Focus, or die!

In my startup, Sentiance, I think there has not been a single word as popular as the word “focus” in the past few weeks. It drove me nuts, and I also have never been so close to a mental meltdown. Speaking to other entrepreneurs, I have always been fully aware of the importance of focus, yet I forgot to practice it myself in this case. The result was a half-way decent alpha version of an app after six months and little traction. The monstrous number of features we were building were simply too confusing for a user. Ouch.But the world is forgiving for anyone that openly shows he has the grit to flip things around for the better. It does take guts and perseverance to take back control. You have to do it, or perish. Even if it means you need to build a new pitch-deck, update your financials, or perhaps confront your investors. All this is nothing compared to the pain and stress you’ll feel when you can’t keep your product, and company afloat because you didn’t do anything about it. These experiences separate the men from the boys.

So what is focus?

For an entrepreneur, I found it to be counter-intuitive to focus, as I thought I lost opportunities. So it took me a lot of effort to start cutting down on the scope and features of the product. But while doing this, I found a great force in approaching my idea as an engineer. With each question “does it fit purpose” and “does it really add value” I started chipping away until we broke the product down to its bare essential. My team was there to challenge me all the time. It was perfect. After all, perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Thank you, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. And thank you, my dear team, for challenging me.

To me, focus is continuously keeping myself from going too opportunistic. It is the constant effort of keeping things simple for a user. It is the constant challenge of evaluating if a feature actually does add value, and if there are no other ways to do it with the existing features. Last but not least, it should fit your story. If you are building a loyalty-app, then build a loyalty-app. Not a gamified check-in app, or video app, or something else. Take the direct route to your objectives, and let no distractions stray you from your path.

To this day, I take a semantic approach in formulating focus; where I banned the word “AND”. Each time, this word would pop up in one of my thought processes, I raised a red flag. It often meant I was going too broad again and that I should limit this. I consider the principle of focus to follow the same principle as the Occam’s razor.

What can focus mean to your startup?

Good focus will reduce the cost of getting the product into the hands of users, or customers. A good focus allows for a simple and clear story, requiring little resources in terms of marketing and delivery. If a product message is simple enough, it means users can pass on the message and you can ease on the cost of paying expensive marketeers to package a complex product into a simple explanation. Keep the product simple, and you can keep your product marketing and delivery cheap.

Choose one type of user, not many as it will trick you to compromise on your initial product idea. Never compromise. If you are building a product for 19 year old backpackers, then stick with it. Don’t go compromising because you feel the need to attract 28 year old mountaineers too. Given a radical focus, there is radical business to be made. Don’t doubt that. Ever.

Internal communication and team morale will be higher when focus increases. Developers want to release. That’s what they live for. Developing a bulky app with constant feature additions, will eventually wear them out as they feel they will never release their product. Since we’ve went brutal on focus, the general team spirit is 200% of what we used to be. Energy levels are boosted, rapid prototyping is doable and overall happiness is back. Yes!

Focus is not permanent

I think a good example can be made of Facebook. It once started as a “Hot or Not” rating product, and now evolved into a social platform beyond recognition of what it once used to be. It is good to start narrow, and focused, and expand as you grow. Expansion is an evolutionary process which you need to follow; but you either expand in depth (add more features for the same set of users), or in width (tweak the product to fit another profile of users). In most cases you are better off starting narrow and expand as you go, rather than to go broad from the beginning. It allows for safer product improvements, limits financial risk, increase product adoption, and frankly, you have more fun! If someone does think that focus is permanent, it means that someone is using the word “focus” to masquerade lazy behavior. Anyway…

Stay focused, and keep shipping. Right?

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