How To Keep Your Startup On Track With Project Management

5396093689_3f99c992b5_z.jpg

By Natasha Murashev (Co-Founder & Director of Operations, Holler) Running a startup is like running on a treadmill. You keep running and running and after all the running, you still have to keep running. The treadmill gives you no mercy. It doesn’t slow down when you’re tired or thirsty, it just keeps going and going and you have to keep up or else you’ll fall off.

The key to mastering the treadmill is starting the run with realistic goals in mind. You have to know yourself well enough to set the optimal speed and running time for your body to keep going even when it gets rough. In a startup, that is where project management comes in. You have to know your team’s strengths and weaknesses well enough to set goals and milestones to run towards instead of just running blindly until you run out of time or money or energy.

I’ve interviewed a few great women about their startup project management experience, and found that slowing down and taking the time to project manage is very useful, especially in the long-run.

As CEO and Founder of ConsumerBell Ellie Cachette puts it:

“At a startup where everything is about efficiency and maximizing output from limited resources, project management if often replaced with doers because the exact output is more easily correlated on a short term basis. Project management is actually about investing in the abilities to flourish, and I highly recommend more startups take on the cost of project management. Luckily for me before starting my company, ConsumerBell, I was a technical project manager for over 5 years. It didn't seem crucial at the time but as we scale and grow as a company my previous background and experience has been a life saver a few times in avoiding big risks or bottlenecks.”

So here are a few project management tips to get you started:

Don’t Re-invent The Wheel

Every startup has some recurring tasks or projects that need to be done either weekly, daily, biweekly, or monthly. Who fills up the candy jar? Who picks up the mail? Who throws out the garbage? Who buys the toilet paper when it runs out? Taking the time to writing these tasks down and having a system for assigning and keeping track of them will save you a lot of pain later on.

COO of Webplanner Jovia Nierenberg uses the recurring projects feature of Webplanner to keep track of the bi-weekly administrative office tasks for her team. Jovia advices the following:

“Make copies of projects you plan to repeat again. It's been huge for our internal office procedures. That way, when someone is out of town, the list is already created and it's easy to take over for that person.”

As another example, at my startup Holler, we have a list of things that need to be done for onboarding new team members, including everything from giving them access to our project management software to setting up an @holler.com email address to ordering business cards for them. It’s great to not have to think of these things every time someone joins, and the new team member immediately feels welcomed and taken care of as a result.

So although things change a lot in a startup, there are some fundamental administrative tasks and projects that stay the same and always need be done. Write these down once, update them once in a while, and repeat them as needed instead of running around trying to figure out what needs to be done over and over again.

Keep Your Team Focused

While it’s important to be transparent with your team, it is also important to keep everyone focused. And if you rely on contractors and outsourcing a lot of your work, then there is a lot of information you also need to keep internal. This is why it is important to really separate out each of your projects.

COO of TechCocktail Jen Consalvo works with a lot of different people with different working relationships. That is why she finds it useful to separate out different projects as much as possible in popular project management tool Basecamp and update permission levels based on each person’s level of need:

“For us, really setting up separate projects has been really useful. So you don't confuse people or fill their inbox with things they don't need. Pull people in when you need to. Keep them focused, keep them in the projects that are relevant to them, and keep everything else separate.”

Depending on your startup, how you set permissions for projects is up to you. However, separating out projects as much as possible gives you the option to change those permissions easily as your startup grows and expands and the never-ending inbox of unimportant things starts overwhelming your team.

Don’t Forget The People Factor

The biggest wild-card in project management is people. Life happens, and as result most projects don’t get finished on time, even if the technology and budget and other important resources are all accounted for. So always check in on your team and make sure they’re there to keep the project going.

When I asked CEO of ConsumerBell Ellie Cachette to describe her biggest failures as an early project manager, she shared the following:

“I think the biggest risk I used to not account for in early project management was the people. I would schedule business days working on items assuming the person only had that task on their plate (which is unrealistic, most resources are juggling 4 at any time no matter the size of the company or project) and I also used to not account for life circumstances like if an engineer was a new parent or if a offshore dev team had cultural holiday. Now when I scope a project one of the first things I ask are personal questions that will tell me a lot about how hard I can push someone or what to expect. Sometimes a simple Friday holiday can actually cost the project 5 working days and that is an exponential time and money lose that is assuming the task is on time up until that Friday.”

So really knowing the strength and weaknesses or your team is key to project management, especially when it comes to setting realistic goals and expectations for your team.

Setting unrealistic expectations can actually be damaging to your team and your startup. At Holler, for example, when we were starting out, we would often assume and expect development at a very unrealistic pace. When we couldn’t meet our goals every single time, it made us depressed as a team and put us off track.

In contrast, if we had set more conservative and realistic targets by getting to know our contractors and all the other non-Holler work they needed to do, we would have done a lot more celebrating and feeling good about ourselves when we reached our goals rather than bringing ourselves down every time we missed. Lowering your team morale by missing unrealistic goals is just bad for business. After all, startups thrive on passion, and it is your job to keep that passion and excitement going, and reaching your goals is just one of the many little victories your team can celebrate.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest bloggers? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Natasha Murashev is the Co-Founder and Director of Operations of Holler, a stealth mobile application focused on building instant local communities. In her spare time, Natasha writes about project management and other organizational issues on her blog, She blogs at reorg. Follow her on Twitter at @natashamurashev.