The Lost Art of Focus

Focus“Lack of focus is the death of all potential.” — Warren Buffet (@itswarrenbuffet)

In the land of big ideas, focus can be a forgotten concept. Maybe it’s because companies such as Amazon and Alphabet appear to be involved with almost everything. Amazon’s website lists 40 different businesses with healthcare reportedly on the way! And Alphabet (or Google) does everything from online ads to self-driving cars. Apple remains one of the few consumer tech giant holdouts that values “saying no.” And it’s interesting that Apple commands the highest market cap and earnings compared to Alphabet and Amazon.

In start-up land, focus is key and can be an enormous competitive advantage, especially when disrupting existing methodologies and competing against larger companies. Yet time and again, with boundless enthusiasm, many start-ups try to do too much too early, stretching precious resources with the conviction that it all fits into the “go big or go home” rallying cry. In many cases, it’s a lack of corporate maturity, which manifests itself in ineffective planning, shallow (or missing) strategy, lack of patience, employee burnout and attrition. Living in “internet time,” we’ve seen start-ups view the notion of focus as innovation-stifling, boring, unnecessary, time-consuming or simply too much work. Unfortunately, this has derailed the best of intentions as companies are coerced into accelerated and overly aggressive revenue and growth plans while missing a foundational strategic framework and focus-to-succeed mindset. Yes, these require time and effort. They are hard. They don’t come together instantaneously. Patience, as it turns out, is a virtue after all.

Remember Geoffrey Moore? Crossing the Chasm had such a profound impact during my early years in tech (it was first published in 1991) that its core concepts have stayed with me more than 25 years later. Playbooks definitely appeal to me, so Moore’s approach resonates as it provides companies (mostly B2B) a guide on how to scale beyond visionary statements and early successes. Sometimes, this maturation process can be overwhelming, making it difficult to actually choose which market to pursue. Moore uses the analogy of “bowling pins,” and the necessity for companies to select one beachhead (or bowling pin), win that market, and then move on to the next. And of course if that beachhead does not materialize, then move on to another.

While exercising focus, it’s imperative to stay nimble, which becomes more difficult to achieve with the more you take on as a company. A conscious target market strategy creates focus throughout an organization, helps people understand priorities, defines success and the steps to execute towards that success. Paired with the notion of staying nimble, by defining success, a target market strategy also sets the model for both when and how to approach other future markets. Go through the go-to-market exercise for just one market, and you should quickly realize all the parts that need to come together to make it happen. Adding “just one more” market stretches the organization on many levels, drives ill-advised shortcuts and risks inferior execution. And to what end? Often, poor results and a panicked shift (or pivot!) to the next big idea. If you are going to tackle multiple markets simultaneously, at a minimum, take the time to prioritize within those markets and organize the company resources accordingly. Just asking everyone to do everything is not a strategy.

Commit to the process and do the hard work of planning and prioritizing. Most of us want to know the how along with the what. Building on the vision, a strategy and a plan will rally employees — and often customers — more resolutely than vision alone. They provide a concrete path forward. They provide focus.

– Jeff