Focus Focus Focus

In my mid-20s I was part of an amazing experience called Birthing of Giants. It was a gathering of 60 entrepreneurs over four days (for three years) who were all under 40 and founders of companies with more than $1m in revenue. It was the first time I discovered my peer group and while I was young (24 years old) and small ($1m in revenue) I felt like I immediately fit in.

One of the guys in the group from from Brazil. He had this delicious accent and intense passion whenever he spoke. I remember being across from him in some conversation when he pounded on the table in reaction to something and said “focus focus focus.” But it came out as “fuck us fuck us fuck us.” And I’ll never forget that moment.

The message has stuck in my head. I was in several meetings the past few weeks where I wanted to bang on table and scream “focus focus focus.” In each case, I restrained myself and tried to be constructive. Each situation had differences, but fundamentally there was a vector where the company had no focus. Each company has an amazing core technology. Each one has a clear mission. But in one case, they don’t know what “word” they own, in another they are serving two entirely different customers that had no relationship to one another, and in the third they were going after three completely different markets with different products.

Now, there are plenty of cases where it makes sense to have two threads going at the same time. If you’ve got an API business and an end-user business that deal with the same core data and feed off of each other, you can effectively combine them as long as you own a single word or concept. If you’ve got enough scale, you can go after different market segments. As you get bigger, you can expand your product line.

But early on, especially pre or early revenue, lack of focus is the death of so many companies. Sure, there’s a point where you are still thrashing around looking for “the thing.” You are using all the Lean Startup and Lean Launchpad techniques to find your product-market fit. You are iterating and pivoting. You’ll want to use a freemium model to capture the low-end customer while selling directly to a high-end customer. How’s that – I just used a bunch of buzzwords to help rationalize the “search for focus” – clever, eh?

But at some point you have to focus. What word do you own? Who is your customer? What are you selling them? How are you selling them it? Why are they buying it?

This is especially true when something is working. You’ll feel like hedging your bets. But don’t – go all in on the thing that is winning. Do it over and over again. And build scale quickly with it so that you can start experimenting with more things.

Focus focus focus. Or you will end up saying “fuck us – it’s over.”

  • Hi Brad, great to read your posts since our Keynote-Xaffire days! There’s that calm before the storm in the early days of a startup, where you are intensely focused in building the one thing, and then it all changes as you get a multitude of customer input. This is why I admire Asana’s steadfast approach to their product – there’s always a clear focus on the one thing. As an aside, as your readers are startup people, here’s Day 21 in our Startup Diary:

  • Exactly. if you don’t focus, something gives. You can’t do everything. There is no way.

    Big companies focus all the time, and ignore other things for the same reasons that small companies should.

  • Larry McKeogh

    I cannot say it loud enough or often enough. If you don’t commit you’ll never realize your true potential. It is true in the world of sports, it is true in the world of business.

    Thanks for the reminder. Don’t be so constructive next time. Sometimes you have to break something to start new.

    • Forceful but mellow Brad made his appearance yesterday.

  • John Fein

    The reasons for lack of focus are different for different companies – thinking they’re being “flexible”, fear of saying no to customers or markets, or just lack of discipline – but whatever the reasons I agree with you 100%. I worked for a couple startups whose market approach was so broad the “fuck us” ending was inevitable.

    • Well said – there is no one reason for lack of focus. There is a consistent component – which is fear of limiting options – but in many ways this fear is by definition an option limiter.

  • Here is my analogy: Building a startup into a business is like constructing a 500 piece jigsaw puzzle, but unfortunately that 500 piece puzzle is one you bought at a yard sale for 25 cents. And instead of 500 pieces it came with 5000.

    It’s all about having a framework that allows you to eliminate the pieces that don’t belong….

    • Love it.

    • Hmm… I wouldn’t even begin a 500 peice puzzle with 5,000 pieces.. who does that. What about a normal 500 piece puzzle. You start with the corners…. then get the sides going, then group the remaining pieces into color/pattern groups then…. where am I going with this? Who knows, but I know that no one under 30 does puzzles anymore.

      • I know a 9 year old that LOVES puzzles.

  • Xiaohua Yi

    thanks thanks thanks!

  • Such an important topic. I went thru a major re-focus earlier this year, it was scary but surprisingly uplifting and refreshing and afterwards I felt like a huge load had been lifted from my mind.

    What I’ve experienced (and seen from other founders) is as soon as we hit some bumps in the road, even on the way up, to think that a new feature or vertical or [ x ] will help, instead of asking the touch questions. Your question re. “critical self evaluation” from Jerry Colonna in your Defrag talk has clear application on this topic.

    For me, It’s an ongoing challenge but becoming aware has really helped and getting a little better every day. I’m assuming the temptation will always be there just have to learn to guide it in the right direction.

  • Lack of focus in a business context sometimes stems from:

    1 An aversion to making decisions

    Determining the company’s word/goal can introduce a degree of conflict that many leaders lack the skill and experience to navigate. It also exposes the team to the possibility of failure.

    2 Reluctance in commiting to a goal

    True commitment creates the potential for public failure that could threaten their personal identity and status in the company.

    Stanford researcher Carol Dweck did some interesting research a few years back on the effect of mindset, goal selection, and motivation.

    “a fixed mindset leads people to value looking good over learning, to disdain and to fear effort, and to abandon effective strategies just when they need them most. A growth mindset, on the other hand, leads people to seek challenges and learning, to value effort, and to persist effectively in the face of obstacles.”

  • Michael Petrone

    Hi Brad, I cannot say this enough, but thanks! This is something I have struggled with my entire life and am still trying to deal with it……Focus…..I have ADHD and always am looking for different opportunities, I look here/there and say wow that’s cool and there and say wow that is something I would like to do…..I am working through an amazing start-up (playing in the mobile advertising via LED screens using predictive analytics GIS/GPS systems to help Ad agencies and advertisers pin-point their target market) that I am trying to raise money for a Reg D first and then VC money. Focusing has been my biggest challenge, I am exactly like RIchard Branson, as he has the same issue, he has the money I don’t, he cannot focus so he hires great managers to run all his businesses, so he is the conductor… he stated he cannot focus but he can manage and multi-task like no one else…, right now it is just me, working on paying the bills and putting food on the table for my wife and 3 kids, so I have limited time……
    I tell myself daily…..FOCUS, FOCUS, FOCUS!!!! But alas theory/thoughts are always easier than reality…..
    Thanks Mike

  • I’d argue that even at moderate scale, focus is critical. I think a lot of the challenges and heartache we’ve had at Moz over the years is directly tied to a lack of focus. Please remind me about this every time I bring up some new area I think we could/should expand into.

    • Daniel Lu

      I agree, focus is important throughout the lifetime of your company. As you get larger as a company you have more resources to do more, but often you’ll want a lot more depth rather than breadth. You can’t double your number of products just because you have twice the resources.

      Also, I think as soon as you let yourself add, you need to be willing to cut. If you’re big enough to add another product, you should be willing to cut back down if it isn’t working out. Too often good companies left mediocre products live on

  • Focus (on the high priority things) …Focus (on the A List)…Focus ( on accomplishing the goal)

    Never enough Feld Thoughts on P1 and Staying Focused.

  • Blake

    My favorite post (having read your blog for the past few years).

    It made me laugh and taught me something!

    Brad your writing is great and really enjoy that you take the time to spread your knowledge!

  • FJ

    Great article to get us in “Focus” again! This is an important word in any industry you are in and the foundation to surviving in any business is to focus on your consumers…

  • Roberto Krishan

    Ha Ha Ha…This is way tooo funny! I can picture the scene and hear the Brazilian accent on focus focus focus…… I will try this on my next meetings and let you know the results. — Cheers from all Brazilian entrepreneurs that have a #senseofurgency to get things done!

  • Great post and I couldn’t agree more. Lack of focus is simply one of the main reasons many startups fail. In meeting thousands of startups in Silicon Valley thru Maven Ventures, the ‘focus conversation’ comes up daily. What I’ve seen over the years is that so many startup CEOs are incredibly talented, so their natural tendency is try to try to do everything, to ‘take on the world.’ One specific issue that often arises is when a startup tries to serve both the consumer and enterprise markets. I advise them to choose one or they’ll most likely fail at both.

  • Suggesting the “own a word” test for focus, I have to think you’re familiar with Al Ries’ book “Focus: The Future of your company depends on it.” This is from the guy who was best known for Positioning. The principles haven’t changed in the 15+ years since it was published:

  • Sarab Mann

    Agree Boris, but StartUp learn it hard-way and initially they perceive that capturing horizontal market place is right strategy. They are into the notion that firing at the flock of geese could kill few, but in the end they got to know that flock is out of reach. Damn! by that time firepower is exhausted.

    I can relate to this article to two examples, one is Google Search. I remember when I first saw Google in 2000 I understood it under one second, for example what is it all about and how to use it. On the contrary Yahoo was trying to capture horizontal and vertical market space at the same time. They are successful to some extent but see how Google captured die hard admirers who don’t want to see News, Auto or Finance etc

    The second example I draw from nature’s most efficient killing machine, Cat family. I love watching documentaries on Masai Mara and quite amazed how Lions/tigers identify its prey and how they pursue single target at a time and even after so much focus the chances of success is 1 in 10. However, with above strategy predators keeps the energy for next pursuit.

    However, companies like Kodak, Blockbuster, RIM etc confuses focus with strategic stubbornness, but is not there is a thin line between focus and stubbornness? hmm.. not a easy topic to decipher.

    Sarab Mann
    Founder & Architect

  • Tracy McMillan

    I needed that. We almost lost it a few weeks ago but more on track again.

  • Tim

    Great article. As I have observed companies over the years small and Fortune 500, it is the lack of focus that kills a company. A sharp shooter uses a precision rifle. Could he use a shot gun? Yes, but not with the same effect and he would do a lot more damage to other objects in the area. A great example of a large company that lost focus is Sears. They had what is Walmart’s claim to fame – a store in every small town. But Sears lots focus and got in the insurance business and every other thing – where are they today? A shadow of what they were and a smidgen of what they could have been – all because they lost focus.

    In the comments section, Sarab Mann nailed it with “stubbornness.” The board of directors at Borders book stores decided that Amazon was a fade that they decided not to become involved in until late in the game. We see where that got them – GONE. A stronger internet focus early on, would not have them defocused, they would have still been selling books – only in multiple ways.

    I will end with this. While attending university, my public speaking professor gave our class an assignment – a ONE POINT speech. Let me tell you, we all failed the assignment 3,4,5,6 times or more. Our professor was un-relentless until we got the ONE POINT speech mastered. I for one will never forget that class – it has made me a good public speaker and now I enter into every business opportunity focusing on ONE POINT aka FOCUS!

  • Alex Prushynskyy

    Great post. Can you expand on “Owning a word” in one of your future posts? What does it really mean to you and what should it mean to a company that is focused and “owns the word”?

    • Yup – it’s a powerful concept and one I’ll try to remember to riff on.

  • Pinaki Saha

    Most often startups are more worried about competition killing them WHILE it’s the lack of focus that leads to their demise. While trying to defend themselves from competition, they end up doing everything for everyone, resulting in lack of focus and eventual death.

  • santiagobasulto

    Great post Brad! It’s really hard to keep focused in a startup, but it’s crucial to keep alive. It was great to have you in Argentina btw 😉

    • I enjoyed my “Skype” trip.

  • Thanks Brad, needed this now very much.

    I think Focus and Doubt go hand in hand, when we are in doubt we hedge, no one will hedge if there is conviction in the idea, right? To focus is to say “No” to many things, as Steve Jobs said it elegantly. Adding to that, to focus is to not doubt what is working, in the name of Pivot!

  • Mia Sherwood Landau

    Focus and attention are the same, in a way. Our attention is the most important investment we make in things, people, ideas, etc. Where we put our attention, our sharp, deep focus is our vote for what matters right now, in this exact moment. Sustained attention is how I think about focus as you describe it. I will remember your story from the great word picture you created for us in this post, Brad. Thanks for that!

  • This year I’m completely supported by my thing. For the last 12 years I’ve had a day job and had to work on my thing on the side, I thought once I got rid of the day job that I would have all this time. Over the last few weeks it seems I don’t but I know that I’m focusing on all the wrong things, great post.