OKR for Startups

Nov 16, 2021
OKR for Startups

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) got introduced to help large-scale organizations manage their teams better. Companies like Google and Intel have used and popularized them to a large extent. Today, the OKR framework is one of the best ways to manage teams in various business environments.

However, implementing OKRs can be a challenge if businesses are yet to reach the stage of getting product-market fit. Companies can make the mistake of having too many metrics that do not enable them to focus on critical objectives that need attention. Similarly, businesses can confuse goals with routine tasks. A lengthy planning cycle also makes it tough to adjust objectives in light of changing business needs.

Does this sound familiar? If you are part of a start-up, you might wonder how to implement OKRs the right way. Continue reading this guide about OKRs for start-ups.

What are the advantages of OKRs for start-ups?

When Peter Drucker launched Management by Objectives (MBO) in the 1950s, the idea was to increase engagement and motivation among employees. When organizations set clear objectives for their employees, everyone has a fair understanding of the expectations from the management.

OKRs are an extension of the idea. They help leaders write meaningful objectives and back them with measurable key results. Leaders can track the progress of their teams much better with this goal-setting framework. As OKRs remain bounded by time, they lead to better planning and alignment among teams across organizations.

What makes OKRs stand out is they make people think about achieving objectives and generating tangible results. Everyone should work only on things that matter the most in a business setup. And OKRs facilitate that most comprehensively especially in the context of a startup.

When should start-ups adopt the OKR framework?

It is never too early to start framing OKRs for your start-up. No matter the team size you have, you can still write OKRs. It is because you can do it even on an individual level. OKRs may sound a lot exciting when you do them for the first time. However, if the start-up is new, there can be a challenge as you might have to focus on many other things.

When you want to grow your business, the first thing you need is to prioritize things. It is ideal to have not more than five goals that are inspirational and measurable. You can also make everyone accountable for meeting the organizational objectives.

What are the essential considerations to keep in mind before launching OKRs for start-ups?

You can ideally have someone you can make accountable to steer OKRs in your start-up. The initial one or two quarters should focus on accountability and having the right owners. You can have OKRs for a select few employees to understand how well the system fits your business. If you have a lean set-up, you can introduce OKRs just for the leadership team.

If your company size runs into hundreds, you can still implement it across the organization and bring everyone on the same page. The key here is to integrate the system well at your workplace. You can also launch OKR for a single team and monitor their performance. If the team manages to do well, you can start it for the rest of the departments.

The success of one team will inspire others to use OKRs with much confidence. So, if you are finding it tough to launch OKRs company-wide, consider starting them for one department as a pilot project.

How to implement OKRs for start-ups?

To successfully implement OKRs in your start-up, you should integrate them with the best practices you follow. Some of the examples could be customer development and agile operations. OKRs should be more of an extension to your current systems and processes. Here are essential things to keep in mind when implementing OKRs.

☑️ Customize the settings according to your business

Business giants like Google and Intel use quarterly OKRs and annual OKRs. There are three to four objectives for each quarter. Your start-up may have few people initially, and business operations may change rapidly. It thus makes sense to reduce the duration of each OKR cycle. Furthermore, you can also adjust the number of objectives accordingly. You can ideally have a four-to-six-weeks long planning cycle. When you do this, the number of key results for each objective should be one or two. You may have to prioritize intensely, but that is what matters ultimately. OKRs can help build and improve your processes and systems to achieve the desired results. These are not ideal for the usual stuff, which you can anyway manage with KPIs. When you define the objectives, make sure that you assign the responsibility individually and not group-wise.

☑️ Identify the critical metric that matters the most

When you want to grow a product, you will naturally want to create a set of recurring customers. However, doing that requires you to focus and prioritize some metrics over others. Based on what stage your start-up is at, you can choose a metric. Empathy, Stickiness, Virality, Revenue, and Scale are the five stages in the journey of a start-up. When you identify the stage in your journey, you can figure out that metric that matters the most for you. You can then weave your organizational OKRs around this metric. When you have shorter OKR cycles, it will also be likely that you may not accomplish the objectives fully. You can carry forward them to the subsequent cycles till you achieve the desired results.

☑️ Create team and customer-centric OKRs

The primary focus of any start-up should remain on its team and the customers. Whether at the organizational or individual level, make sure the OKRs serve your team and customers. It is best to avoid making the mistake of listing down tasks as OKRs. Your OKRs should impact your business positively and must remain measurable for effective implementation. When you write an objective, consider how it would ultimately benefit the team or the customer. For example, you may want to start an email newsletter for your prospects. To ensure the initiative is successful, link it with a related metric like achieving a certain number of subscribers during the quarter. You can then further create an objective of increasing the product signups through the newsletter. The example shows how you can plan a goal, keeping the end result in mind. When you initially start with an idea, there are good chances that the results will lead to creating new OKRs that matter to your business. You can use the same concept for your long-term objectives. Segregate the long-term goals into shorter ones and add them to each OKR cycle. You can thus achieve your one long-term goal in three to four OKR cycles.

☑️ Add numbers to key results

It is best to link your OKRs with numbers to measure their effectiveness. Conversion rates are an ideal example here. If you already have an existing product or marketing strategy, your target will be to improve the numbers with each quarter. If you do not have a product ready yet, do not mistake listing tasks instead of metrics. You can still have key results but do not link them with numbers. When you list the success metric, it will enable faster creation and launch of the product. If it is about creating the critical feature, you can build the product first and measure the key result. You can then get the chance to build the critical feature later with the help of metrics related to the key result. However, keep in mind that you cannot always quantify the key results. For example, there is no way you can add a numeric value to the subjective opinion of your customers. Your customer satisfaction surveys should thus include questions that would enable better measurement of client happiness.

☑️ Ensure regular iterations and reporting

For early-stage start-ups, it is likely there will be iterations related to the product and its features. So, you should keep your OKRs adjustable and make changes as and when required. OKRs give you the flexibility to have continuous iterations without losing the focus of the ultimate objective you want to achieve. Some start-ups, which might not have clearly defined OKRs, may build more features rather than capitalizing on the existing ones. During your OKR check-ins, ensure that you share the progress of key results. Your OKR meetings should be a guide for the upcoming quarter and the year.

☑️ Plan well for the upcoming OKR cycle

When you finish an OKR cycle, make sure you spend a good time reflecting on the positives and negatives. OKR evaluation will help you understand what you need to focus on during the upcoming cycle. Make sure you take sufficient time to think and strategize. It will help you avoid mistakes that you may have committed the last time.

Top mistakes to avoid when writing OKRs for start-ups?

Here are some things to avoid when you write OKRs for start-ups.

(1) Striving for perfection

You will never be perfect on the first attempt, so stop thinking about it. When you do it for the first time, there is no baseline or benchmark established for you to look upon. It is okay to feel overwhelmed about framing OKRs. However, you can always keep in mind the best practices about writing OKRs for a start-up.

(2) Not setting challenging goals

You will be unable to identify the true potential of your team if goals are not challenging enough. It is okay even if your team achieves each objective 60-70% in the first attempt. However, it will give them a learning experience like no other. It will also motivate them to strive for betterment with each new OKR cycle.

(3) Having too many OKRs

Your OKR list should have only those objectives that are critical to your business. Having too many goals can dilute their importance and not help you understand what you really need to achieve. Your teams may also not be able to concentrate on things that can impact the bottom line of your start-up.


Implementing OKRs for your start-up is not difficult if you concentrate on the best practices listed above. OKRs are ideal to understand your priorities and how they can bring tangible results. Use this guide to write effective OKRs that will motivate and guide your team to achieve results that matter.

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