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Learning #9: How to Effectively Implement Project Management Strategies as an Early Stage Startup Founder

By Elvin Teo, Head of Customer Experience at Advance.AI


You’re a startup founder trying to juggle a million things at once. Between building your product, hiring your team, and getting early customers, it’s tough to keep all those plates spinning. That’s where project management comes in. As a founder, you need to be ruthlessly focused on the most important priorities to get your business off the ground, and it would mean rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty.

Having experienced the challenges of three startups at different stages, I empathize with the struggles that founders encounter in ensuring the delivery of positive bottom-line results. In this article, we’ll explore project management strategies and tools specifically tailored for lean startups. We’ll cover how to prioritize your roadmap, track deliverables, and pick the right software to stay organized.

With some simple PM best practices, you’ll be able to focus your limited time on the core goals that will make or break your startup’s success. Let’s dive in!


 

Do Startups Need Dedicated Project Managers?

As a startup founder, you have enough on your plate without adding project management to the list. However, many entrepreneurs find that as their company grows, they need help keeping projects and key deliverables on track. While you may not need a full-time, dedicated project manager right away, it’s a good idea to start thinking about how you’ll organize your projects and whether you need extra support.

Manage projects yourself — Define the Framework


When you’re just getting started, you can use simple tools like spreadsheets, calendars, and task lists to organize your projects. Set clear deadlines, assign responsibilities, and regularly review progress to ensure things stay on schedule. The key is finding a system that works for your business operations and using it religiously.

I use the Plan—Do—Check—Act (PDCA) Framework of Lean Management to ensure that I stay on top of situations and more importantly cultivate a culture of continuous improvement:


PDCA Framework (Source)


Step 1: Plan

1.Define Goals and Objectives:

  • Clearly outline your startup’s short-term and long-term goals.

  • Identify key performance indicators (KPIs) that align with your objectives.

2.Strategic Planning:

  • Develop a business plan that outlines your mission, vision, and strategies.

  • Identify potential risks and create contingency plans.

Step 2: Do

1.Execution:

  • Implement the strategies outlined in your plan.

  • Allocate resources effectively to support your operational activities.

2.Team Involvement:

  • Communicate the plan to your team.

  • Ensure that each team member understands their role in executing the plan.

Step 3: Check

1.Performance Monitoring:

  • Regularly monitor your KPIs to assess progress.

  • Compare actual performance with the goals set in the planning phase.

2.Feedback Collection:

  • Gather feedback from customers, employees, and stakeholders.

  • Evaluate the effectiveness of your strategies and operations.

Step 4: Act

1.Continuous Improvement:

  • Based on the feedback and performance analysis, make necessary adjustments to your plan.

  • Identify areas for improvement and innovation.

2.Iterative Planning:

  • Update your business plan based on the lessons learned and changing market conditions.

  • Communicate changes to your team and stakeholders.

For early-stage startup founders, the PDCA framework provides a systematic approach to managing and improving their business operations. It encourages adaptability and continuous learning, which are crucial in the dynamic environment of a startup.

Other frameworks include:

  • Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve, Control (DMAIC) from Six Sigma

  • Build, Measure, Learn from Lean Startup

  • Agile Methodology

There are many frameworks, so choose one that fits within your industry (for Tech Startup, do consider agile!), team size and structure, and business goals. Start with a weekly review session to:

  • Review what has been done previously

  • Plan for the upcoming week

  • Discuss what can be done better

Use project management software

The key factor to effective project management is to have a baseline and track your progress against this baseline. Project management platforms like Asana, Trello, and Basecamp can help organize tasks, set timelines, and keep your team accountable.

These tools have features like task dependencies, file sharing, and progress reports to give you visibility into the status of key projects. They do require investment to implement and learn, however, and may be overkill for very small teams. (Check out the section below for a list of software. I would suggest starting off with Google documents due to its collaborative features)

Hire part-time or contract help

For many startups, hiring a part-time project manager or project management consultant is a good middle ground. They can help set up systems and processes, keep complex projects on schedule, and train your team on best practices. Look for candidates with experience helping early-stage companies implement and improve their project management functions. With the right person in this role, even part-time, you’ll gain valuable insight and bandwidth to focus on the highest priorities. (For a start, consider working with known contacts with an established track record. Ensure that you have a well-defined scope with clear deliverables and timeline to ensure that there is little ambiguity. Organize frequent check in sessions to measure progress and provide critical feedback.)

 

What are the key concepts of Project Management?


As a startup founder, you have a million things demanding your attention daily. Project management is key to keeping all the balls in the air without dropping anything. The core principles are simple but powerful.

Define the scope

First, determine what needs to get done by defining the scope of your project. Figure out the key objectives, deliverables, and milestones. Get specific on the timeline, budget, and resources required. The more detail the better.

Don’t feel overwhelmed by huge, complex projects. Break them into smaller milestones and tasks to make them feel more manageable.

Create a schedule

Next, break down the work into a schedule of manageable tasks with concrete deadlines. Use project management software like Asana, Trello or Monday to organize tasks sequentially and assign them to team members. Review and update the schedule regularly as things change.

Be very clear in assigning tasks and responsibilities to team members. Ambiguity can lead to dropped balls, confusion, and resentment. Set deadlines for each task and check in regularly to make sure people stay on track. Provide support and guidance as needed to help everyone succeed in their responsibilities.

Monitor progress

Continuously check in on your tasks and timeline to ensure everything is on track. Look for potential issues that could derail the project and make corrections quickly. Provide updates to your team and stakeholders to keep everyone informed of progress.

Make adjustments

No project goes exactly as planned. Expect changes and be ready to adjust schedules, reallocate resources, and revise priorities as needed. Meet with your team regularly to determine the best path forward.

With some organization and active management, you can navigate the chaos of startup life and keep your projects on schedule. Apply these principles and you’ll get better at it with practice! Staying on top of the details is well worth the effort.

 

Choosing the Right Project Management Tools and Software

When you’re in the throes of building a startup, the last thing you want to do is get bogged down in administrative tasks like project management. But choosing tools to help keep you organized is critical. The good news is, there are many software options available for startups that won’t break the bank.

Asana is a user-friendly project management tool perfect for startups. It lets you create tasks, assign them to team members, add deadlines and attachments, and track progress. Asana has a free version to get you started, then paid plans with more features as your business grows.

Trello organizes your projects into visual boards with lists of cards that represent tasks. It’s a simple but flexible system that makes project management accessible for small teams. Trello has a free version as well as paid plans with more advanced features. (I use this actively for my projects due to its ease of use and ensure clear visibility of the tasks and their status for all stakeholders)

For the more seasoned project managers, do consider Ganttpro. With its powerful packed features at a reasonable price, these will allow you to generate professional-looking Gantt charts while juggling your projects and other key functions such as resourcing and budgeting. (Check out their Medium where they actively share the features of their platform.)

Google Documents

I started with Google Documents and still use Google Sheets for general tasks occasionally due to its ease of use and sharing function to promote collaboration across your team. (Check out my previous Medium post that includes a Google Sheet Project Plan for free!)

For bootstrapping startups, choosing free or low-cost project management software is key. But as your business and team grow, you’ll want tools that can scale with you. Look for options that offer a range of plans so you only pay for the features you need. Keeping projects organized from day one will set your startup up for success and make life as a founder so much easier. No one wants to be the bear trying to juggle one too many tasks!


 

Managing a Remote Team Effectivel


So you’ve assembled a team of talented individuals from around the globe to help get your startup off the ground. Fantastic! But how do you effectively manage a group that’s geographically dispersed? The keys are communication, accountability, and the right tools.

Communicate Constantly

Make communication a top priority. Schedule weekly video calls to check in, provide updates, give feedback, and keep everyone on the same page regarding priorities and deadlines. You should also encourage your team members to communicate regularly through chat and direct messaging. The more you talk, the fewer surprises and dropped balls there will be.

Clearly Define Responsibilities

Ensure each team member has a well-defined role and set of responsibilities. Provide detailed project plans, timelines, and requirements so there is no confusion over who is accountable for what. Review these regularly and get input to make sure expectations are reasonable. Delegate authority and trust your team to get the job done.

Leverage Helpful Tools

Take advantage of technology to keep your remote team connected and productive. Use a project management tool like Asana or Trello to assign tasks, set due dates, upload files, and monitor progress. Rely on Zoom or Google Meet for video conferencing. Slack, Lark or Microsoft Teams are great for ongoing chat and quick collaboration. With the right tools, managing a remote team can be highly effective.

The key to success is putting in the effort to build a cohesive, high-functioning team, even when separated geographically. With open communication, clearly defined responsibilities, and the help of useful software tools, you can manage a remote team that accomplishes great things. Stay invested in your team’s growth and success, and they will help ensure the success of your startup.

 

Project Management Mistakes Startups Should Avoid

As a startup founder, you already have enough on your plate without having to stress about managing projects efficiently.

  • Not defining clear goals and objectives. Make sure each project has concrete, measurable goals so your team understands what they’re working toward. Define objectives, priorities, and deadlines to keep everyone on the same page.

  • Lack of communication. Regular communication is key, especially for remote teams. Have weekly calls or video chats to check in, provide updates, and address any issues. Share documents and schedules to keep transparency high. Make communication a priority to avoid confusion and wasted efforts.

  • No risk management. Startups often run on tight budgets and timelines, so you need to identify and mitigate risks. Consider potential roadblocks and have contingency plans in place. Re-evaluate risks regularly as projects progress and make adjustments as needed. Managing risks well can mean the difference between success and failure.

  • Not using project management tools. As a startup, you need to work efficiently. Project management software helps organize tasks, schedules, files, and more. Popular options like Asana, Trello, and Basecamp are affordable and easy to use. Find a tool that fits your needs so you can manage projects seamlessly without wasting time.

  • Lack of accountability. Clearly define roles and responsibilities for your team so everyone knows what they are accountable for. Follow up regularly to ensure key tasks and milestones are being completed. Holding team members and yourself accountable is key to project success and meeting deadlines. Make accountability a part of your startup culture.

Following these tips will help your startup avoid common project management mistakes and set you up for success. Keep projects on track, communicate well, manage risks, use the right tools, and hold yourself and your team accountable. Your startup will be running smoothly in no time!

Conclusion

So there you have it! As a startup founder, you need to be smart about managing projects. Don’t take on more than you can handle yourself in the early days.

Stay focused on delivering value and getting feedback from users. The rest will fall into place. Project management doesn’t have to be a chore — view it as an opportunity to build something great with your team.

You’ve got this!

About Elvin Teo

With over a decade of expertise in project and program management, Elvin leads the customer experience team at ADVANCE.AI, a premier artificial intelligence company specializing in digital identity verification, risk management, and digital lending solutions across diverse industries. As a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), Elvin is passionate about Project Management because it transforms his work and empowers him to build successful teams and robust processes to achieve the mission of a startup.

This is part of the series called “Project Basics 101” where Elvin documents his experience in IT Project Management. His inspiration? One of the biggest stumbling blocks in his journey was finding practical tips and more importantly, reusable templates which he can use immediately.


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