Run the winners, kill the losers

We were sitting in a Berlin restaurant last summer, counting up for our friends how many projects we were working on. Around about the time we ran out of fingers, they laughed and said they wished they could be as productive as we were. Really though, they should have staged an intervention.


Burnout wasn’t far away, and we eventually cut down. Now, if Mish had to explain each of our projects over a separate glass of wine she’d still end up sleeping on the bathroom floor with the room spinning around her, but we wouldn’t have to get her stomach pumped.

We took things too far, but working on multiple simultaneous projects does have its advantages – which we’ve written about before.

Recently, I’ve come to appreciate another benefit that I hadn’t considered before: you can’t sustain bad ideas beyond their natural lifespan through sheer force of effort. With limited time allocated to it, each project has to gain enough traction with minimal resources to earn more of your love.

This is a benefit because in my experience, if something is going to work, it’s relatively easy from the start. And if you’re in love with an idea that isn’t working, given half a chance it’s dangerously tempting (especially because of the sunk cost fallacy) to keep pouring ever more resources into it in a vain effort to make it work.

A user on Hacker News reports the same thing:

If I had to give any advice, it would be to run through ideas quickly. If they’re not gaining traction, or they’re a struggle to grow, drop them and move on to the next idea.

Every project I launched that was difficult, never went anywhere. There were a handful of sites I started where I was working hard to build traffic and it was always the same, a spike, then nothing a week later…My two or three successful projects were built within a week or two. They were rough, but provided something of value, and I could build them from there.

In other words: run the winners, kill the losers.

How we’ve run the winners

My first book about property fell into the “easy from the start” category. Last summer, around the time that we were running out of fingers to count our projects, we often forgot it existed – even though it sold hundreds of copies each month with virtually no effort.

Eventually, we recognised that publishing in the property niche was a winner, and made more time for it. I set myself deadlines to turn my second book from “one day when I get around to it” to “out by February”, put more effort into giving it a successful launch campaign, and sales were even stronger than the first time around.

The idea of running the winners also works within projects, not just in choosing the projects themselves.

With our branding and copywriting business, Mortified Cow, we were trying every avenue to get new clients: content marketing, tweeting, appearing on podcasts, cold emailing, launching an educational campaign in a new industry…the works.

It took us about 18 months, but we finally realised that only two things easily and reliably generate new business for us: word-of-mouth, and appearing on podcasts. So we killed practically everything else, and poured more energy into cultivating relationships and helping people to recommend us.

We even found that we win work practically effortlessly in a couple of specific industries, and clients in those sectors seem to get the best results from our work – so we’re considering specialising in those.

An improved 80/20

Running winners and killing losers might just sound like another way of talking about performing an 80/20 analysis: focusing on the 20% of the business that gives you 80% of the results.

In a way, it is – but there are two extra elements that make it easier and more effective, for me, to put into action.

The first is the idea of easy from the start. It’s usually not easy to look at your business and know which 20% is driving the value. It’s easier to think of what’s worked well and easily from the start…and that could well be where you find your all-important 20%.

“Easy from the start” is relative. Nothing ever just happens without a lot of work, and it doesn’t explode instantly like magic: you won’t launch a podcast and get a million downloads and sponsors knowing at your door in the first few weeks. But if you’re on the lookout for the early signs of success, they’ll be there…and of course, the more projects you’ve attempted, the easier it will be to tell early on which ones are relatively finding their own momentum more readily.

The other is the emphasis on always trying new things. 80/20 is about chopping away at what isn’t working to do more of what does, but it’s also important to use some of that saved time to try new things – because you might find a runaway success that eclipses even the 20% you kept. As James Altucher notes, 80/20 is recursive: if you find your 20% and 80/20 that portion again, you end up with 4% of the effort that gets you 64% of the results.

Knowing that we don’t know

This approach – of trying a lot of stuff and keeping what works – is like Scott Adams’ description of the Silicon Valley pivot: acknowledging that nobody has the slightest clue what’s going to work from one minute to the next, so just trying everything and failing fast is the logical approach to take.

Of course, this isn’t the only way. I know people who’ve built fantastic businesses by just grinding away every day – even when times are tough and nothing seems to be happening – until one day they unexpectedly reach the summit and everything starts to just work.

Their way works for them (and I envy their tenacity and self-belief), but our scattergun approach has worked for us. Instead of resisting our hundreds of ideas, we give in to them: but if they’re going to make it, they don’t have long to earn their keep.