The Power of Focus And The Peril Of Myopia

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The Power of Focus And The Peril Of Myopia

 

Greed is good. ~Gordon Gecko

Focus is good. ~Steve Jobs

I'm a big fan of focus. I'm such a big fan of it, I try to apply it to as many things as possible. [just kidding]

It's really, really hard to argue against focus. Who doesn't like focus? Who would contest focus? Focus is like motherhood and Apple (the company). I honestly have no issue with focus. I see the value in it every time I do it. My problem is that I also see value sometimes when I don't focus. The decision to focus is not hard. The hard part is deciding what to focus on and what level of focus I'm thinking about.

onstartups telescope

Let me elaborate by using Apple. Steve Jobs has said a lot about focus. Rumor has it the most important lesson Jobs passed along to Tim Cook (the new CEO of Apple) was “focus is key”.

Way back when, Jobs returned to the company he founded, he observed that the team was working on too many different things with a troubling lack of clarity. So, he simplified. He drew what was later revealed (at Macworld 1998) to be the simple 4 quadrant product matrix that is shown below. Two types of users: consumers and professionals. Two types of use cases: portable and desktop. This effectively reduced things down to just 4 products. It was a great demonstration of focus (and also the power of clarity of vision). 

describe the image

The iPod: Brilliant — But Was It About Focus?

Now, after this big, bold move towards focus, Jobs made two huge decisions that would change the course of the company dramatically.

The first was the iPod. Apple was primarily a computer company. Their customers were people that wanted/needed computers. They sold a fair number of them. They were really good at making them. Some could argue that they were far ahead of the competition (and those people would be right). At the time, one would think: Hey, the focused thing to do is to figure out a way to exploit their strength at building computers and figure out how to take over the world. It's not that there weren't enough people to sell computers to — it's that not enough of those people were buying computers from Apple.

But, instead of focusing on their core, Apple decided to build an MP3 (music) player — the iPod. Sure, there's a computer chip in there somewhere. And sure, there's some operating software involved. And sure, they had the opportunity to make it aesthetically pleasing and highly functional, thereby playing to their strengths. But, it was a music player — arguably, relatively far from their core and not a very “focused” strategy. And, Apple didn't stop at just building the device. Oh no. Not only did Apple decide to build a music player, they also decided to build a music service (iTunes). And, not just build the service, but then go out and strike deals with the content companies to get music into the service. Notice now how far we have strayed from Apple's core “focus”. What's important to recognize is that if Apple hadn't done all three of those things simultaneously (the iPod device, the iTunes service and the content partnerships), the iPod would likely not have succeeded. And, if the iPod hadn't succeeded, Apple might not have succeeded to the degree that it did.

After that, there was the iPhone — with some similarities to the iPod — but another radical shift into a different industry with different dynamics (they had to go strike a deal with a phone carrier). Once again, you could argue it either way: You could say that this was a relatively “focused” play, given the success of the iPod. And, instead of building their own mobile phone carrier, they partnered with an existing one. Or, you could say they “drifted” into the smart phone market. What you can't argue though is the brilliant success of the products. Below is a fascinating chart that shows the percentage revenue by product line for both Microsoft and Apple. Notice that for Microsoft, things are pretty consistent over the years. But for Apple, the story is completely different. Apple now makes billions of dollars on new products (iPhone, iPad). I don't know about focus, but how do you like them Apples?

apple vs microsoft revenue small

A Fine Line Between Focus and Myopia

So, here's my point: Talking about focus is useless unless you consider the level of abstraction you're talking about. If you squint just right, any activity you're looking at seems de-focused. In the iPod example above, I could argue that Apple showed considerable restraint and focus by not going out and building a Hollywood production studio and creating content. Or, I could argue the flip-side and say they lost focus from their core.

I agree that focus is about saying no. But that's not all of it. By saying no repeatedly, what you're buying yourself is the ability to say yes to something much, much better. You're not freeing up resources just to hoard them away. You're freeing them up so you can apply them better — either by saying “yes” to something new or doubling-down on bets you've already made. So, the benefit of saying no to a bunch of wrong things is only realized when you find a way to say yes to the right thing. Important note: I'm primarily talking here about high-level company strategy. If we were talking about focus as it applies to product management, saying “no” to new features has intrinsic value by just keeping things simple.

Now, lets talk a bit about myopia (which is when things that are far away look out of focus). Often, focus is centered around now — not visionary things going out into the future. But, being too focused on what's working right now and not being mindful about where the market is headed and what customers will want/need tomorrow can be fatal. This is the classic Innovator's Dilemma (one of my favorite business books of all time). So, there's a fine line between focus and myopia. Finding the right balance between focusing on what's working now and looking towards the future is tricky — and critically important.

Finding the balance between focus and long-term vision gets harder as the organization grows. In the early days of a startup, the right answer is almost always maniacal focus. Resources are limited, and the product is likely innovative already. But, as you grow, you have more resources and the pool of possible options grows considerably. This is compounded by the fact that your existing product may be falling behind and innovation becomes necessary. This is when the team starts having animated debates about whether you should focus on the core business and making your existing customers happier with your existing offering — or whether you should defocus on the core — and spend some calories looking towards the future. The answer is almost never, um, clear — and it's almost never binary. It's somewhere in between.

Tips On Balancing Focus and Forward-Thinking

Here are some simple (but not easy) tips on deciding when to focus:

1. When in doubt, focus. Your default position should be to focus more, not less. The benefits of focus are non-linear — sometimes exponential. Even a modest improvement in focus can often reap massive rewards.

2. Often, you're either building a new product for existing customers — or taking your existing product into a new market. Between the two, it's usually safer to keep the focus on your existing customers or market — and build new things for them. Branching into new markets is much harder.

3. If you're considering building new products for a new market, think long and hard. This is frought with peril. Either focus on your current market, or on your current product.

4. Try to come up with a simple way so that some of your energy/resources are always spent looking forward (instead of remaining focused). If you don't make this deliberate effort, the “we should be more focused” argument will almost always win, and its not always going to be the right answer. Build a culture of innovation that can function alongside a culture of execution.

More examples of Focus vs. The Future

Beyond Apple, here are a few other examples worth considering:

Amazon: Started out selling books online.  Did a relatively focused expansion into selling almost everything online.  Then, BAM! got into the cloud computing market with Amazon Web Services (AWS)

37signals:  Jason and DHH at 37signals rightfully get a lot of credit for articulating the benefits of staying focused and keeping things simple.  Yet, they didn't stop at Basecamp (project management).  They expanded into Highrise (CRM) and Campfire (group chat).  

HubSpot (my company):  When HubSpot started, we set out to build a suite of marketing applications (including content management, SEO tools, social media, blogging, marketing analytics).  Later, we added email marketing, lead nurturing and other marketing automation features.  Now, HubSpot has the industry's first comprehensive marketing platform -- including a broad suite of applications, an app marketplace and a services marketplace -- all under one roof.  That's a lot of stuff.  And, uderstandably, we debate the topic of focus all the time.focus onstartups

Summary and closing arguments

Focus is an exceptionally powerful concept. But, to use it as a platitude (“we need to be more focused”) misses the larger point. There is no doubt you should be focused. More startups die from idea gluttony than starvation. But, deciding how much to focus — and on what, is a nuanced decision. History is replete with examples of companies that were too focused, to the point of myopia — and didn't see the future coming.

What do you think? How do you balance focus and forward-thinking?

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Tue, Jun 19, 2012

COMMENTS

I love the line "More startups die from idea gluttony than starvation." 
 
Unlike almost every other area of finance, diversification is one of the worst ways for startups to reduce risk. Startups are one area where it pays to put all of your eggs in one basket, so that you can intensely focus on that basket. Nice post, Dharmesh!

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 10:57 AM by Akira Hirai


Spot on Dharmesh ... indeed business building requires constant balancing between focus and myopia !

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 11:30 AM by Sanjiv Manifest


Great Line: "Build a culture of Innovation that can function alongside a culture of execution."

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 11:31 AM by Craig Lutz-Priefert


I balance focus and forward thinking like this: 
 
My team uses scrum, which is an agile project management philosophy for software development, when my team and I are on the hunt, mid-sprint, we focus like a laser on accomplishing the task we've laid out for the sprint. To me forward-looking visionary type thinking takes place in the shower, shaving, washing the car, mowing the lawn,,, etc. I make use of notes everywhere from my iPhone to the palm of my hand in true getting things done fashion. When our retrospective and planning meeting come around I look to my notes and we make decision on where to focus for the next sprint as a team. I live for entrepreneurship. Vision is my thing. Scrum helps me stay focused. I find it's a great balance. Any one else out there find Scrum useful for balancing focus and forward-thinking? How about any other project management philosophies/tools?

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM by Mike Somers


Interesting article. Thanks for sharing. Deepak Chopra said the big three factors in success (although he was talking about spiritual success, I think) were: Focus, Attention and Intention. As in, "Focus your Attention on your Intention and all thinks will materialize..." I think it is equally important to hold some background attention on your future intent... Keep something coming down the pipeline, so to speak. :)

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 11:38 AM by Susan Goddard


adaptagility

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 11:58 AM by Daniel


I stopped reading your article a few paragraphs in. 
 
It was hard to focus (ironically) on your article when it read more like PR for apple than it did as value for focus.  
 
I'm not putting down your efforts. Please dont take it that way. I understand it was your point of reference (and I now you actually did put it hard work to write this up) but it read more on how great apple is than actual practices we can utilize.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 12:06 PM by V


Interesting material. Sometimes one needs to give up one's "focus" to be able to see the next big thing. Using computers as an example, if Apple had not tried to find the next best thing, computers would still be in a box on your desk, or on a cumbersome laptop. As it is, their in your phone now, or iPads, tablets and nooks...stuff you can carry in your pocket. So much for the old computer business model.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 12:22 PM by Bob Errett


Outstanding article, this defines my management problem space perfectly. It's a daily intellectual battle. 
 
Particularly like "The benefits of focus are non-linear — sometimes exponential" how true!

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 12:26 PM by Craig Kelly


Dharmesh: Apple comes too easy and too handy for commentators, when talking about innovation, et al. You are forgetting one fact: Microsoft is a boa-constrictor, willing to wait, until its prey is squeezed to death. Remember netscape? Or Xbox? Sony and Ninetendo will always occupy No. 2 & 3 places. Wordperfect from IBM was destroyed by Word. AOL had a huge lead in AIM. Microsoft leveraged their clout with the Bush Justice Department, forcing AOL to open up AIM so that it could be compatible with Microsoft's IM (Internet Messenger). Bing is absolute junk, and I am talking from fresh experience, tried it yesterday, and pulled out of it within 5 minutes and went back to google. But, Microsoft is not going to junk Bing. In another 5 years, maybe it will be google's equal. As they say, there are many ways to skin a cat. 

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 12:29 PM by Ashok Lulla


You start off quoting Jobs and Gecko. You might want to add RKF: "I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?" 
 
After all, isn't that the question that every start-up is really asking? 

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 12:49 PM by Andrew Ellis


The product my startup is working on has applications in various arenas; direct to customers, web developers, marketing agencies, franchises, hosting companies, etc. We have several opportunities that have presented themselves from many different angles, so we're struggling with deciding what to "focus" on. One driver is picking those that can help us build upon our product while having the added benefit of getting paid for a project while doing so. 
 
Ultimately the direct to customer approach will probably scale the most, but we don't have the privilege of being flush with Angel/VC investment at this point. Extending the burn rate is priority #1 right now. 
 
Thanks for the post Dharmesh.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 1:11 PM by Lyle McKeany


Focusing on your core strengths that separate your business from your competitors is how you keep and grow your customer base. You can not be the everything to everyone. Find your target market and focus on satisfying that need and your business will grow.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 1:15 PM by Todd Lamothe


Good post Dharmesh! 
Innovate or perish may also be a driving factor when companies branch out of their core focus areas.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 1:17 PM by Sanjay N Thacker


Good article. 
 
For the business to be successful and grow you need to focus on the core business and focus on the future. You can change your focus on demand using innovation tools, such as the Creator Studio(tm) App.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 1:57 PM by Ken Plumley


Nice material. Balancing your strength of focus to be able to see into the future as you take advantage of now is a critical aspect in biz growth. Don't over-focus that you loose track of time.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 1:58 PM by samson


Insightful as ever Dharmesh! 
 
One thing I would always advise innovators and entrepreneurs to lose focus on, however, is sales. Never take your eye of the [sales] ball. 
 
The product graveyard is full of the world's best products that were beaten by inferior products that were sold better!

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 2:15 PM by Ian Farmer


Brilliant post! You nailed it.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 2:21 PM by Martin Fox


Whoops - of course I meant NOT to lose focus on - apologies folks for the typo in previous comment.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 2:22 PM by Ian Farmer


Focus is an easy thing to say and real tough to do. 
 
The problem most people have is doing the "F" word on a consistent basis. 
 
The best way to enhance your focus is hire a coach that's right for you. There's lots of great ones out there. 
 
Hiring a coach is the best investment you could ever make in yourself. Go find one today. 
 

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 3:42 PM by Steve Borek


Great post!

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 3:44 PM by Jedidah Karanja


Great article, at times it all seems obvious, I have to remember that.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 4:14 PM by Raul


Interesting ideas you present Dharmesh! One small thing though, is the idea of getting that glazed look in your eyes just before one successfully pivots to save the enterprise. 
 
Although you described that moment in the Apple and Steve Job's creation of the 4 quadrant product matrix, Mike Somers' comment about lawn-mowing and showers as "forward-looking visionary type thinking" is dead-on. 
 
As an example, I thought I was going to start a RentaButler business. Now I find myself in the "crowd-funding campaign manager business" because my clients need to raise money and it is the only way to get myself paid.  
 
Note to Dharmesh: have our business development guy follow-up on this comment... don't want to miss out on the next bubble HubSpot is perfectly positioned for.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 4:25 PM by ragsmadison


Sigh!! Im guessing that Steve got about as far as I did and then decided that were all within our own environments, reacting to our own stimulus, environment and instinctive decision processes. Thank god he just got on with it rather than reading constant blogs, assuming they would bring some wisdom. Well structured article, good way to fill column inches, but i just re-checked my bank balance and factually speaking I am no richer. "Pause and miss the opportunity" Just get on with it people....

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 4:33 PM by Dochodes


That was a very very interesting article !!! I enjoyed that information !!!!

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 4:50 PM by Apostle Dr Erick


You lost me when you continue to talk about apple. There other great companies and they offers solutions along with focused marketing. I agree with you on the focus part. It is getting old to talk about apple and Steve Job. I guess it is fashion to talk about apple and Steve job in silicon valley and shamelessly associated your company and products with apple. It is a SEO trick. 
In summary, you have to be lucky and good creative people in your team who can execute execute execute.. 
Sorry for being harshed.

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 5:02 PM by Salman


Amazing article! It is wonderful to learn from experience of experienced folks like Dharmesh. Big wow!!

posted on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 11:57 PM by AnujaK


Dharmesh, since I was posting late in the night, forgot to mention Microsoft's release of Surface tablets. Although IT has 3 major players (Apple, Microsoft and Google), Apple and Microsoft have been a constant. The appearance of Google in the smartphone market has been an unforeseen event. Although Google had given plenty of heavy hints about their intentions by trying to bid for telecom spectrum, and filing patents, much before they actually jumped into the water. The takeaway is that innovation in today's market has a short lifespan, and the first-mover advantage can evaporate in next to time. While Apple has done a great job in building a complete eco-system for music and smartphones Microsoft is one company that refuses to be left behind in any major product/category. 
Ashok Lulla

posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 4:31 AM by Ashok Lulla


Great post. Focus if my favorite mantra. For start ups, there is no question. Assuming that your product or service is sufficiently innovative, razor sharp focus is required to maximize your scarce resources.  
But remaining focused is akin to driving forward by looking in your rear view mirror.  
Ken Olsen credited the enormous success of Digital not for "what we did BUT FOR WHAT WE DID NOT DO". RIM stayed extremely focused on the amazing email/cellphone device that had made them a "category" onto themselves.  
Unfortunately, neither company saw the shifting paradigm - in Digital's case, the emergence of Open Systems (Unix & microprocessors) and personal computers; and in RIM's case, the demand for handheld appliances that would be used more for apps and browsing than for email or voice calls.  
By all means stay focused day-by-day, but also head the advice of Reis & Trout and ensure that you, not your competitors, make your products obsolete.

posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 7:35 AM by Brian Greenleaf


Excellent article. I've been working on 2 different startups and it's very difficult to maintain focus on 2 different things - in fact, it almost feels like I'm breaking the English language by saying 'focussing on 2 different things'. 
 
Regarding the iPad and whether that was losing focus or not, I see focus as something that can get you up the hill that you're currently on, similar to stochastic annealing. 
 
The hill is your business performance - getting to the peak requires focus but then once you're at the peak you may not be able to go higher in which case you have to make a jump to a different hill which has a higher peak...

posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 10:09 AM by David Hilditch


I'm surprised no one has mentioned the consumer as an important part of the focus concept (hopefully it's been frequently implied).  
 
Businesses that listen carefully and creatively serve up what consumers need (whether or nor they can articulate it) are usually a step ahead. And this isn't always the MO of American businesses. 
 
However, just giving consumers what they're asking for would not have yielded iPod/iPhone (or Henry Ford's creation, for that matter).  
 
The trick is focusing on what research tells you might work but marrying that up with gut feel about the "elegant leap" that will move the market forward. 
 
In Apple's case (I agree it's an interesting company but a little overplayed at this point), their focus has always been on the consumer (that's partly marketing, but you gotta agree, they do have a flair for romancing people to embrace the new).  
 
What fascinates me about Apple is how they take an ember of consumer insight or desire (consumer focus), marry it up with technology enablement (tech focus), and wrap it all in inviting marketing to create brand new markets (marketing focus). 
 
In my view Apple's focus is a tightly intertwined, mutually-dependent combination of consumer, technology and marketing. The magic they've achieved is successfully orchestrating this combination at scale and staggering margins. 
 

posted on Wednesday, June 20, 2012 at 6:32 PM by Jeff Flemings


Great post Dharmesh. Your conclusion that it is a nuanced decision points to a larger issue that entrepreneurs face with every singel decision we make.  
 
Nearly all advice we recieve, regardless of source, must really be taken with an "it depends" attitude. Reed Hoffman uses the term "false question" for this in his recent book. Problems happen when startups learn the conventional strategies and mythologies, and they abandon their unique, personal, nuanced judgement. 
 
I find this quote below immensely helpful in terms of remembering that every decision as an entrepreneur is best made with out own personal nuance involved. 
 
“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” (Buddha)  
 
Interestingly, Buddha was a prominent Entrepreneur post prince life and pre buddha.

posted on Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 7:17 AM by Sam Shepler


*Best made WITH his own personal nuance involved, that is

posted on Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 7:24 AM by Sam Shepler


If you subscribe to Simon Sinek's belief in the power of starting with why, Apple's focus is to create products that are aligned with its why:  
 
“Everything we do, we believe is challenging the status quo, we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?” 
 
Having a clear "why" acts as a compass to help a company distinguish the opportunities where they can truly add value from the shiny objects and mirages of a rapidly changing market.

posted on Thursday, June 21, 2012 at 5:15 PM by Renita


good article !

posted on Friday, June 22, 2012 at 5:09 AM by Tu


I love this article and recommended it to several people to read.

posted on Monday, June 25, 2012 at 1:25 AM by Ulrich Glemnitz


I'm a huge fan of focus and have seen it kill a bunch of good startups.  
 
For me, it's not about only ever doing one thing, but about doing one thing until it's strong. Then you can move onto something else, like the iphone...  
 
Of course, it helps to have a very strong set of focused values so that it all 'fits' otherwise you end up a big like Microsoft or Yahoo being a bit of everything. It's easy to say from the cheap seats though.  
 
Focus should give you freedom to not worry if you're focusing on the right thing. If you focus on something small, you can test it very quickly and succeed/fail then move up/on.  
 
We like it so much we wrote a book about it. Coming out soon; 
Pollenizer Startup Focus Book

posted on Wednesday, July 04, 2012 at 12:52 AM by Mick Liubinskas


Here's another relevant quote. 
"The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.
        - Archilochus, 8th century BC 
 
I am currently reading the book"Inside Apple " on my iPad 3 and learning how Apple maintained the discipline to say no to 10,000 things and focus on shipping a few insanely great products per year. It explains how they can ignore the Mac Pro Computer hardware as they earn billions on IOS devices.

posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 7:43 PM by John Clifford


A very insightful post! It is often a big decision on whether to stay focused or stray from it. At Godot Media, we face many of the issues that you've raised. And these decisions seem so critical, as they can have a huge impact on the future of the company.

posted on Friday, August 03, 2012 at 6:59 AM by Vishal


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