Focus on Focus

Focus is tough. 

It’s not natural. 

It’s hard to ignore all the ideas bouncing around in our heads. 

It’s scary to bet on one thing. 

We have a fear of missing out on something huge. 

Is our odd, little niche big enough?

This anxiety-filled thinking often leads to a nearly involuntary reaction to dabble and hedge. I see this all the time from entrepreneurs I talk with: people chasing multiple ideas simultaneously. The rationale is that if they chase a variety of good ideas it increases their chances of getting a hit.

On the surface, that seems logical.

In fact, this was done at my previous company by “dabbling” in 4 or 5 things hoping one would stick. However, it wasn’t until we picked one product and market, got rid of all the other distractions, and focused the entire team on winning in one seemingly odd, little niche that things took off. 

Peter Thiel, legendary entrepreneur and investor who was co-founder and former CEO of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, LinkedIn, Yelp and many others, said in his book Zero to One, “An entrepreneur cannot ‘diversify’ herself: you cannot run dozens of companies at the same time and then hope that one of them works out well.” 

Making the single, big bet and then pursuing it with all your energy and focus is at the very essence of entrepreneurial success.

Chris Zook and James Allen in their book, Profit from the Core, explain this paradox: “From focus comes growth; by narrowing scope one creates expansion.” They go on to say, “Nowhere is the value of focus as clear as in a single-product company fighting for its life against less-focused competitors embedded in large conglomerates with many cross-cutting agendas and tradeoffs.” 

I have certainly witnessed this many times.

Peter Thiel takes the argument even further by stating, “…every startup should start with a very small market. Always err on the side of starting too small. The reason is simple: it’s easier to dominate a small market than a large one. If you think your initial market might be too big, it almost certainly is.” 

This fight for focus is an ongoing battle. Assuming you’ve picked the right “small” market and start gaining momentum, you must avoid the temptation to prematurely worry and waste energy about the size of your TAM or your next adjacent market. Instead, it is often times better to double-down and stay focused on your core market longer than you’d think. As Zook and Allen put it, “Most management teams underestimate the growth potential of their core and fail to mine all of its hidden value growth.”

As these temptations are tugging at you, saying “no” to seemingly big — but focus-sapping — opportunities is a key CEO responsibility. 

Referring to Jack Dorsey (CEO of Twitter and Square) in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, the author said, “He thinks of the role of CEO as being the chief editor of the company.” Dorsey explains this further: “By editorial I mean there are a thousand things we could be doing. But there [are] only one or two that are important. And all of these ideas…and inputs from engineers, support people, designers are going to constantly flood what we should be doing…As an editor, I am constantly taking these inputs and deciding the one, or intersection of a few, that make sense for what we are doing.” 

“Disciplined editing…increases your ability to focus on and give energy to the things that really matter.” (Essentialism)

As the old adage goes, “Most startups don’t starve, they drown.” If you become an effective editor, you’ll increase the chances of keeping your company’s head above water. 

Remember to focus on focus!

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