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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Michael Jackson: VP of Product

Posted on November 4, 2009. Filed under: startups, Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

There is this illusive animal in startup land that every consumer facing internet company is searching for.  The mystical VP of Product, who has such a profound understanding of how the consumer will perceive your value proposition that they can sculpt a user experience to perfectly achieve the desired behavior and interaction.  Ask any venture capitalist what is the hardest position to fill with A-level talent, and they will speak of this unicorn hire. As I develop my own sense for what I am looking for in a product hire, I find myself strangely attracted to…Michael Jackson?

Despite a true sense of ambivalence toward the King of Pop and his recent departure, last night I went to see This Is It.  For those who haven’t seen it, the film documents MJ’s preparation and rehearsal leading up to what was supposed to be his sold out comeback tour after 10 years in hiding.  I guess I was expecting to watch a two hour window into the disturbing train wreck that was Michael’s life, but what I saw was a professional with amazing product vision and a maniacal focus on perfect execution.  It is apparent that he was able to experience his own product through the lens of his consumer (in this case ticket holders).  More impressive, was that he was able to drop in and out of that lens during his rehearsal (product development) and modify his product in real time without any user feedback (audience response).  It was as though he was experiencing his own product as he was creating it, with a preternatural understanding of how seemingly minor modifications would mean all the difference between a good user experience and the best user experience his consumer never expected.  This type of intuition is an intangible which is challenging to identify in an unproven product hire, but I think it is the “magic” from a talent perspective.

But talent alone is not enough to win on a product level.  Knowing nothing outside of this film, my guess is that the success of MJ’s product (measured strictly by impact, not dollars, although there were plenty) was as much a function of his motivation as it was of his talent.  Why did he care so much about creating this perfect product?  The tour was already sold out, he had nothing left to prove on a professional level, and he couldn’t possibly attain any greater fame.  Rather, his pursuit of perfection seemed to be entirely organic, motivated by a genuine desire to delight his audience.  This is what I dream about in a product person…Someone who gets off on getting our users off.

Lastly, I was amazed by the infrastructure that Jackson’s creative partner and stage director, Kenny Ortega, built around his product luminary.  For purposes of this startup analogy, we’ll call Kenny the CEO of the “This is It” tour, which would have been a $80M+ revenue enterprise just on London ticket sales.  Ortega’s entire function, in coordinating and managing what I’ll estimate to be about 100 contributors to the production (employees), was to eliminate the friction in Michael’s translation of his vision into an actual product.  Perhaps the lesson to take from this is that a great consumer company is built on the back of a great product.  Marketing, Bus Dev, Sales, Fundraising, and every other function deserve strong, but supporting roles.

So yea, if you’re the MJ of consumer internet products…holler, I’m working on something kickass.

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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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