I recently read the following start-up advice: “Focus is your most scarce resource.” I promptly jotted it down on a post-it and affixed it to the front of my notebook (which accompanies me everywhere), and it’s been glaring at me ever since. I can’t recall where I read it, but am thinking it was either from Steve Blank or Alistair Croll, and it’s exceptional advice for any start-up. It’s ridiculously tempting to jump at the shiny opportunities that you suddenly come across — “Aha! Someone is noticing us! Someone sees our potential! Let’s scurry to jump on that opportunity!” And, to a certain extent, that nimbleness is necessary to the success of many a start-up. It can also be really hard to see beyond the goodness of an idea into the amount of work it will entail and the true cost-benefit analysis it reveals. For example, say a really cool video production company says: “You guys are an amazing non-profit. We want to profile you and put together a video for you to use for promotional purposes.” Wow! What an awesome windfall — great marketing and at a high production value. Where do we sign up?! Well — not so fast. When you think through what this will entail: several conversations worth of planning and sharing about the organization with the production crew; exchanges and negotiations with mentors, school partners, and parents of mentees to get the filming crews into the classrooms on the right days and get release slips signed; the actual filming; edits and feedback; etc. — is it worth the multiple days of effort when you are one of three full-time employees with many moving parts?
It could be — but approaching this and any other opportunity or fork in the road thoughtfully and with a mind toward not only mission alignment but what I’ll call “central problem alignment” is critical. When I say “central problems alignment,” I mean that at each stage of the organization’s development, we should have some key learnings we are looking for — some cluster of central problems we’re trying to solve. It might be: “Will this product sell better to teens or college students?” It might be: “Will our organization work better with an in-house tech team or an awesome subcontractor?” It might be: “Should we change our business model?” Recognizing that those are the core problems you’re working on as an organization — maybe even calling them out in scrums or throwing them up on a white board on the wall — will help you evaluate opportunities as they arise, as you can say: “Well, that’s an interesting idea…but will it help us solve X problem right now? No? Then let’s punt it down the road.”
The same goes for product — at every stage of the product’s development, I need to ask: “What do we want to learn right now? Will doing X get us closer to learning that? No? OK, put that in the add-later queue.” I emphasize “what do we want to learn” because I think that’s more important and authentic than “what do we want to prove.” Every feature we add should be getting us closer to learning more about what makes a product ridiculously successful and well-designed. Without this constant “come back to center” moment, we run the risk of feature creep or falling into the trap of keeping up with the Joneses or even feeling like we’re roaming aimlessly.
This is all much easier said than done. And I also feel that some projects can be worth the strain if they earn you a big name affiliation that might set off a cascading effect of sorts, so perhaps the example above is imperfect. But focus, I think, is truly a start-up’s scarcest resource when there are 3000 and 1 things calling your name.