I just re-read my post from Oct 2 entitled, Are Two Passions Better Than One? It's been exactly two months since I wrote this. Since then, I've been pursuing two passions at once, my SaaS startup and FounderSensei. I've learned this isn't working for me.
As a person with a lot of ideas, I struggle with the idea of focus. I recently read Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. The book resonated deeply and I think it's an important book. If you haven't read this book yet, I suggest you do it now. In it, Greg McKeown offers a simple illustration to make his point on the value of doing what is essential.
Our energy is finite. We can choose what we work on. My favorite quote from the book is,
"I can do anything but not everything."
When you are unfocused, you make a millimeter of progress in every direction. Your energy is diffused. When you are in this mode, you are reacting to what is coming at you. You use your inbound email as your todo list. You are serving others by simply responding to their requests. You aren't setting the agenda. You are reacting to someone else's agenda. You're like the customer service department, but with slightly more competence.
This is no way to live a fulfilled life of purpose.
"I heard about a woman once, who did everything ever asked of her.
She died last week and her last words were, "it wasn't worth it.""
- The Gaslight Anthem, 1,000 Years
The challenge is in deciding what is truly essential. In essence, deciding where to focus, right now, in this moment. As Greg McKeown rightly states, if you don't proactively say no to things that are non-essential, they will be chosen for you by default. This is true.
Focus Vs. Selection
But where to focus? That is the question, isn't it? For someone with entrepreneurial ADD, choosing to focus on just one thing is painful. It's painful because of the loss you feel by not doing that other thing that you are also passionate about. Instead of feeling a sense of loss, tell yourself, "I'm going to do that other thing, just not right now. I'm putting it on the back burner for the moment." This thought will help reduce your feeling of loss.
As I've struggled with the question of focus, I now realize I've been confusing two things that are not the same. Finding focus involves three separate processes.
- Defining your options
- Selecting your best option
- Committing to your one thing and eliminating all other possibilities
When things aren't working out, it's important to realize what is happening. You have to go through the analysis and try to determine the root cause of why you aren't achieving your goals. If you don't get to the root cause, you won't be able to solve the problem.
In startups, there are three common areas where traction is obstructed. I like to think of these as Traction Stoppers. I spend several days in the FounderSensei program talking about Traction Stoppers. Below is an abbreviated list.
- Problem: Is this a real problem that our customers truly care about? What are their pains and gains?
- Solution: Does our solution really work given the value proposition, costs to our customers and the alternatives?
- Path To Customers: Do we have a scalable, repeatable path to customers?
In a startup situation, you never have complete information. In fact, most of the decisions you need to make right now won't reveal themselves fully until months or years later. This creates a fog of war for any startup founder. The trick is to develop enough judgment and intuition that your batting average is acceptable given your margin for error.
So, analysis, gut instinct and judgment are important components of identifying the root cause of why your startup is not meeting your expectations. From this root cause, comes your list of options.
Your options are nothing more than natural conclusions based on your analysis. For example, with our enterprise SaaS business, I finally came to face reality that our platform requires a two-year sales cycle for large customers. I didn't want to accept this reality for a long time. I was in denial. I thought surely we can do better than this.
I didn't like the idea of a two-years sales cycle because I totally blows up my growth plan. My expectations for traction and growth were different than the reality of how customers were behaving.
Wishing for a thing does not make it so. Once I finally accepted the reality of how large customers will behave, I could finally start looking at options. Instead of building an enterprise sales force, maybe we should focus exclusively on channel partners who already have these relationships? Maybe we should abandon big companies altogether. We could make the platform self-serve and go for SMB using inbound marketing. Should we make this dramatic pivot? Will that lead to more traction faster? These are the kinds of questions you need to ask to define your options.
With a list of reasonable, well-thought out options, the next step is to select which one we are going to pursue. Ask yourself, where do I want to go big?
I've found that different entrepreneurs have different comfort levels around how much information they need before selecting an option. Some entrepreneurs go completely on gut. Some require a lot of testing, data and analysis before making a selection. Some like to talk it out with co-founders, teammates or mentors. If you make the selection too quickly, without any insight, you may be wasting precious time that leads to a dead end. If you do too much analysis and take too long, you will run out of time and money. I think it's a balance and each entrepreneur should develop his or her own process for coming to a decision. This is where entrepreneurial experience and judgment really come in handy.
For me, I need some data. I need to get a "feel" for what the option looks like. Typically, I'll pick 2 or 3 options. I'll start learning about each option as quickly as possible. I'll look for analogs in the space. For example, how did Salesforce.com build their business? Let's learn everything I can about that in the next day or two. Who can I talk to who has done something similar? Who would our customers be? How can I talk to them? Let's set up some quick exploratory calls with customers in our target to get a sense for how they think about the problem and the available solutions.
I'm not talking about a lot of analysis here. I'm talking about a few days or a week or two. This is enough time to give me a "feel" for what this option looks like. Then, I try to pick the best option based on perceived opportunity and my level of excitement for pursuing it. If the option doesn't resonate, then I quickly eliminate it.
Your personal level of excitement is perhaps the most important criteria in deciding which option to pursue. Whatever you do, please don't select an option that you are not personally excited about. It never works out well. You are going to need every once of excitement, passion and energy to get over the challenges in making your dream a reality. The process of creating something from nothing takes everything you have. I cannot overstate the importance of this enough.
For example, one of our options was to pivot into channel partners and sell our solution to search marketing agencies. While this was worth considering, I was getting the feeling there were two big problems with this option 1) search agencies are paid based on percentage of media spend and they don't have an incentive to be more efficient and 2) this is still enterprise sales at some level. For both of these reasons, I had difficulty getting excited about this option.
Sometimes, the two or three options you selected for further analysis don't lead to something you can get excited about. When this happens, don't panic. Just go back to the drawing board and brainstorm some new alternatives. If you get to the point where you are out of exciting options, it might be time to think about abandoning your project and moving on.
Stop Beating Yourself Up
I've beaten myself up for years on the question of focus. This isn't healthy and it leads to frustration, anxiety, negative thinking and second guessing. Instead, be mindful of where you are in the process.
Tell yourself the reason I'm not focused on just one thing right now is because I'm going through a quick analysis to determine where I should focus all of my energy. I am in the process of determining what is essential. Once I figure out what is essential, I'm going to go big on it and eliminate everything else. Once I become focused like a laser, by working on the right thing, I can cut through steel.
Think of your focus as the aperture of a camera lens.
There are times where it makes sense to focus like a laser. There are other times where you need to widen your aperture, take a look around, and figure out where you are going next. That's ok. It's normal and it is exactly what you should be doing right now to make your startup successful.
Too much focus all the time is limiting. It's inflexible. Not enough focus is also limiting because it diffuses your energy. The key is knowing where you are in the process and having the appropriate level of focus at the appropriate time.