Themes, Not Goals – What Most Startup Leaders Get Wrong About Annual Planning

Published January 3, 2019

Business Planning for the New Year

It’s resolution season, which means many of us are making declarations about how many books we’ll read or how many pounds we’ll lose this year. The ball descends on December 31, and on January 1st—or maybe January 2nd, depending on our hangover level—we set out to make our resolutions a reality.

Here’s a stat that isn’t too encouraging: 80% of those resolutions will fail by February. It’s so bad that some psychologists actually suggest starting your resolutions on February 1. A major contributor to that failure rate is the lofty nature of most resolution goals. Goals are best when they’re broken down into smaller steps that are more attainable and achievable.

Instead of setting out to read 25 books this year, for instance, it’s better to aim at reading 2 books a month. Or—even better—read for 20 minutes every weekday. The end result is about the same, but the path you take to get there has incremental steps that make the goal easier to accomplish.

So what does this have to do with annual planning? Well, if you’re doing it right, you’ve already set your business goals for 2019. But, if closing out Q4 and the blur of holidays got in the way, you may be sitting down this week or next to write out your 2019 goals. And my advice is: don’t.

What I mean is, don’t try to write lofty, year-long goals. For many of the same reasons that most resolutions fail, most businesses miss the mark on their annual goals by year’s end. In fact, businesses fare even worse than resolution-writers: 90% of senior executives told The Economist they fall short of annual goals.

This is especially true in the startup world, where the rapid pace of change means the goals you have today may not even be relevant six months from now.

So instead of focusing on big annual goals, focus on themes. What themes will drive the focus of your business this year? Themes should align with your overall vision, and can be anything that is important to where you want to go. You want something that isn’t so vague that it’s meaningless, but also isn’t so specific that it’s essentially a goal with a different name.

One of the current themes here at Visible is “Time to Value.” We’re asking ourselves how we can ensure that we are having a positive impact on our customers’ businesses as soon as they start using the product.

Once you have your themes, then you can start creating monthly and quarterly goals that line up with them. Themes, then, become the lenses through which you can prioritize your efforts. If an initiative doesn’t line up with one of your themes for the year, you’ll reevaluate whether it’s really worth doing. Our “Time to Value” theme is informing everything from our product roadmap to our marketing efforts.

So, instead of setting big annual goals that you aren’t likely to reach anyway, consider choosing themes instead. If you choose them well, they’ll last a whole lot longer than your New Year’s resolutions do.

Related Resources: How to Write a Business Plan For Your Startup


The Visible newsletter brings you weekly, curated fundraising news, articles, and events.