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Never Lose Your Focus
Focus is the critical factor in building a business, but the easiest thing to lose.
Focus is your most important weapon in building your business. Larger competitors have more money, people and resources than you. Your only advantage is focus. You can put all of your focus on a narrow opportunity and succeed where they cannot compete.
Unfortunately, focus is very hard to gain and even harder to maintain. Most startups die because they try to do too much, in search of a larger opportunity, bigger market or better product. Some startups try to build a platform before they have a product, others want to build more products before they even have one that works well. All of them tell themselves they are focused when they are not.
You know you are focused on when every member of your team can immediately repeat your goals at any time, and that list of goals is very short.
It’s hard, I know. Even having done this many times I find it hard to get focused and stay focused.
To make this even harder, what it means to be focused changes over time! In the very early days, before you’ve found Product/Market Fit (PMF), you need to focus on doing a lot of experiments. That means you focus not on a product or business, but on the process of experimentation (see You Are Not a Business Yet).
After you find PMF, your focus needs to immediately shift! Post-PMF your focus is on investing and growing whatever is working. That means you switch from experimentation to operations, from trying lots of things to doing as little as possible. Since you aren’t going to replace your entire team, this means you need the same people who focused on experimentation to learn how to focus on operations. It’s tough.
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Even worse, there are always shiny new opportunities that tempt you! It always seems so easy to just “give it a try.” Maybe it’s an enterprise customer who approached you while all of your other customers are SMB. Or maybe it’s a small change to your product that will let you tap into a bigger market. Whatever it is, it seems like you should be able to try it for so little effort that it would be silly not to try!
The problem is that the cost is focus, if not effort. Trying something new might be easy, but it dilutes your focus. As I said before, your focus is the only advantage you have, so in giving it up what do you have left?
Eventually, when you have a good operational foundation, you will need to start exploring new opportunities. Growing faster as you get bigger requires new avenues for growth since you will quickly exhaust the low hanging fruit in your initial PMF. However, you cannot afford to jump back and forth between new opportunities and your existing business as they are likely very different. One requires experimentation and the other requires operational efficiency.
When you get to this stage, it’s best to think about your opportunities as “Explore” and “Exploit”:
Exploit opportunities are in the same area as your core business and either grow that business or make it more effective.
Explore opportunities are new areas (industries, customers, products, etc) that aren’t in your core business but might represent important opportunities now or in the future.
You never want to spend more than 20% of your time on “Explore” or you risk that all important focus. Most of your team will want to work on Explore, since it seems new and exciting, but your job as a leader is to stay firm.
The balance between Explore and Exploit is so hard to maintain that I often recommend having entirely different teams for each. Someone working on Explore needs to be experimental, creative and adventurous. Someone working on Exploit needs to be thorough, focused and consistent. Those are rarely the same people!
The point where you transition from obsessive focus on what is working to Explore/Exploit depends on your business. Some companies exhaust the market where they found PMF early, others never need to move to Explore/Exploit to get to billions in scale. While you never want to make the shift too early, you do want to make it before you hit the Plateau of Death.
As a leader, you have to prevent yourself from constantly peppering your team with new ideas and suggestions. To you they might seem like nothing more than brainstorming, but your team will wonder if these are new directions to pursue or just speculation? Should they drop everything to pursue these new ideas or stick with the existing goals? The bigger your company becomes, the harder your team has in telling the difference.
Whether that focus is on experimentation in search of PMF or on operational efficiency when growing, you should guard the focus with everything you have. Repeat the value of focus to your team and be ruthless in eliminating distractions. Focus requires eternal diligence and it’s much easier to hold onto than regain after you’ve lost it.
The good news? Focus is a mighty weapon and if you wield it well, you can defeat even the biggest competitors.