The Multiplier Effect: How Focus Can Grow Your Startup

Originally published on

Have you ever booked a stand-up comedian and ordered 100 mylar balloons in the same day? I have.

In 2010, Mark McDonald and I were running a company called Pathway to Genius. We were both 18. It was an educational service that developed audio and video content to help students prep for mid-year tests.

We also hosted full-day review sessions led by top teachers in their fields. Mark and I thought that a more “party-style” atmosphere might sell extra tickets and build buzz — and that’s where the balloons came in.

The events were successful. Students loved the fun vibe and kindly overlooked the fact that we’d sold 800 tickets for a 600-seat venue.

Our profit margins were paper thin and we pissed off our competitors by (massively) undercutting their prices and stealing their customers.

We could have fixed our mistakes and built a viable business, but Mark and I weren’t satisfied.

We wanted to work in an industry that was growing fast — a market where you could gain serious momentum just by putting your raft in the river.

At this point, the App Store had been around for about 3–4 years, but we still saw massive potential in the mobility market.

After tossing aside our first, albeit horrendous branding and naming efforts (RIP Glen’s Apps), Mark suggested “Appster” and we immediately knew it was right. We put on our headphones and got to work.

Get specific and get focused

I haven’t hired another comedian for seven years now, but I have learned what’s possible when you focus — and it started with our clients.

About two years into the business, we reached a crossroads. It was time to narrow in and serve a core customer: startups.

We loved working with people who had big ideas and wanted to create world-changing products and services. So, we focused our marketing, messaging and positioning efforts on entrepreneurs and founders.

Developing products for innovative thinkers was not only a high growth market, it also satisfied our own entrepreneurial spirit.

We both love to build and grow companies, but we knew that if ours was going to succeed, it had to border on an obsession.

I still believe that 99.99% of your time and energy should be devoted to one project, and it takes discipline to maintain that focus.

If single-minded determination sounds boring, name a founder who runs more than one iconic business at the same time. Take your time. I’ll wait.

I can only think of two: Steve Jobs (Pixar and Apple) and Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX).

Sometimes I chat with founders who say they’re working on five startups at once. How in the hell is that possible?

Just as multi-tasking drains your performance and threatens your memory, juggling more than one business compromises your ability to succeed.

Splitting focus — beyond the basic need to continually switch context — doesn’t give you 50% time in each company; it cuts your total effectiveness in half.

On the flip side, staying ruthlessly focused on one thing creates a multiplier effect. The time, attention and care you dedicate to a single mission pays off with exponential returns.

You mission should be your master

A few years ago, my task manager routinely highlighted 100 open projects and to-do lists. Honestly? That’s just stupid.

It’s like trying to run a business with ADHD. I had so much energy and enthusiasm that I wanted to do it all, and I really thought I could.

But Mark and I realized that we needed, yet again, to focus. It was time to stop flailing around and narrow our attention.

We abandoned the five-year business plan and instituted quarterly planning sessions. Now, every three months, we barricade our core team in a small, airless room for two full days and start talking.

We run a Start, Stop, Keep review and conduct a SWOT analysis. There’s a lot of debate and discussion. It’s pretty lively, and we all leave with a massive to-do list — but we don’t stop there…

Each person might have 100 potential projects after the planning session, but we all retreat to a corner and ask ourselves:

  • What can I realistically get done in the next 90 days?
  • What are the 3–5 projects or focus areas that would move the needle further than anything else?
  • Can I accomplish these things without working 24/7 or having a total meltdown?

Maintaining an almost maniacal focus on our quarterly goals created exponential growth.

We quickly moved from bringing in $1 million a year to $10, $15, and now, $19M — and I attribute that growth to staying focused on what matters. It sounds simple, but as we all know, it’s so easy to get distracted.

If you’re still not sure what to do…

When we all scurry away to choose our 90-day targets, it can be tricky to stop at 3–5 things. We’re all eager to innovate, test and accomplish more. So, when indecision or confusion strikes, everything comes down to the mission:

Build a development hub for the greatest ideas and innovations in the world.

Our mission is a North Star and a decision-making filter. If a project doesn’t match the mission, it’s off the list — and the tasks that can sharpen our guiding vision gain priority.

If you don’t have co-founders or team members available for two days of conversation, debate and gentle harassment, consider sharing your journey with someone else; startups that have reached a billion dollar valuation are far more likely to be successful with 2–3 founders.

That makes a lot of sense to me. Without someone to talk you out of a legitimately crazy idea, you might go ahead and jump off that cliff.

If you can’t or don’t want to work with a co-founder, make sure you have advisors or mentors.

Leverage their wisdom and soak up their hard-won knowledge. Advisors can also help you stay focused.

I realize that finding a mentor isn’t always easy, but never underestimate the power of enthusiasm, passion and hunger, especially when it’s balanced with respect.

The “kid with a dream” effect is real, regardless of your real age.

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