Some thoughts on ‘focus’

Ask an entrepreneur whether it is good to have ‘focus’ and there is a very high chance that they will say ‘yes’, yet in my experience few actually achieve focus in their startups. I think that’s partly because there are always lots of pressures to do more and new things (often from investors and board members….), partly because killing projects is hard, and partly because focus is such a nebulous concept. It is hard to know what the right amount of focus is, and given all the pressures to de-focus most people end up not focusing enough, often by a wide margin.

Apple is frequently held out as a company that is extremely good at staying focused, and the following test from Inside Apple by ex Apple employee Adam Lashinsky is a good guide to business people everywhere who are trying to figure out whether they are sufficiently focused. From @Swaaanson’s Kindle Notes: Inside Apple by Adam Lashinsky:

No one claims to be against focus, and it’s become somewhat of a meme in the tech crowd to celebrate the idea of saying “no”:

“Focusing is powerful,” he said. “A start-up’s focus is very clear. Focus is not saying yes. It is saying no to really great ideas.”

Less appreciated, though, is that focus is scary. It means not hedging your bets. It means going all-in. If you’re not scared, you’re not focused:

Most companies don’t want to focus on one thing because they could fail. Winnowing ideas from twenty-five to four is horrifyingly scary.”

I like that. If you aren’t feeling the pain of things you’d like to be doing, but aren’t then you probably aren’t focused enough.

  • I find that with GAMESbrief all the time. I have lots of ideas that “could” be really exciting. I am definitely not focused enough, even though I am trying very hard.

  • Stephenupstone

    My experience is that start up success is about all the things you didn’t do or dropped to keep your focus

  • exactly

  • neil_lewis

    Does every startup need a ‘stopped doing’ list? The more they are able to put on that list then the more valuable / effective the team and their ability to focus? Br Neil

  • Good observation Nic.

    My experience is that when you start a new venture, you usually have quite broad approach and very general focus that comes from the initial set of product / demand / technology hypothesis. Mostly because you don’t know better in the very beginning. 
    The more you work on your initial hypothesis, the clearer you start to see what matters. With an open mind for experimenting and good mentoring you can start narrowing down the focus to ensure you’re spending your scarce resources on the most essential parts. 

    But the real trick is to find an optimal level of focus (and it tends to change over time), since if you focus too narrowly, then you start to get objections like – this is too niche, its a feature not a product, etc. Too much focus can also kill side-experiments that could reveal new opportunities and provide useful when the startup has to pivot. 

  • Great comment Rait. Being broad early gives a better chance of finding a large opportunity. People saying you are a feature or a product rather than a company might be a sign of too much focus.

  • Having a list of great things you will do when time and resources permit is always a good thing.

  • neil_lewis

    Thanks true Nic – but there is more to it than that.

    In our accelerator – Idea Alive – we use a learning log to capture all the ideas that have been rejected – that way, when the team arrive at a simple and single idea – they also realise the work that it took to whittle away all the ‘quite good’ ideas.

    I think this is what focus really means – the ability to decide what not to do – and as that takes discipline and is hard to do, it is important to create mechanisms which reward it – such as our learning log.

    It’s our view that this learning log (or ability to focus) is the key proof that this is a backable team.

  • I think we would look more to evidence of good execution of the core idea to evaluate the team

  • Great post Nic.  Strong organizational skills, focus and diplomacy in interacting with stakeholders are all huge determinants of success.  -Jay 

  • neil_lewis

    I think this explains why accelerators – which are at the very earliest stage of forming new business need different techniques to evaluate opportunities than  VCs who tend to join once the business is up and running.

    In other words, you have the luxury of assessing the execution, where as we don’t. 🙂 In fact, a key part of a quality accelerator is about helping the team achieve more in less time – which is about helping them to focus…. which is where the discussion began 🙂

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