Brad Feld

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Lack of Focus

Jul 18, 2006

As the stock market continues to flounder around (mostly the wrong direction) and some people in the middle east continue to try to destroy each other, I woke up this morning pondering failure.  I thought of another “classical entrepreneurial lesson” that we made at Martingale Software – lack of focus.

When we started Martingale Software in 1984, our original vision was “to write software for the new Apple Macintosh.”  That was pretty broad, so as we sat around in a classroom somewhere at MIT (because it had a nice big blackboard that we could scribble on, plus it made us feel grown up), we decided to narrow our focus.  After many hours (or was it minutes?) of discussion, we decided we would write “graphics software for the new Apple Macintosh.”  Once we landed on this, we immediately started designing stuff, well before we had our Apple Lisa (a requirement for writing software for the first Macs.)

We quickly got distracted.  One of my early mentors – Gene Scott (who also happened to be our investor – he put up the initial $10,000 for Martingale) – was the founder and chairman of Scott Instruments – a voice recognition software company in Denton, Texas.  Scott Instruments created the VET/2 (Voice Entry Terminal for the Apple II) – one of the first functional speech recognition systems (Gene’s son David was a research pioneer in this area.)  Scott Instruments asked us to write an application for the VET/2 for the Macintosh – we couldn’t resist so we had our first contract.

Of course, this had nothing to do with our vision for Martingale.  I’m sure we rationalized this by thinking something like “we’ve got to eat”, but since we lived in a fraternity and food was regularly available, this was a hollow rationalization.

Several months later, through some random introduction, we met a local investment management company (probably the 1980’s equivalent of a small hedge fund – I want to say they were called Harbor Capital, but the particular neurons that would remember that have been destroyed.)  They wanted us to do some spreadsheet / graphics stuff for them.  Ok – graphics – a little closer.  But – they used PCs.  So – we rationalized again, went out and bought a Compaq Luggable, and did some more consulting work.

Between school, our “extra curricular activities”, and our two contracts, we never wrote much graphics software for the Mac.  While we eventually figured out how to get a program on the Lisa written, compiled, built, saved on a floppy disk, and running on the Mac, our “graphics software” was never much more than a very simple window / menu system.  We never shipped it.

The contracts enabled us to “be in business” for a while, but they had nothing to do with the business we set out to create.  While the work enabled “survival”, our complete lack of focus (among many other things) contributed to our ultimate demise.  Now – we could have repositioned Martingale as a customer software company – or any number of other things – but we continued to hang on to the idea that we were going to build a graphics software company. 

While survival was nice (and fun for a while), at some point you have to decide what you are going to focus on.  If you don’t, as a Brazilian friend of mine once said – pounding his fist into his palm – “our lack of focus will fuck us” (say that three times fast with a Brazilian accent.)