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With David Henkel-Wallace

Effective Prioritization Tactics for Climate Entrepreneurs

Most early stage founders struggle to maintain focus, juggling an expanding list of competing priorities, new opportunities, and “fires”. If you want to stop getting distracted from core objectives and make consistent, meaningful progress for your climate business, ruthless prioritization is the key.

With three decades of experience as a founder in Silicon Valley, David Henkel-Wallace is well-versed in getting businesses off the ground. We sat down with him to hear his advice on how founders can effectively set goals, and most importantly, make strides towards reaching them.

Effective prioritization starts with the right goals

Be both ambitious and rigorous: When setting your goals, define 1-3 North Stars. These are long-term, aspirational goals that you can keep in the back of your mind and turn to for a motivational boost, but aren’t operational. For example, "Our company will eliminate all methane emissions from large-scale livestock farming in India"  When you have a hard decision (maybe a cost decision or marketing decision) you can say "is this advancing us or taking us away from our long term goal?"

For working day to day, you’ll need to think of quantifiable and clear objectives you can focus on achieving over the next six months or year. The SMART framework - which involves creating goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound - is helpful for setting these kinds of targets.

Ignore unhelpful advice: Trust your own instincts - you know your company better than anyone else. Don’t just blindly follow something you saw on the internet, because you might end up relying on a metric that’s obsolete, or applies to businesses at a different stage. The same point applies to advice on goal-setting you might hear from investors or other parties. They can’t know your business as deeply as you do, so you can safely disregard any advice you don’t think applies to your company.

Establish why as well as what: When you’re creating your goals, take the time to do some introspection about why each one is important. Thinking carefully about the reasons you’re setting your KPIs will help ensure they’re aligned with your overarching goals for your business, and will also stop you getting distracted by reminding you of why it’s so important to stay focused.

Think in business terms: Growth is the central concern of any business - whether it be revenue, user count, or another KPI. You might win an award or receive millions in funding, but all that really matters to investors is whether you’re attracting customers and generating revenue.

But the thing is, depending on your company, there could be many other milestones you have to hit before you’ll start seeing any revenue - if you’re a deep tech startup, for example, your first goal might be to develop a prototype, or complete a pilot with an initial commercial customer. If so, keep the goal of commercialization in mind and work backwards to figure out the steps you’ll need to execute on to get there.

It’s not all about the money

As well as your financial KPIs, you might want to establish other goals that won’t make you money in the short-term, but are worth doing for other reasons. For example, you could prioritize building relationships with industry associations that act as channel partners, or invest in building a following on key social platforms. On the surface, it might look like you’re spending a lot of energy on something that isn’t immediately contributing to your growth, but these big picture activities are equally meaningful and will be valuable to your business in the long run.

Get your team involved

Make sure to work together with your team to devise your business’s goals. You brought other people onboard for their complementary expertise, so they’ll be best placed to think of appropriate milestones within their specialist area. Plus, the more you involve your team in the goal setting process, the more they’ll be motivated to put actions in motion to achieve them, and the more progress you’ll see.

Trust your future self

It’s totally fine if you don’t have a clear vision for your business in the distant future.  So much can change once you start getting feedback from customers, bring on outside funding, and so on. Learn to be comfortable with occasionally telling your investors or partners ‘I don’t know’, and trust your future self to figure those things out - just focus on the immediate next steps you need to take.

Making progress towards your goals

Avoiding decision paralysis: You probably won’t struggle with choosing North Star goals - after all, when you set up your business, you most likely had a dream outcome in mind. What you might find difficult is settling on a strategy that’ll get you there - for example, if your goal is to do $100 million in revenue in the next 5 years, there might be 40 potential ways of doing so. Because there are so many possible paths, founders often struggle with wanting to experiment ad nauseam.

To avoid falling into the trap of decision paralysis, strive for adequacy, not perfection. Concentrate on reaching your intermediate milestones, and once you’ve achieved one goal, move straight onto the next one. Do the best you can with what you have, and don’t agonize over making decisions - just keep pushing forward.

Ask what’s driving your success or failure: If you aren’t immediately seeing the results you want, don’t assume you need to start from scratch. For example, if you’re running a digital marketing campaign, and it doesn’t generate more sales, that doesn’t mean your entire strategy is wrong - there are a number of variables that could be the problem, such as the targeting or the content. Interrogating the factors that will influence your success will help you identify when something has gone wrong and allow you to fix it.

When to say no - and when to say yes: You should be ruthlessly evaluating the actions you’re taking on a day-to-day basis - will the meeting you have scheduled get you closer to achieving your goals, or is there a more productive way you could be spending your time?

When a new opportunity appears, your default answer should be no rather than yes, so that you can keep focused. But at the same time, there are some chances that you shouldn’t let pass you by. Every time something comes up, check back in with your goals, and ask yourself whether you’ll make more progress towards them if you accept or decline.

David Henkel-Wallace has been founding and running successful companies for over 30 years, working in climate, clean energy, pharmaceuticals and software.  His favorite stage of a company is the very early stages, when you are still working out what the company will be, and then building it from the ground up.


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