When you're running a startup you have a lot of demands on your time, more than you can fit into your day. Your top priority should always be responding promptly to user bug reports and questions, and then come other stakeholders like investors. Where it gets tricky is dealing with other requests. For example you may have open-sourced some code, and are now getting bug reports or feature requests. You want to help those people out and generate goodwill, but you don't have enough time to spend on all of them. How do you prioritize?

The secret I discovered is reciprocity. You want to put the people who really need your help at the front of the queue, and asking them for something trivial in return is a good way of figuring out how strong their need is.

For example, I'll very often get bug reports on my open-source code that are missing some information that would help debug the problem. Instead of spending time speculating, I'll email them back thanking them for the report, and asking if they can give me the information I need, typically something as simple as the OS and browser versions. It's amazing, more than half the time I don't even get a reply! This tells me that they don't really care about the problem, so I can leave their issue at the bottom of my priority list.

What I've discovered is that the same approach is applicable to a lot of business relationships where you need to prioritize who you spend your time with. I will take an initial thirty minute phone call with anyone; I love how many interesting people this allows me to discover. I write off one day a week where I don't expect to get any coding done thanks to meetings, so squeezing another few in doesn't hurt my productivity. I will often get requests for a follow-up or in-person meeting, and that can be a tough call to make.

Before I invest my time, I want to have some assurance that it has a chance of helping me make progress with the business. I want an equal relationship, and that won't happen if I'm giving up my time and expertise in return for nothing. What I do is again ask for some reciprocity. If they're well connected in a particular industry, I'll ask for an introduction to a related company I'm interested in. If they work for an interesting company, I'll ask for some free product licenses I can give away on my blog. If they blog themselves, I'll ask if they'll write a quick story about their experiences with my site.

It's like qualifying your leads in sales: you need as much information as you can to make tough decisions about where you expend your resources. Is it manipulative? It does feel a bit artificial at first, but I focus on how much better it makes me at helping the people who really need my time. Judging by this Quora thread, I'm not the only one to feel like this.

So next time you find yourself in a dilemma about where to spend your limited time, try applying reciprocity to understand who needs it most.

Photo by RAWKU5