Time tracking for start-ups: signs that show you need it, how to do it efficiently and remain lean

by | 6 Jun. 2016

 6 min read

Not long ago (or so it seems), you had this awesome product idea. You didn’t notice how quite awesome it was at first. Then, you talked about it to a friend, and then another one, until you realized that you didn’t want it to remain just an idea. You wanted to turn it into a product, and turn the product into a business.

So you started putting some time and effort aside to shape this awesome idea into a real thing that customers would want to use, or maybe even buy. A couple hours in the morning, a couple hours at night. A few Saturdays and Sundays. It didn’t feel like work because real drive never feels like work. That is until you figured that you needed to quit your not-so-exciting daylight job to clock some more hours into your actual new job.

That guy Mark, whom you met last year at a house party with one of your colleagues, said he wanted in the awesome product idea and could help with engineering, or sales, or marketing. You missed teamwork and could use the help. So you said yes. Then another person came, and another one. You all worked countless hours, or rather were in that in-between state where the notions of when you were working and when you weren’t started to mingle a little bit, and you could not care less.

You were focused on more important metrics, such as conversion rates and user counts, customer retention, lifetime value and week-to-week growth.

How long ago did that started? How many hours did you and your team spent on product design? On customer support or new business development or crafting your pitch for investors? On enhancing your website and social media presence or reading blog posts?

The truth is, if you are a start-up and cannot answer any of the above questions, you may be doing something wrong.

When you start a new business, most of the initial effort you put in is actually just you thinking and designing and finding the best way to create value with little to no spending. This is the essence of the lean start-up philosophy. Instead of spending dollars that you don’t have, you spend time. Yet time is a finite resource just like money. In addition, most of the tasks you complete in the early stages don’t have a straight dollar value return on their own. So the only way you can really track your spending and results is through task duration / effort to completion.

As soon as you start working within a team, a strong need of coordination will arise and will be crucial to your success. There is no point in scheduling a release date if one of the core feature is still missing, if the website cannot be live on time, if there is no logo to put at the top of your home page. For anything that you do, “we are almost there” is not an actionable progress report (you can spend three years of your time being “almost there”, while half a dozen competitors are already there and beyond). Listing goals is only one half of the job. You need to know when they will be attained too.

Don’t get me wrong – honest, down-to-earth time tracking has a learning curve. At the beginning, most people are likely going to underestimate the amount of time they need to complete a task. This is because we all tend to not really focus on a single thing at once (kudos, e-mails). It’s okay to get a little sidetracked sometimes, and going with the flow can lead to great opportunities. But as you turn into a habit, you will begin to spot areas of inefficiency – do you really need to spend 20 hours per week on skype? How about skipping those weekly webinars that are only mildly relevant anyway? Trimming down your team’s workweek to just core projects will boost your productivity, so that you can go farther, faster.

Once you and your team know how you really work and how much time you typically need to do things, drafting a solid business plan with milestones and deadlines feels just like adding 10 + 20. Knowing in advance how long you will need to complete each task or project allows you to outline an end date. And since you are tracking your time, your forecast is backed up by actual data. You can craft attainable objectives, and measure your performance against your goals (i.e. compare planned vs. actuals) along the way.

Finally – as a start-up, you need to forecast human resource needs to sustain your growth. To do this accurately, you need to spot when existing team members are saturated. People with too much work to handle create bottlenecks that can slow down the rest of the team, and you take the risk that they crack under pressure. If your only product developer logs on hundreds of hours per week and everybody is seating around waiting for the first open beta, maybe it’s time to make this role a duet. Always try to answer the “can we do more?” question. If you cannot do more, there is no growth.

Without clear, timed objectives, we all tend to procrastinate a little and fall off track. Keeping simple accounts of what we work toward each day and how much effort we devolve to it goes a long way. There are plenty of tools on the market that will allow you to plan tasks and track time and completion. Features to look for include a simplistic, visual UI with drag and drop and a “less is more” approach, a cross-platform mobile app, and simple reporting such as progress and planned vs. actuals. You may also want to check out Kanban boards for a simple overview of tasks and assignments by status.

But remember – it has to stay less about the tool and more about the process of keeping track of your work. Starting up a business is a fast-paced challenge, where all team members need to give their 150 percent to succeed. You don’t have a minute to spare. So start by making sure that you put those to good use.


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Marc G. | Project manager

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