Tricky business

Young entrepreneur David Langer discusses the potentially problematic act of balancing a degree with a successful business
Commercial awareness

en·tre·pre·neur |.äntr pr noor; -n r| (noun): a person who organises and manages any enterprise, esp. a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk.

So you're running a business; or at least working seriously on an idea you've had. It has the potential to change the world, render you free of financial worries forevermore, and you want to spend as much time as possible developing it. However, this annoying six-letter word, 'degree,' is still hanging over your head.

It's a situation I found myself in during the 2nd and 3rd year of my degree, and one that any budding student entrepreneur has to face. Here, we'll look at some techniques you can employ to make your seemingly unmanageable life not only manageable, but successful and fulfilling as well.

The first thing to establish is that you'll need to be productive. In 2002, David Allen published Getting Things Done (or GTD), which has since sold over 500,000 copies and been printed in 23 languages. Attracting a huge following in the blogosphere, many would name the book as the authority on productivity. At the core of Allen's methodology is a five-phase workflow process:

1. Collect. This involves capturing data that needs to be processed - this might be in a physical inbox (your desk or bedroom floor), an e-mail inbox, notebook, mobile phone, or any other place you store information. The idea here is to get everything out of your head and into a collection device ready for processing, and Allen stipulates that all data stores need to be processed at least once a week.

2. Process. Here, the emphasis is on being structured. For example, in an inbox, one should start at the top, deal with one item at a time and never ignore something requiring action. Do it, delegate it or defer it. If it doesn't require action, file it for reference, throw it away or incubate it for possible action later.

3. Organise. Keep your to-do lists and calendar up-to-date. Allen specifically recommends that the calendar be reserved for the hard landscape: things that absolutely have to be done by a certain deadline, or appointments that are fixed. To-do items should be reserved for their own separate list.

4. Review. To-do lists and reminders will be of little use if not reviewed at least daily. Given the time, energy and resources available at that particular time, decide what's most important to be done right now, and...

** 5. Do it.** Here are some handy tips that will help propel you to this position:

Tip #1: Use to-do lists and a calendar

Following the success of Allen's book, millions worldwide are applying his principles through to-do lists and other online productivity applications. I personally favour Google Calendar and www.rememberthemilk.com, integrated with my Gmail account.

Tip #2: Manage the expectations of others and learn to say no

The second key to achieving success lies in appropriately managing the expectations of people. Your tutor wants this, your co-founder wants that, customers and investors are emailing you, and you still want to maintain healthy relationships with friends and family. Managing the expectations of others is something Rob Eyre (a 33-year-old Software Developer & MBA, and our first employee at GroupSpaces) often reminds me of, when discussing strategic issues for my business.

Most people instinctively think about these issues - but seldom in a structured manner. One technique I find useful is illustrating all your important relationships in a mind-map. A little bit like what Facebook describes as the 'social graph', where each person is a node and each relationship is an edge; except with this mind-map, you only draw lines with one end attached to yourself. Then, you should be able to see who has expectations of you and where you feel it's important to meet these expectations. However, since you don't have time to do everything, it makes sense to spend the time you do have focused on the people and activities you care about the most.

The old adage: 'you've got to be cruel to be kind,' is particularly appropriate here. You have to learn to say no sometimes, or you'll end up letting people down, damaging their trust in you and, as a result, harming your relationships. If you've worked out who you really value and ensure you meet your commitments to them, not only are you liable to be more successful, it's likely you will also feel more fulfilled in your relationships.

Tip #3: Don't procrastinate. Prioritise, break down tasks and delegate

You can't expect to run a business and get a good degree by procrastinating. Whether it's browsing Facebook, reading blogs or watching TV, we all do it. Jan Sramek is a 2nd year student at LSE who got 10 As at A-Level, runs two businesses, has secured seed funding for a third and also works part-time in a hedge fund. He has a firm view on the subject:

"Never read something just for the sake of it, let alone because everyone else is - if you can't see the pay off, trash it."

There are many underlying causes attributed to procrastination, but the bottom line is that we're avoiding dealing with the emotions we are experiencing. It's an escape.

2006 UK Graduate of the Year, Kirill Makharinsky, is one of the most productive people I know. Having presided at Oxford Entrepreneurs, founded Enternships.com and AmIWorthIt.com, played three university-level sports and still achieved a double first in Mathematics, he isn't one to procrastinate. And when you hear his strategy for meeting his commitments, you can understand why:

"Decide on the time you'll need for each to achieve an outcome you'll be happy with, plan your schedule out, and go for it. If the balance doesn't work, change it after a few weeks, and so on, until it does work. Prioritise like crazy. Get into a strict routine. Be smart in getting the help of others with your degree and your business. Get into a situation where people that you respect rely on you to make that balance work. Get regular advice from people who've done it before."

Also worth emphasising here is the importance of delegation. Just because you're struggling to get to a task shouldn't mean that it doesn't get done. Break the task down into smaller components and get interns, colleagues, friends and family to help.

Tip #4: Utilise life hacks

You might have heard the term 'life hack'. Its original definition referred to computer programming tricks that filtered and processed data streams like e-mail and RSS feeds. Today, anything that solves an everyday problem in a clever and non-obvious way might be called a life hack. And I have come across some powerful ones in recent years.

The 2-minute rule, which is also advocated by Allen, says that any task that needs doing and will take less than two minutes to achieve should be performed immediately. I also recently heard that one of Richard Branson's secrets of success is a little black book carried around in his back pocket. Each time he has an idea, he records it in the book, and reviews his list a couple of times each day, crossing out the not-so-good ideas and keeping the rest. At number 11 on The Times' Rich List in 2007, with a personal fortune of £3.1 billion, there's some evidence that this technique can pay off. Another life hack is to find a place for everything. Whether it's bills, receipts, loose change or random pieces of paper, if you have a place for it, the physical and mental clutter that these things can create is removed.

Tip #5: Know when to quit

It's important to know when to work and when not to. I'm a strong advocate of the power all-nighters can have, but also share Sramek's opinion on where they fit in:

"If you're tired at 10pm, just get some sleep and get up early. All-nighters can be very productive, but equally a complete waste of time if your productivity is close to zero."

More seriously, if business is flying, you might need to drop out or at least defer your degree. I'm sure Microsoft and Facebook wouldn't be where they are today if Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerburg hadn't shipped out of Harvard. On the other hand, if your business hasn't quite had the success you were hoping for, then maybe it's time to cut your losses and focus back on your degree.

David Langer is the CEO of GroupSpaces.

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