Ev Williams on ‘focus’

I had Do More Faster by David Cohen and Brad Feld on my shelf for a couple of months before I got round to starting it last week.  It is full of pithy goodness and I wish I hadn’t waited so long.  This may well not be the last blog post inspired by what I read there, and it almost wasn’t the first – I came close to writing about Jeff Clavier’s piece on the three things seed investors care about:

People Products and Markets

A list he has recently updated from People, People, People (go read the book if you want more).

But this quote from Ev Williams, founder of Twitter, really resonated with me (it’s in the book, but I found it on the web in a post Ev wrote in 2005).

Focus on the smallest possible problem you could solve that would potentially be useful. Most companies start out trying to do too many things, which makes life difficult and turns you into a me-too. Focusing on a small niche has so many advantages: With much less work, you can be the best at what you do. Small things, like a microscopic world, almost always turn out to be bigger than you think when you zoom in. You can much more easily position and market yourself when more focused. And when it comes to partnering, or being acquired, there’s less chance for conflict. This is all so logical and, yet, there’s a resistance to focusing. I think it comes from a fear of being trivial. Just remember: If you get to be #1 in your category, but your category is too small, then you can broaden your scope—and you can do so with leverage.

In my experience focusing is something that doesn’t come naturally to a lot of entrepreneurs and for the reasons Ev sets out it is almost always the right way to go for small companies – being great at something is worthwhile, being average at lots of things, not so much.  Yet as Ev says, there is a resistance. It is interesting he sees the reason as a ‘fear of being trivial’.  I’m sure that is part of it, but my feeling has been that it is more down to fear of missing out on an opportunity, i.e. that by focusing on one thing and choosing to drop another you will miss out on the chance to get lucky, or maybe simply choose the wrong thing.  As I write this, I wonder if a resistance to focus might stem from a lack of confidence in the core idea.

I’d love to know what you all think – is there a resistance to focus? and if so, why?

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  • I don’t think it’s lack of confidence. Most entrepreneurs are probably overoptimistic about the idea. I think it comes down to wanting to provide as much as possible, you just get carried away with adding features.

  • I don’t think it’s lack of confidence. Most entrepreneurs are probably overoptimistic about the idea. I think it comes down to wanting to provide as much as possible, you just get carried away with adding features.

  • Thanks Kjell. I look forward to the video.

  • Hi Nic,

    David Hockney is quoted as saying or writing ‘we grow small trying to be great’. He’s getting at something a little different to what you’re referring to above but it applies.

    Yes, focusing on a tightly defined product is a doddle in comparison to taking on a larger, more abstract problem. Yes, IMO, people not focusing do betray a lack of belief or passion in their idea (within business, bank managers are great at exposing this with the ‘if you don’t put your assets on the line why should we lend you money’). But, doesn’t the industry of which you are part send out the opposite signal?

  • Hi James – do you mean that VC funds don’t focus?

    In which case fair point, although I think we are becoming more focused and building more expertise in our target sectors over time.

  • Fear of being trivial, wanting to grab opportunities, and lack of confidence in the core idea definitely.

    But I think there’s also a common pattern – perhaps a corollary to the Not Invented Here syndrome – in which, even though you understand your *own* niche as a focussed area with enough depth and complexity to be valuable (and hard for others to displace you from), *other niches* often appear to be trivial to replicate/attack. So you’re tempted to get after them.

  • Fear of being trivial, wanting to grab opportunities, and lack of confidence in the core idea definitely.

    But I think there’s also a common pattern – perhaps a corollary to the Not Invented Here syndrome – in which, even though you understand your *own* niche as a focussed area with enough depth and complexity to be valuable (and hard for others to displace you from), *other niches* often appear to be trivial to replicate/attack. So you’re tempted to get after them.

  • Interesting one. Thanks Rod

  • Interesting one. Thanks Rod

  • That quote also really struck me, and I think it’s important for every startup to think about this issue.

    But it’s not without trade-offs. From a strategy perspective, you only get feedback in a narrow area. So if I build features 1-5, I can get feedback from customers that they don’t care about any of them except for #4. If I only build #1, all I know is that they didn’t like #1. I don’t know whether it’s the wrong feature, or whether I just executed it poorly.

    From a more tactical perspective, big ideas help with investors, recruiting, and press.

  • I agree. Feedback is essential for finding local maxima, but you usually need vision to get to the higher mountain peak on the other side of the valley

  • I agree. Feedback is essential for finding local maxima, but you usually need vision to get to the higher mountain peak on the other side of the valley

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