If you’re building for $1B, is “Focus” a Farce?

Posted on September 14, 2010. Filed under: JumpPost, startups, venture capital | Tags: , , |

The word “focus” has been coming up a ton in my meetings lately. Like many product minded entrepreneurs, I have a ton of ideas about what Jumppost can become, and what we need to build to get there. As I begin to communicate those ideas to experienced folks around the table, I am getting repeated words of advice to “focus.” Today I met with one of our portfolio companies who’s product DNA was the main reason for our investment in them, and again I watched a conversation emerge around the balance between possibilities and focus on a single direction. I can think of at least 5 other examples where product minded founders are drawn toward rapid testing and iteration around a general direction as opposed to deep build around a more focused mission.

Conventional wisdom and the “smart money” seems to say that singular focus is the path to success in the startup game. When I started my first company, I eschewed conventional wisdom in the name of intuition, which was a strategy that worked occasionally, but more oft failed. I am now smart enough to know that I am not smarter than the composite operational advice of seasoned and accomplished entrepreneurs. As such, I have the word “FOCUS” written in digital permanent marker at the top of my to Google to do list.

That said, I find myself wondering if changes in the product development lifecycle are not giving birth to a new type of non-bootstrapped operation/execution that is more forgiving of experimentation at the expense of focus (think extension of the lean startup methodology). If it only takes two weeks to push a product that used to take 2 months to develop, does that not change the risk/reward around more loosely focused experimentation (especially in consumer applications where you are so heavily rewarded for tapping an unlikely/semi-predictable viral vein)?

I think it largely depends on what type of outcome you are shooting for. Is there an operator out there who is focused on highly experimental signal detection over linear progress that will discover the next viral consumer app? David Karp at Tumblr was building 4 other things when he decided to “focus” on just one. Facebook launched 3-4 distinct applications in the course of 4 months before running with the now behemoth. Twitter was a side project, etc. etc. etc.

If you are really shooting for the high risk, huge numbers, consumer app, how much resource/data is required to know if what your building is it or not? And if the answer to that is discoverable in short amounts of time through a team with low burn and efficient development cycles, is a deliberate “unfocussed approach” a more likely road to outsized numbers and a mega-viral product? (I don’t know the answer to this, but some of the smartest young founders I meet are intuitively drawn toward an approach that is inconsistent with the experience of previous generations of entrepreneurs. So either young founders always make this mistake and you can’t actively execute with an eye toward step function signals and virality, or a new style of early stage execution is emerging within consumer focused startups).

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7 Responses to “If you’re building for $1B, is “Focus” a Farce?”

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It comes down to investing – you are investing your time, the most precious resource. If you think it will pay off, I say do it, but think long and hard about it, and make sure you can justify it to investors (easy for them to cry focus foul and open a whole can of worms).

At CollegeJobConnect we saw that a lot of employers had pain points outside of just undergraduate recruiting. We built Recruitly, a plug-n-play job portal + applicant tracking system, to diversify our product offering AND to improve our sales funnel (ie. “I see you are using Recruitly, could we help you find talented undergrads too?”)

Great post. We often wrestle with the same thing over at Yipit.

My worries with trying other things is that they often take a little longer than you want and you will often spend a bunch more time afterwards (promoting it, fixing bugs, etc.). You have to be *really* disciplined about it.

I also worry that these new ideas are still the “uninformed optimism” stage and thus seem sexier than they are.

That being said, if you don’t have anything working yet, an “unfocused” approach worked for us and that’s what we did till we landed on daily deal aggregation.

[…] Cooper, a bright NYC entrepreneur and investor, just wrote a post called “If you’re building for $1B, is “Focus” a Farce?” He […]

It’s not about size, it is about stage. By all means, dabble around while we figure out what kind of company you want to build. But if you want to build a company, pick one and go. That “one” might change but focus on one problem at a time until you are no longer really a startup.

I don’t think focus is an all or nothing concept anymore. When it used to big a large investment in time and resources to explore and test beyond your core target, it was impractical. You needed to put all your eggs in one basket and swing for the fences, hoping for a home run rather than a messy omelet. Now that the required time and resources to fail or win fast is in a decline, it encourages a minority x% investment as a distraction from the primary target for exploring, experimentation and testing.

I’m finding more focus helps me run better tests. Even for a small company, focus helps get marketing/outreach, design, development and user testing all on the same page, focused on testing/iterating around the same hypothesis. It’s not just focus on the product/market, but down a level on on the marketing channel & first experience.

I think Giff is dead on. I think rapid iteration and pivoting is great in the pre-funding/bootstrapping stages but once you’ve taken investment, my personal experience is that this becomes more tricky. The risk is that you keep pivoting to the point that you leave a trail of half-baked ideas and run the risk of running out of resources before really giving one a true shot.

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at Jordan.Cooper@gmail.com (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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