Some more (refined) thoughts on focus

Earlier this week I blogged Some thoughts on focus quoting from former Apple exec Adam Lashinsky to make the point that many startups would benefit by focusing more, and concluding that unless a team feels real pain from the potential lost opportunity of projects that haven’t made the cut then it probably isn’t focusing enough.

Rait Ojasaar replied with a great comment which expanded my thinking on this point. Here it is in full:

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.

There are a couple of points here. The biggest is that over-focus is possible. Lack of focus is generally easy to see for what it is – resources in a company are spread too thinly across too many products or opportunities and none of them is working well enough to make the company a success. Over-focus, however, can often look like a decision to focus on a small opportunity, or taken to extreme on developing something that is a feature or a product rather than a company – i.e. a question of strategy rather than execution.

The trick then is to find the optimum level of execution, and as Rait says that varies over-time. If you are aiming for a large outcome then it makes sense to start with a broad focus and then narrow down once you identify an area that has enough potential to match your ambitions. A narrow focus is the way to go once you get to product market fit and start to motor though. Then when you get really successful more products can be added, but focus shouldn’t be lost.

It’s been a good week here on The Equity Kicker. I love it when we have discussions like this and there have been a couple more this week. In the comments on the focus post Neil Lewis and I had a sidebar conversation about the differences between due diligence for VCs and accelerators, and on our debate on whether we are entering a post app era was instructive. Nobody thinks we are.

Thanks again for your participation. Keep it up!