in Startups

Focus – Why is it So Hard for an Entrepreneur?

Execution vs Ideas

Ideas are worthless by themselves, execution is everything – That’s the advice that is passed around in the startup community and it is so, so true. The crucial bit that is not mentioned in this tidbit of advice is that execution is unbelievably hard. Why? Focus!

As a startup founder, you should always be focusing on the things that are going to improve your startup; more accurately, the one, single thing that is going to improve your startup. To keep in theme with the above tweet, Paul Graham wrote an essay entitled ‘Startups = Growth’ which states that growth for startups is the single most important thing to focus on and that growth should be used as a compass to guide all decisions. This is unquestionably sound advice but is unfortunately not as straightforward as we would all like.

How to avoid never ending lists

In a small startup, (I’m talking about 2 or 3 people teams) you have to handle every single area of the business. That gives founders a lot on their plate to think about and that to-do list just grows, often with tasks that probably don’t coincide so well with the philosophy that growth is priority number 1. Sometimes the mundane, running-of-the-business tasks just need to get done and whilst they are crucial to ensuring the business is operationally sound, compliant, secure or whatever else is necessary at the time, they can detract somewhat from the time spent focusing on growth.

Too many tactics, not enough strategy

Another thing to consider is ‘what does growth actually look like, and how is that going to be achieved?’ Tech startups in particular have so many ways of achieving growth, and as founders this method has to be determined. The difficulty is that there is no ‘one formula’ or recipe to follow but more of a toolbox that founders can dig into to mix and match together to achieve the result. There has been talk of the importance of ‘full stack marketing’ but this catch-all phrase comprises of so many different areas requiring many skillsets. Add the marketing alongside the product and all other supporting tasks as mentioned above then suddenly a founder’s required skillset is extremely diverse.

Founders are Magpies

Many founders often take on a lot more than they can chew just by their nature. They are like magpies, attracted to the shiny new ‘thing’. It’s difficult not to say yes to new opportunities, new features that could be built, getting involved with a new side project or whatever is shiny and new at the time. Learning to say “no” is a tough skill for a founder to learn but sometimes saying no is the only way to double down and keep focus on what’s important.

A Preference for Building

When founders bring their product into existence, having started with nothing, they have to have the ‘builder’ mentality. The difficulty is changing this mindset and knowing that ‘build it and they will come’ is not a viable marketing strategy. Releasing your product into the world is tough to do, when as the Founder you see every imperfection and have a whole roadmap of features you are desperate to build in. The best founders know that building the product is highly important but the focus has to be entirely on building for the user, not for self-satisfaction.

The Fight Against Perfectionism

“Done is better than perfect”. In a startup, this statement is nearly always true. Speed is of key importance and getting something done, out the way and on to the next task is what every founder is striving for. However, as above, it can be hard knowing that your creation is out in the world and still shy of perfect. A tough balancing act for founders to manage but one that is of critical importance for keeping focus. The founders have to keep a close eye on the speed vs quality vs cost trade-off and ensure the right balance is being achieved to optimise for growth.

Generalists vs Specialists

My last observation is that many founders are generalists. There are exceptions of course, but as we already discussed, founders have to deal with nearly everything. As a generalist you have to learn enough about each topic to get by for the short-term. The downside of this is that generalists aren’t able to focus on their one ‘thing’ and doing that thing really well.

Ultimately, this leads us back to the fact that if the startup as a whole is able to do one thing really, really well then the founders are focused, they are executing their vision and the startup is growing. A place we as founders, all want to be.


This guide was originally published to Entrepreneur Handbook on 2nd April 2014. I guest blog for EH on similar topics as here