Radical Focus — the core skill of a startup CEO

Say you have achieved some version of product / market fit and raised a chunky Series A. You’re now faced with a myriad of options and feel like the world is your oyster, but you’re really struggling to limit your options as you don’t know what’s going to make your business grow explosively quite yet.

Should you go international ? Should you pursue multiple market segments ? Should you test it all out ? What you do next will generally define your success as CEO and the success of your business.

Open to options, crushed by complexity

Too many startups try too much without enough conviction, and end up weighed down by the many initiatives they pursue, none of which deliver any real value. This is made more tempting by a mindset that says “let’s see what works, let’s wait until we have real data”. Sounds rational, right ?

The reality in our business is that

  • traction data is almost never conclusive
  • when you do get data, it’s polluted by false positives
  • it generally takes too long to get.

As a startup, you simply cannot afford not to focus. Really, really hard.

A SaaS example

Let’s take a quick example. Say you’re running a SaaS company and you got to $300K MRR (nice !). You started low end but you’re getting enquiries from the mid market and even enterprise. You launched in France but your investors are pushing you to go international. The last thing you want to do is all of the above, yet that’s exactly what many startups do. You hire a couple of salesguys to try out Germany and the UK, you double your product management team to deal with mid market and enterprise products, you start building partner channels. Before you know it, your organization starts to choke and you’ve got a handful of (mildly satisfied) international customers to show for it. I have seen variations of this story play out so many times.

Burn the Boats

You have limited time, resources and energy. You have to show meaningful progress in important dimensions between fundraising rounds. If you don’t make radical focus decisions, you will fail, or hurt.

The ability to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty defines exceptional startup CEOs.

Making decisions with no data is your #1 Job. Burn the Boats !

A decision framework

Making decisions implies choosing what not to do and what you’re betting on so it’s immensely stressful for anyone to radically reduce their scope.

Here is what I’d recommend:

  • Assess hard where you shine. Where do we know for sure our product is working well ? If we are looking at new segments are we confident we really understand the customer needs and have not only product-market fit but also feature completeness ? Where do or will we solve a real customer problem and be able to sell effectively ?
  • Understand the basis of competition. You don’t operate in a vacuum. You have to understand exactly the angles you have for your product to differentiate and drive user adoption, and the dimensions on which you compete. You cannot compete effectively in all segments. For example you cannot sell to large enterprises without a serious customer engagement and support team. You cannot hope to have a successful SMB strategy without a really strong product & lead gen culture. Don’t kid yourself.
  • Line up the potential priorities and stack rank them. Get as much data as you can; be informed.
  • Decide. Be deliberate and consistent. Fight mission creep. Make sure the priorities are understood by everyone and that the organisation lives by them.
  • Execute on a VERY SHORT set of priorities with absolute intent.
  • If you have made a mistake, try to identify it early, repeat the process and move on.

That’s it.

Learn as much as you can in the early days. But once you’re scaling, focus hard. There is in my opinion no other way to succeed. Paraphrasing: “be insanely ambition with your goals and insanely frugal in your use of resources”. Rome wasn’t built in day.

Your leadership will be defined by your ability to define the right mission for your company and transform it into a radically narrow set of operational goals.

You may feel like you’re increasing your risk of failure, but by maximising the quality of your execution you’re actually doing the exact opposite.