Taking care of business: 9 startup founders share their favorite productivity hacks

by John Siegel
May 25, 2017

Developing a consistent work routine is hard. With a constant flow of emails, meetings that run late and the usual fires that need to be put out, no structured plan stands a chance against the average day in the startup world.

Thankfully, we all work in technology. Between the latest productivity apps and tried and true methods, there are ways to stay on course throughout the day. We asked the founders of eight startups what they do to make sure everything gets done. Here’s what they had to say.

 

Jon Zweig is no stranger to the LA startup community. He co-founded AppOnboard after selling AdColony, a wildly successful first try. So it’s safe to say this CEO knows a thing or two about prioritizing tasks.

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. Make sure people are happy.

  2. Find out what people need to do their job better.

  3. Make myself available for feedback.

What tool or app can you not live without?

I’m pretty old school, so I’ll say email. Our entire team is on Slack, however.

What tool do you use most in your personal life?

The AppOnboard demo app.

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

Taking a midday break to exercise. It can do wonders for energy levels.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

Don't be afraid to change priorities based on customer and employee feedback. The startups that do this best become the most disruptive to big companies that cannot take the risk of re-prioritizing.

 

In his role as CEO and co-founder of Burner, which provides disposable phone numbers for mobile privacy, Greg Cohn is well aware that even the best plans can go by the wayside, especially in the fast-paced world of tech.

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. I scan tech industry headlines and "watercooler" sources for a few minutes. I try to stay off general news media, politics and social media stuff, which I can do at home early in the morning, but a lot comes in via newsletter and I have a few go-to's to get my fix of the day's tech news. Anything longer than a quick scan gets a quick click of the Instapaper bookmarklet so I can read it later.

  2. Review my calendar. I tend to be calendar-driven and have at least a few things on the books each day, so there are often things I need to prepare for, like a candidate interview whose background I need to review.  

  3. Review the top priorities on my to-do list. To-do management is frankly a moving target, but I often joke that the job of startup CEO often boils down to sitting on top of a giant list of stuff that needs fixing, and picking off the top couple of "bleeding head wound" things at any given time. There's some truth to that, but amid that environment, I try to maintain the context of the top goals I have for the company for the quarter, the large projects that are in progress on various teams in the company and the things that need my undivided attention and focus. I currently use Asana to manage these lists and keep my "must do today" things in focus.

What tool or app can you not live without?

Slack Slack Slackety Slack. Slack wants to kill email, and inside our company at least, it mostly has. We've replaced email with channels and unread alerts. I use the "All Unreads" view religiously, especially when I've been away from my computer for a minute, and there are a couple of channels like "#reports" where there are daily update types of things to focus on.

As a team, we have also been using Lattice to manage our Objectives and Key Results (OKR) for the quarter, with good result.

What tool do you use most in your personal life?

This is not in any sense a productivity tool, but I am currently obsessed with our Ring doorbell, which I installed a few weekends ago. It helps me keep tabs on what's happening in the household when I'm not at home. My two daughters know that they can ring the doorbell, and if I'm available, I'll be able to see them on video and chat with them remotely in a very lightweight way.

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

freedom.to keeps me out of the social media wormhole during the meat of the work day. The struggle is real, especially in the current geopolitical environment. Since I do use social tools for actual work regularly, it's more about mindfulness than anything else, though.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

I create separate groups for things that are long-term goals, things that are quick or administrative types of tasks, things that live with other teams that I want to keep tabs on, and things that require me to sit down and focus on them. I try to work off a list that I’m in the right frame of mind for at a given time. This is basically a variation of GTD, but it works for me.

 

Randy Saaf, co-founder and CEO of VR developer Lucid Sight, has a lot in common with Zweig. For one, Saaf and one of Lucid Sight’s co-founders, Octavio Herrera, started AdColony with Zweig.

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. Check my emails.
  2. Look at my notes from the day before to see where I left off.
  3. Have an all-hands meeting with the leadership team to make sure everyone is on the same page.

What tool or app can you not live without?

There are a few. My iPhone for email, but I also rely pretty heavily on texting. LinkedIn, Twitter and, of course, Microsoft Office.

What tool do you use most in your personal life?

Again, I would say there are a few. Audible audiobooks, Nintendo Switch and HTC Vive.

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

Keep a traditional notebook to take notes at meetings. I find taking notes on your iPhone or computer can be distracting to the meeting.

Also, spend a lot of face time with your leadership team. Spending face time with the leadership team is like the carpenter's adage: Measure twice, cut once. If you don't spend a lot of time talking to them, they will end up doing work that is not on task with the company's main goals.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

Write them on paper so you can look at them holistically. Separate between tasks that must be done at your computer and ones you can knock off in snippets of time, like quickly checking emails. Tackle the tasks on your computer that you know how to solve, giving your mind time to ruminate the more complex tasks.

 

For AirFive founder and CEO Jeremy Redman, delegation is key to keeping his days organized and efficient. Knowing what he needs to handle and what he can assign to a member of his team keeps his workflow clear.

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. Get Coffee Bean (our office is right above one).

  2. Review where I ended the day before.

  3. Ask my team how their morning was.

What tool or app can you not live without?

Zapier. I can connect all the apps I use from Google Sheets to TypeForm to Mailchimp to Trello and communicate it with my team in one "zap.” Now that I am a master at it, I can’t operate without it.

What tool do you use most in your personal life?

Headspace. Work/life can be stressful when you're starting a company from nothing. Starting the day with a little meditation helps prepare me for the climb of the day.

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

My productivity trick is a person. I put the right people around me that know me by my work habits or my work "bad" habits. I have a productivity person (not his actual title) and his name is Mike. Mike knows when to bring me back to earth when I float off.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

As a CEO, you could spend your day putting out any fire you wanted to, but this probably isn't an efficient use of your time. You should really come into the day with two to three “Priority A” open items. How do you find the priority A priorities? Your time as a CEO is demanded heavily by all sorts of issues and people. Once you find out which items on your list are worth the exchange value of your time, you have your A priorities. Do those. And delegate the rest.  

 

Brew Johnson, like some of the other CEOs in this list, is a big fan of sitting down and physically writing a to-do list. The CEO of Manhattan Beach-based PeerStreet also looks to a famous warrior-poet for a little bit of productivity advice.

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. Grab an iced tea from the kitchen
  2. Review my schedule to see how my day is laid out
  3. Walk through the office to see if anyone or anything needs my attention that day that hasn't been scheduled

What tool or app can you not live without?

Slack seems to grow in importance by the day. I use it to communicate with all parts of the company, take notes, set reminders and due dates, keep up with industry news, and track feedback and site performance. 

What tool do you use most in your personal life?

While I use Lyft and Uber more often, my favorite app by a long shot is HotelTonight for booking hotels (for both personal and business travel).

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

I carry a small notebook with me almost everywhere I go (and keep it by my bed at night). I use this to take notes, jot down ideas, track to do lists, etc...A lot of people try to do everything digitally, but the fact is, old school pen on paper is often a more efficient way to capture ideas and put things in context.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

I try to sit down at the end of the day to list the two or three things that I absolutely must get done the following day. I think prioritizing the night before helps keep important things top of mind and limit distractions. That being said, sticking to that prioritization plan isn't always easy and I often find myself thinking of a quote by the famous philosopher, Mike Tyson, who once said: "Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." I don't get punched in the mouth, but lots of things pop up on a day to day basis that can mess up that prioritization.

 

For many, checking in on the seemingly endless emails that came in overnight takes up much of the morning. It’s a task no one loves to tackle, but for Service founder and CEO Michael Schneider, it’s the key to his workflow.

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. Fill up my water bottle. (I drink at least 8 glasses a day).

  2. Check volume from overnight.

  3. Dive into emails.

What tool or app can you not live without?

Slack.

What is one tool do you use most in your personal life?

Google Calendar.

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

I work out every single day. I also don’t use a car but bike everywhere. (Yes, it’s possible in LA!)

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

My unread email is my task list. I then look through quickly at the sender and subject, and prioritize based on that.

 

Work Today founder and CEO Joe Nigro is, admittedly, pretty old school. While some might opt for an ambient soundtrack and a slew of organizational apps to keep the workflow going, Nigro opts for The Boss, a marker and a piece of paper. The result? A startup that just raised $1.1 million after experiencing great success helping blue collar workers find jobs, all via text.

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. Turn some Bruce Springsteen on.

  2. Pour some coffee.

  3. Review our company dashboard.

What tool or app can you not live without?

My Sharpie and piece of paper folded down the middle with my to-do list for the day written on it.

What tool do you use most in your personal life?

I don't use Snapface or anything like that. I guess Business Insider would be it.

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

Writing lists and crossing items off.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

Set daily goals and keep it simple, stupid.

 

A graduate of Cedars-Sinai Accelerator, powered by TechstarsHealthTensor co-founder and CEO Eli Ben-Joseph maintains a very structured schedule. In addition to moving his team to Los Angeles from the Bay Area — they plan to stay in LA now that they’re done with the accelerator program — Ben-Joseph preaches the importance of communication as they refine their AI solutions for physician documentation

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. My day starts before I step into the office. The first thing I do in the morning is to check my inbox for emails that came in overnight and double-check my calendar to see what I have to do that day. Once I get to the office, the first thing I do is have a standup meeting with my team to discuss what we did yesterday and our plan for today.

  2. I then respond to any high priority emails.

  3. I check my to-do list (on Wunderlist) and sprint planning board to see what tasks are the highest priority for the morning, and get to it!

What tool or app can you not live without?

Phabricator. It allows me to review what needs to get done in our sprint and also run code reviews.

What tool do you use most in your personal life?

I know this is going to sound very generic, but my smartphone. It has saved me many times when I'm away from my computer and need to shoot off an email or respond to my team.

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

I like to keep my to-do list on Wunderlist, and whenever I have a moment of pause where I can feel myself potentially being dragged into checking social media or Reddit, I pop open my list and tackle some of the tasks there.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

Having an active sprint board that is synced to Slack allows me to keep abreast of what is going on in the company, and what needs to get done. Our daily standups also allow me to tweak priorities based on what happened yesterday and what might need to get done today.

 

Mornings at Wrapal, a company that connects filmmakers with locations where they can shoot their films, are a bit different. For CEO Brian L. "BLT" Tan, NERF wars are often a major part of getting the day started.

What are the first three things you do when you get to the office?

  1. I have a solid morning routine, and it starts with my caffeine.

  2. Next, I propose an absurd idea to my Ops guy, and he shoots it down.

  3. This leads to a Nerf war. Once we’re tuckered out, I settle down and blast out some emails (instead of darts). Welcome to Wrapal!

What tool or app can you not live without?

Basecamp. We use it for all our project tracking and planning. I'm an old-school email junkie so I'm still getting used to it, but the office has spoken and now I'm trying to keep up.

What is one tool or app you use most in your personal life?

The Reminders app on my phone; it's my backup brain (or maybe my actual one)! It's a useful to-do list that helps keep my schedule on track.

What is one trick you use to keep yourself productive?

I know this will sound old school, but I carry a small Moleskine notebook with me everywhere, and anything really important gets written down in it. My notebook is a 3D printer for ideas; it makes flighty thoughts into real, solid things.

Do you have any tips for prioritizing tasks?

I'm very excitable, and I have a habit of pushing crazy things just because they're fun. So, my advice is two things: stop and ask, “Is this important to the company?” Then, get a second opinion from a senior adviser. That's kinda why they're there — to shoot you with a Nerf gun when you start suggesting insane ideas, and keep the day-to-day marching toward the big picture.

Images via participating startups. Some responses were edited for clarity and length.

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