Staying in Your Lane: Why Startups Must Stay Focused
It is crucial for startup founders to find the one thing that will bring value to their customers -- and then focus on it. Google started by performing searches, Amazon sold books and Airbnb enabled homeowners to rent out rooms. None of them had to fulfill more than those core functions to be successful.
Often, I hear entrepreneurs say they're providing one service today, but they plan to add new functionalities because they aren't sure their current offering provides enough value. I'd counter with this: If a company's one, core service doesn't bring value to the consumer, it's misleading to believe that adding entirely new services will make a difference.
When you focus on one thing, you learn that products behave like fractals. The more you dive into one element, the more you will find each piece of a problem is a total universe unto itself. Fully addressing one problem is not a simple matter. To wit, Google is still working on search, and Amazon is still improving its book-selling methods.
Learn from mistakes.
At Check, my last company, we enabled consumers to track all their personal information in one place. We thought we could provide value by enabling customers to see their bank accounts, travel reward miles and even bills with a single software solution. We were wrong.
We quickly learned that our competitors who maintained focus -- some specializing in finance, others in bills or travel -- had a far superior value proposition in each category. Consumers chose our competitors' targeted solutions over our more general offering, every time.
To return to the fractals analogy, we began with the intent to provide a one-stop shop for all personal information. Then we drilled down to focus on finance. With very little money left, we made the difficult decision to focus only on bill payment and remove all other functionalities, even if those options had generated significant revenue. The deeper we dove into this particular area, the more we discovered a new world of requirements. We realized bill payment alone would take years to perfect. And we knew that if we could provide unlimited services to solve this one set of problems, we could offer a real, unique value.
The experience almost ruined us. I stayed up many nights, wondering if we'd made the right call. But I knew we needed to change course and concentrate on one, core product. Our decision to optimize that one service was part of the turnaround that ultimately lead to our successful acquisition by Intuit.
Use your resources to foster focus.
When my partners and I founded Next Insurance to disrupt the small-business insurance market, we implemented what we learned from our experiences at Check. To implement this strategy, we run Next Insurance on OKRs -- Objectives and Key Results. This method forces us to decide what to do every quarter. Perhaps even more important, it guides us to decide what we won't pursue (and that can be significantly more difficult).
It’s smarter to focus on fewer things and make major progress in each rather than try to do too much and make little progress overall. For example, at Next Insurance, our vision is to insure all small businesses. When we launched, however, we focused only on providing insurance for personal trainers. We wanted to become the best in the business for a niche market and grow from there. This decision focused all of our teams on a very specific task that was both doable and measurable.
Focusing on fewer things reduces the headache and time wasted by switching between tasks. Your teams have more time to invest in excelling at what they do, and they will produce higher-quality results. Understand the one thing that matters most to your customers. Then identify and execute the steps that will move your company in that direction.
Focus can feel risky when it means saying no to opportunity -- especially in the early stages of a startup. But without it, you are far less likely to obtain your goals. See focus not as a choice but as a mandate, and you'll give your company a real chance at lasting success.