Fostering focus as a founder

Founders take on a massive workload during the early stages of startup building. Someone needs to do the functions of the business that don’t yet have teams (sales, support, customer success). So, founders take on this work. In early-stage companies, founders not only set the vision but also execute it, often down to the detail. This workload can take a toll, but it also gives founders a lot of control over what gets done and how. It also builds creativity — leaders who succeed in this phase often make it because they can come up with ideas to solve diverse problems independently.

As a customer base grows, so does the team that supports it. Eventually, whole departments represent each function of the startup. The role of the founder evolves. Leaders are now solving a few big problems (growth, recruiting key leaders, setting the vision) instead of many small problems. Success is no longer driven by the number of good ideas a founder can come up with. Success is driven by the execution of the few fantastic ideas that undergird the growing business.

In my experience, many founders struggle with this transition. Some struggle to trust the leaders they’ve recruited to own departments like sales, marketing, product, or customer service. Others struggle to focus their energy on the right problems. For most, new ideas keep coming, and this breaks the focus of the organisation.

Ideas, even great ones, are cheap and easy. Execution towards outcomes is difficult and expensive. New ideas are great if they solve the right problems. If they don’t, they split the focus of your team and make it more difficult to execute on what is important. When you multitask, outcomes become mediocre.

The insidious thing about focus-splitting is that it happens naturally at all levels of the organisation. Meaning even if founders resist the urge to inject new ideas into the mix, leaders and contributors at all levels of the organisation will do it for them. It’s not enough for founders to be focused. They must foster focus throughout the organisation.

“The best thing founders can do is subtraction.” — Tobi Lütke

Research shows that people systematically overlook subtraction as a solution. This means that almost every time a problem is solved within your organisation, it is solved by a new process, feature, product, or hire. All these solutions increase the overhead costs for your business. Distractions turn into bigger distractions. Organisations move slower as they grow. So, for an organisation to be focused, leaders must be actively engaged in the exercise of subtraction. They also need to build a working culture that encourages focus, radical prioritisation, subtraction, and simplification. Subtraction might be the only thing that you can do, as a startup leader, that nobody else is going to do for you.

All startups need to be focused on a few specific tasks. Leaders of startups that have not yet achieved product-market fit should be focused on finding the right solution, to the right problem, for the right market. They do this through product development and sales experimentation.

Leaders of more mature startups should be focused on scaling their product into the market. They do this by making their product easier to adopt, exploring new sales strategies, and improving business operations. Avoid the trap of more. Don’t build a second product. Don’t bring your product down-market. Enter new geographies with caution. If the market likes what you have, all of your energy should go towards giving it to them.

If the market doesn’t like what you have, all of your energy should be invested in finding a better solution, problem, or market.

8 January, 2023

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