Having returned back to the startup world for over one month now, one word that I have been reminded of repeatedly is “focus”. Focus means doing one thing really well, not a handful of things decently well. I work on user experience at Tsumobi, a startup company focused on building a Peer-to-Peer instant messenger, Skynet.
In the startup setting, having focus is critical, because startups are always resource constrained, whether it be money or time. With a limited amount of human capital each day, it’s important that our team choose the right things to work on each day. In fact, our very livelihoods depend on our ability to block out distractions, and simply focus on completing the tasks that we choose.
Perhaps it seems obvious on the surface, but once internalized I believe its even more powerful. The power of focus, I believe, is the ability to quickly make decisions. Focus helps me choose opportunities that push forward towards my goals, and quickly decline or hold on opportunities that lead to alternative outcomes.
Paul Graham often talks about the two tasks software startups need to focus on:
- Writing code
- Talking with users
In his essay “Startups in 13 Sentences” he wrote:
“Though the immediate cause of death in a startup tends to be running out of money, the underlying cause is usually lack of focus.”
PG is saying that teams losing focus is very often a pre-requisite to a company running out of money. This may be no surprise, considering that focus is counter-intuitive to exploratory thinking encouraged in liberal arts education models, that humans lose focus frequently. Or especially considering that more adults than ever are taking focus-drugs. The business of focus is a good one all around. Productivity tools, eye glasses, SPAM filters, and more, all in the pursuit of focus.
During Peter Thiel’s years leading PayPal, he similarly identified focus as a top management priority. For example, he was known for requiring PayPal employees to identify their single most valuable contribution to the company during their annual review, in addition to limiting business discussion to each employee’s single priority. His approach drove focus and encouraged the pursuit of excellence towards each person’s singular priority. (Peter Thiel’s Philosophy of Extreme Manager Focus)
So, to quote my friend James Beshara (co-founder of Tilt): “Whatever you’re working on, make sure you’re working on it”.