September 15, 2016

Interview with Noah Kagan: SumoMe’s Secret Sauce for Productivity

by Sujan Patel

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If you’re running a business or a department in a growing enterprise, then you probably face productivity challenges on a regular basis. You’re not alone in that. Over the past decade, I’ve had to juggle a number of projects at the same time, which has stretched my focus to its limits.

There’s plenty of research that says multitasking on a micro level can harm your productivity. When you’re trying to manage multiple projects or businesses, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and let productivity slip. You take on too much work and wind up doing more harm than good.

I recently had the chance to interview Noah Kagan, founder of SumoMe, to find out how he and his team manage to stay so productive (and increase productivity) amid tremendous growth and management of multiple projects. His insights, along with a glimpse into SumoMe’s approach, might be just what you need to keep your productivity on point.

Start with the Right People

Sujan: You’ve got a pretty detailed backstory. You’ve done quite a bit up to this point.

Noah: Yeah, I went to Berkeley, I was a cubicle monkey at Intel, I worked at Mint, and I also worked at Facebook. Now I’m at SumoMe.

Sujan: So, SumoMe and AppSumo are both of your current businesses. How do you manage to do multiple things?

Noah: Hire really amazing people and try not to bother them. I have a Jewish mother who I love and she likes to bother me, so I do my best to leave people alone. What I’ve noticed is that people who can do multiple things usually have one specific goal.

I learned that from Mark at Facebook. His only goal was growth. I would come up to him and say, “Yo, let’s make money.” And he’s like, “Does that help us grow?”

So I’m like, “No...?”

And he’d say, “We’re not doing it.”

So for the two different businesses, it’s about [asking] “What’s the main goal?” Most of the time, we focus on SumoMe and we focus on one goal. Then we hold each team responsible for their part of that goal.

Say the goal is to make $100. Each team is responsible for their $10 of that $100. Most of them want to just go and figure it out, and I let them. Lately, I think I’ve become more of a cheerleader.

Bottom Line: Make a very clear goal, hire the right people, give them their piece of the goal, and then let them do whatever they need to do to get it done.

Shed the Micro Distractions for Bigger Wins

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Sujan: That’s smart. Leaving them alone is such a key part of a team being able to focus.

Noah: Yeah but it’s so cliché, you know? I know it’s hard when you’re listening to something like this. I mean everyone knows to leave people alone. They know to hire the right people. But I think people get stuck in the micro stuff.

For example, with the Drake concert we went to, I bought two extra tickets and I was going to sell them and make like $20. But if I put the same amount of time into SumoMe that I put into selling those tickets, I could have made $10K.

You have to remove the distractions and the micro things. Spend time focusing on where the bigger wins really come from. Find the macro wins that you can really throw yourself into.

Sujan: That’s smart. One of the things I do is a 3x3 framework, where I focus on the top 3 channels or top 3 opportunities, and then I fix the top 3 problems and I don’t care about anything else in that time. I’m just knocking out big wins. Either that or it doesn’t work and I have to go back to the drawing board. But that middle sucks, right?

Noah: I think business is like 90% sucking, like when you’re at a desk and it’s boring. Then it’s 10% pursuing the goal. But it all comes with sacrifice.

It’s like with fitness. If you really want a good body, there’s only one way to do it. You have to put in hard work. It’s the same in business. If you go in once a week and half-ass it or don’t have a plan, how can you expect to get those great results and big wins?

Bottom Line: Don’t let the little details and tasks suck up all your time. Create strategies that focus on which tasks take the least effort but offer the biggest wins.

Finding the Right Tools For Productivity

Sujan: I know you started with the cliché thing, but it’s cliché because it works. So I’m going to ask another cliché question about productivity tips. What are some tools or methods that you use throughout your day to stay organized and stay sane?

Noah: Generally what I do is on Sundays, I have three categories that I fill out: work, workout, and personal. I’ll have three to five bullets in each of those categories, and then I’ll plot those out just on a basic notepad for the week. That way, my time for those things is already allocated.

I use ScheduleOnce a lot, so if people want to meet with me, it’s a lot more convenient to just choose a time. I block out specific days for phone calls and then I have that time already allocated so I know when calls, meetings, and interviews will happen.

One thing that also helps me is that I don’t try to look at many metrics. I know a lot of people are like, “Oh yeah man, I’m data-driven.” I try to limit metrics to our goal, but I don’t spend a lot of time during the day looking at them. I know if I’m spending a lot of time looking at metrics then things are bad, I’m either bored or I need to refocus my attention to higher-value things.

I use a to-do list to keep track, too. When I get to the office, I’ll write down the two or three things that I want to do that day. I even write down stupid things like, “Clip my nails.” Those little wins make me feel good, like how people tell you to always make your bed. It’s a quick way to get an easy win every day.

Bottom line: There’s no secret magical set of tools that boosts your productivity. Find the tools and processes that help make you and your team more productive, even if it’s just a pad of paper and time to reflect and plan out your day/week.

Prioritize Activities to Maximize Productivity

Sujan: You get that momentum because you’ve already done the easy things, so it’s easier to do one more. What about the things that stop you from doing “just one more?”

Noah: The challenge of every single business, whether it’s Tesla or SumoMe, is prioritizing. There’s a limited amount of time available and once it’s gone, it never comes back. So in your day, you have to examine how you’re really prioritizing. For example, on Sundays when I’m looking at my week, if I see meetings with people that are just like…(sighs). You can hear the sigh in my voice. I just cancel them. At the end of the day, I’m sorry, but I have things I need to do.

It’s not being rude. People just need to be a lot more ruthless with their time. They need to examine their real priorities.

In our business, we have a goal and 3 KPIs that affect that goal. Then we make a list of everything we can do around each KPI. For instance, with things like churn, we list every single thing we can do to reduce churn. Then we have to ruthlessly identify what is easy to do and what we expect the outcome to be. That prioritizes which things we want to be doing.

Companies need to ask themselves: “Is what I’m working on what I really need to be doing?” Most of the time, it’s not.

Bottom line: Pay close attention to where you put your focus. Your time is a finite commodity, so stay sharp and focus on the tasks that contribute to growth and the bottom line.

Principles of Productivity: Accountability and Communication

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Sujan: It’s tough to be honest with yourself when you’re working and thinking at the same time.

Noah: Yeah, I think a lot of people’s brains turn off when they sit in front of a computer. They check Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, read email, code something, or write a blog post. They really need to be more accountable. Think: “What am I working on?” “Why am I doing this?” “Are there more important things I should be doing?”

Sujan: We talked earlier about hiring the right people. You mentioned that you try to leave people alone, so how do you delegate?

Noah: We have a goal, a specific number, and everything is based around that number. If you ask anyone in our company, they’ll know it. You have to have a clear goal. Then we also have a weekly check company-wide about how we’re doing that month toward that goal. It basically says how much we need to be making each month. We take that number and put it in a spreadsheet.

Every Monday morning like clockwork, we look at the number. We see our progress and then the team at a higher level reports what they did last week and what they’re doing this week.  On a granular level, the team leads email me weekly to let me know things like if they’re on track and on target with their specific part of the goal, the specifics of what was done, the specifics of what they’re going to do, and what they need help with.

Then I have leadership meetings every week where we sometimes say, “We’re not on track,” followed by, “OK, well what the &^% do we need to be doing to get on track?”

Then every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, we have a partner meeting to maintain a constant communication channel. That’s another big challenge.

Even if you have something great, and people like what you’re offering, communication can become a real challenge. We used to have everyone check in individually, right down to how their weekend was, but it got to the point where those meetings were taking an hour or more. I think as companies are growing from 10 to 15, 20, 50, 100, 1000 employees, you have to evolve how communication happens and how you streamline it to be as effective as possible.

Bottom line: Productivity is born through communication, but don’t get bogged down in over-communicating. Keep teams in contact, and communication open, to ensure that every team is moving in the same direction and each team member is accountable for their part in reaching goals.

Looking Back and Planning Ahead

Sujan: It sounds like basic stuff, but it’s actually really hard to do consistently and hold yourself accountable. So here’s a question I ask everyone I talk to: if you could go back in time 10 years, what advice would you give yourself?

Noah: There are probably two major things I would’ve liked to have done differently. One is to be more patient and avoid the novelty effect, like doing things just because they feel good in the moment. But if you’re trying to do something significant in business, you have to be patient.

The second thing I would say is to surround yourself with great people, like an advisor or mentor and do it at all costs. So if you have to work for free, then work for free. I’m happy with how things have turned out, but these are things that probably would have accelerated my career.

Being around other people is so important. I’ve really changed my leadership style based on my experiences. At Facebook, I’d have an idea and then the group would come up with other ideas and it’s like, “Wow you guys just kicked my idea’s $#@.”

So at SumoMe, instead of being a dictatorship, it’s more like, “OK, what do you guys think?” If you’re in the mindset of “I’m the smartest person here,” then you should probably change jobs.

Sujan: How often would you say you put yourself in uncomfortable situations or go outside of your comfort zone?

Noah: Realistically, once a month or so. For example, right now I’m trying to learn Hebrew, and when you start learning something new, it’s uncomfortable. You want to feel smart and have people perceive you as smart, but I don’t know anything here. People have to work on their comfort zones and work on growing.

This morning when I went swimming, I set my goal at 15 laps. At about eight laps, I’m thinking, “You know, 10 is good enough.” That happens to everybody, but that time when you’re trying to negotiate for less is the time when you have to go into that and go outside of your comfort zone.

Bottom line: Growth comes from trying new things. Push past your boundaries. When you get outside of where you’re comfortable, then you’re heading in the right direction for productive growth.

What are the best productivity tips you’ve learned in your career? Let us know in the comments below: