thing is if it’s a bold idea, how can we test this hypothesis? How can I break this idea down into the simplest form and usually that’s my job. And what I’m effectively talking about here is a scrum type meeting for non-development teams where every week we get together and think about what are all the things that we can do?
My job is more of the program manager, not the project manager. Usually Monday mornings when we when I meet with a team, each team I spend 30 minutes to an hour every week to set their week activities up. What essentially this is is trying to get your idea down to an MVP (minimum viable product) and then letting the person have that idea and then helping them break down what it’s going to take to actually get it done.
Because when you come up with the idea, generally most people would be like, okay, well, now how do I do this? You go into the how and the what immediately. But my simple spreadsheet forces you to think of the why first. Because if you go into the how and what, sure most people can solve problems, if you’re going to go solve a problem, sure, you can do it. It might be a matter of hours, time, tenacity, for failure. But if you think about why you should solve this problem, and the impact will have in your business, it may just be a moot point and you might want to move on to your next idea. And so that’s really – the key here is to really do a couple of things really, really, really well and refine them.
And this goes not just for software, but e-commerce and really, again, from a founder perspective down to an individual employee. Everybody can write things down on their own, on a notepad and then look back every week and say, Okay, well, what are the things I should work on?
I want to talk a little bit more about these team dynamics because it’s different to just look at your own tasks, your own things you’re supposed to be doing and prioritize those versus doing it as a team or doing it in a situation where somebody else is prioritizing those tasks for you. So how do you manage those tensions, helping people understand what is the most important thing they can be doing and how to articulate that within a team.
So first of all, it’s really the art of selling your team and the people you hire that we’re not going to do 50 things this year, we’re going to do five. We’re going to do them exceptionally well. And so now it’s our job, one to make sure we do the most important impactful five things and then every week, it then comes down to, well, what am I working on or what are the five things I’m working on? So it’s really KPIs. So everyone on the marketing team has their own one or two KPIs, key performance indicators for those of you who don’t know what KPI is? Many different formats, you can use KPIs in and there’s OKRs. There are different types of ways to – alternatives to KPIs, but we use KPIs.
And ultimately each person has a number. Like my customer success person has two numbers–upsell revenue and churn. And that churn number, our goal is to reduce that number. And, the first few years, we didn’t have a number or goals. We want to reduce it to X percent, but now we do. It’s like, okay, we want to reduce it from 6% to 4%. And that’s, the number that that person focuses on. And then if I think about this individual–his name is Luiz–Luiz has a number. He needs to reduce churn by 2%, that’s his number. He is rewarded and fails based off of, and not maybe punished, but like his success at the company as an individual contributor is based off that 2% reduction.
If I give Luiz that task and I tell him, you can only do five things to actually do this. But those five things are like channels like strategies, not like one tactic, it doesn’t count. There may be many tactics that make up a strategy then Luiz is kind of empowered to think about what are the biggest things I can do. And again, like what most people will do, and immediately, especially in the beginning will be, “I’m going to make a list of all the things I can do, I’m going to do this, that, the other.” I’m like, Wait, hold on, make that list and let’s just look through it and then I will walk them through, helping them organize and measuring the impact. And it is a hard thing to come into when you join our team, But after you do it, it takes about a month or two to really think about that things this way. After that, everyone’s on their own. They’re like, no I’m not going to do this. It’s too small. Right.
So another example is, one of our companies Mailshake. I was just talking to Mark, who runs kind of all things marketing at Mailshake. And he’s like, “Hey, we have a number, we want to go after.” Our predominant channel that he focuses on is content marketing and SEO. And he’s like, what else can I do besides this? And so I was like, let’s just make a list. Can you do a referral program? Can you make an affiliate program? Can you increase word of mouth? Can we do more advertising and I can give you – let’s just have an infinite budget here for the sake of conversation.
This is a conversation I literally had with him yesterday and we went through this road of all the other channels you can work on. And when we looked at the impact of all these other channels in terms of number of customers, so his number is 1,000 customers new a month by the end of the year. And I will tell you where we’re at. We’re more than 50% there.
But the point is, he has a number and then when he came up with all these other ideas that we had at the end of this conversation, we’re like, okay, affiliate may drive X number of customers, referral my X number of customers, AdWords, Facebook, might do this and that and the other. When we looked at all this stuff, we added up all the new things he could do. It didn’t help them reach his goal.
Yet, when we look through the math of – if you were just help double the traffic now, sound like a big goal but we’ve got budget, we’ve got momentum. Every month last year we 4X’d that traffic. So it’s a cheap, double is pretty like in the bag for him. If you looked at just what the outcome would be if he doubled. It would help him get to 80% of the goal. And so if any reasonable person is presented with the option to do better at what I’m focusing on versus I do all these other new things and the other new things don’t add up. No one wants to work on stupid things. Everyone’s pretty logical after they see the numbers they’re going to make. Why yeah, you’re right. I should work on the thing that’s already working, we have momentum in and will account for 80% of my goal instead of six new things that in combination, might not add up to my goal.
And so if it doesn’t pencil out on a piece of paper, when you come up with the idea, which is usually, you’re looking at the best possible outcome, there’s no way in hell, it’s gonna work out in reality, right? And I think a lot of startups, a lot of founders, they focus on a lot of stuff and most of these things will never pencil out. And so what we do at Ramp Ventures is we don’t do a lot. We focus on those things that have penciled out, and then we go and execute them.
Yeah, it’s great to visualize exactly what that looks like and to see it written out in those cases. I’m curious to know, for a company that really focuses on prioritizing aside from just being able to do more impactful things, how does that rigorous prioritization affect other parts of your company? Other side effects or your culture? How do you see that in other parts of your business?
Yeah, so I see this in a lot of places in the companies. So one, a lot of people don’t like this, a lot of people feel like this is micromanaging. Or people feel like this I should be doing more. Why would I not work on an idea that has potential and they don’t like it. But most of those people actually, I’ve only had one person out of 15 people I’ve hired in the last two years, not conformed to my way of thinking, and not that my way of thinking is the right way. My way of thinking evolves and our process and thesis expands over the years. Where we’ve added more bolts on and adjusted our framework. And so we’re tinkering all the time. We’re not right. We just have a way that works. And so we’re going to leverage the way that works instead of reinventing the wheel.
But yes, it takes some conformity to go and think this way and do things this way. And in the beginning, it feels like micromanaging. If I hired a VP of sales, and I tell them like, hey, I want you to hit this goal but you can’t do 50 things that you used to do that work. I want you only to do five things. So sometimes, at surface it looks like I’m tying their hands behind the back and telling them run a marathon. Well, the good thing is, you need your feet for a marathon most of the time so you can run a marathon. That’s usually my first response when someone says that. But when you think through this, if it pencils out and the logic is there and people kind of nod and they’re like, oh, that works.
And I also showed examples in the past of what has worked and again our teams are somewhere between three people to ten people. So every one of our companies is fairly small in terms of team. We don’t mean to be small but we’re just very effective with our time and again so we’re able to take a lot for little. Hopefully that answers your question.
Yeah. Absolutely, it does. You mean just to build the whole culture of everyone’s always looking at this and it’s not just gonna be like, okay, here’s a good idea. Let’s throw a body at it and let’s see what happens. But to really look at it in a long term perspective. What’s going to have the most impact and everything? So it’s a really solid concept that I’m glad we’re able to discuss more. Sujan, this has been great. How can people stay in touch with you to continue to follow along with some of your ideas?
Yeah. So best thing to do is subscribe to my email newsletter on SujanPatel.com and I have usually a weekly video article. I create probably around 300 or 400 pieces of content a year, whether it’s video, podcast, written content, just sharing my approach and things like that. So that’s probably the best way or you can add me on LinkedIn.
Fantastic. Well it’s been excellent to talk about this topic. I’m anxious to get back to my work and see what I can prioritize. So thanks a lot for all the great insights.
My pleasure. Thanks for having me.