Intuitively, many entrepreneurs and businesses believe that the key to faster growth and success is more products, features, and markets. Since we all have limited resources, and can’t add more hours to the day, the result is usually more things done poorly, rather than a few key things done better than anyone else. The message here is focus, reiterated by every advisor and investor.
Good examples of startup focus before success include Google with their search engine, Facebook with friends networking, and Apple with personal computers. Later, after that initial success builds resources, and your penetration of the target market approaches 30 percent, it’s time to expand your horizons and make anticipatory changes to your focus. Don’t wait for a crisis.
For larger and mature companies, the hard part seems to be giving up the familiar space that isn’t working so well anymore, so that you can focus on a new segment or opportunity. This was highlighted in the classic book “Do Less Better,” by John R. Bell, an experienced business expert, who highlights the power of strategic sacrifice in today’s complex business world.
Bell calls this change hesitation the failure to kill your darlings, or the fall from a specialist to a generalist. All entrepreneurs must succeed first as specialists, using pivots as required to zero in on the real and current market. It’s a tough world even for big-company generalists, who take on the complexities of product diversification. Just ask J.C. Penny, Radio Shack, and many others.
I particularly like Bell’s discussion of business culture characteristics that create the necessary focus and being the best in any business environment. This culture must be maintained by every company at every stage of maturity. I’ll paraphrase several of the key elements here in the context of entrepreneurs and startups:
- An overriding sense of urgency and passion. Nimbleness and urgency to get the job done will set you apart from your competitors in so many ways, particularly with customers. It comes naturally with a small highly motivated team, but it’s increasingly difficult to maintain in the face of size and success. Build it at the start and don’t ever lose it.
- Well-articulated goals and metrics. Your success or failure must be quantified by such key business indicators as market share, financial ratios, brand awareness, new product launches, and execution within the deadlines. Like the refrain of an old country song, if you don’t know where you’re going, you will probably end up somewhere else.
- Innovation-driven mindset and actions. Startups can’t hope to outspend a giant with a fat balance sheet. Rather you must outsmart the giant with innovative thinking, pivoting on a dime, and impeccable execution. Innovation initiatives of any appreciable scale require a formal, intentional resource commitment, and work best bottoms-up.
- Zero tolerance for complacency and status quo. Always strive to increase your lead, and while competitors scramble to catch you, unleash your next breakthrough product, service, or promotion. It’s easy for complacency to creep in unnoticed in the face of initial success. Continually move up the bar to re-test your personal limits and your team.
- Maintain an intimate knowledge of the competition. You must know what your competitors are planning, and how they think, corporately and individually. Study their moves and engage your team for an analysis of updates. Avoid egotistical price wars and emotional outbursts, but make competitors think you are prepared to win at all costs.
- Focus on the few things that really matter. No organization, large or small, can manage more than five goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective. Keep these balanced and aligned between people and process, and keep the scope realistic. Concentrate your actions on preemptive projects that are within your control.
In the long run, to have a long run, your company needs a narrow and memorable focus that is constantly being updated in innovative ways. It’s easy to think that doing less as a company means you’re slacking, but results and longevity are all that count. Every entrepreneur and executive must learn how to build and maintain a culture of doing fewer things better.