May 13, 2012


“I like to counsel that the best teams are often defined by what they choose not to do.”

– Mark Suster, Entrepreneur & Venture Capitalist

Sitting in a cafe on Friday morning I was approached by an earnest young man.  He had seen me at an event speaking about focus.  He wanted to know if I still believed that focus was a necessary component of success.

“Absolutely,” I replied.

Undaunted, he went on to tell me about his two pretty much unrelated businesses — retail distribution and selling children’s games.

“Is that ok?” he asked.  “I can have success in both.”

I asked him some questions.

“How many sports does David Beckham play besides football?  How many sports does Tiger Woods play besides golf?  How many sports does Roger Federer play besides tennis?”

He got the idea.

These top athletes show the value of focusing and the power of not doing things.  When you focus on one thing you have a shot at being the best.  No one ever became the best football player by spending 50% of his time on tennis.  The same idea applies to business.

Recently I listened to an interview with Paul Touw, the founder of success stories Ariba and XOJET.   I was especially struck by his story about founding Ariba, maker of enterprise software to simplify corporate purchasing.  He said when they were a small startup they were up against some of the biggest names in enterprise software such as SAP and IBM.  His competitors had more money, more experience, more talent and better customer relationships than Ariba.

But Paul said that Ariba had the most powerful advantage of all: They were focused like a laser only on corporate purchasing software.  Nothing else.  And that made all the difference.

Chances are you’re working on too many things.  Your product has too many features.  Your company has too many products.  They can’t all be equally important.  Have the courage to kill the ones that make little difference so you can make the important ones great.

When I worked on Yahoo! Mail in 2003 we focused tremendous time and effort on a cool new feature — disposable email addresses.  You could create an alias of your current email address.  Your inbox would be color-coded by alias.  Best of all, you could eliminate an alias if it were getting spam.  It was a huge achievement and very cool.

Less than 1% of the user base accessed it even once.

We would have been a million times better off using that time and energy improving the basic features that 97% of users cared about most — speed, storage, security and inbox search.

I took that lesson and applied it at VietnamWorks.  During my time there we killed over a dozen products, removed banner ads, simplified the feature set and focused on helping users search and apply for jobs.

Successful leaders know how to make the hard calls.  They know that killing pet ideas sometimes feels like killing their own children.  And they do it anyway.

What can you stop doing?  How can you focus more?  I guarantee you can, and that if you do you’ll have greater success.

Download the interview with Paul Touw here.  Read Mark Suster’s excellent article on not doing things here.

Share your thoughts below!

  • sexyTrai

    I agree with this. But there is a problem. Everybody agree with this but everybody still fall into it each time. Success will depend on how quickly you will realized it and correct it.

    I think that it’s very hard to realize it while we are working. You have to often stop working and ask yourself: “Ok, what am I doing? What should I do?” If both answers do not match then you have to refocus.

    • Exactly!

      Ask “Is what I’m doing right now the best use of time to reach my most important goals?”

      If the answer is “no,” then stop doing that and start doing something that supports your goals.

      It takes some time and effort to change your habit. But it IS changeable if you’re committed enough.

  • A common pitfall. Most of my friends complaint they had too many options and they were afraid of trade-offs. The turning point is when people consider it ‘being more focused’.

    • I like to think of is as “What can I stop doing?”

      “Stop doing” lists are even more important than “to do” lists.

      Another question that helps me to focus is “What is the highest value use of my time RIGHT NOW?” It only works if I’m clear on my goals first though.

  • Marc

    Well said, Chris, well said.

    • Focus is so easy to understand, yet so hard to do. I still struggle with it.

      It’s the easy things that are easy, but the hard things are hard. Usually it’s the hard things that separate winning from losing.

  • Ron

    great article, chris

    • Thanks Ron!

      Sometimes I wax nostalgic about our IMU calls with Microsoft….

  • Cam Truong Du

    I agree with ‘not choose to do’ rather than ‘ what should I do’

    There’s a way of focus on learn from your experience

    But, I still getting confusing on how can I do it? There’re a said:

    I know the problem,but it is hard to make a choice

    Now I if I focus on the chrilden game, that my favorite, there are 2 choices that should I focus on building a sales Chanel and product or focus event activity that will bring more new customers with higher cost. This games is serial items, so identify the product cycle per customer is important

    • Prioritize the activity that will have the best return.

      First you must have a good product. If your product is good (or good enough) then focus on sales. Without sales you have nothing. It’s ok to bring in customers at a higher cost if you are still making a profit with them.

      Does that help?

      • Cam Truong Du

        I decided to not read your reply before have decision.

        so, now i realize it is really helpful to train my decision making skill

        1. event activity still keep going even cost is high because i can meet the real customer. but must have return by setting a pre-order during the event. i have a search on the megastar and galaxy cinema, these place view rate is enough to have a reasonable percentage return of pre-order.

        2. sales team must be commit to rebuild to more trickly revenue target with trained sales skill to take care of these return customers

        Thank you for your help

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  • Bill

    Another great article, Chris. I totally agree with you. You must be extremely focus to be successful. It’s really hard to choose what to do when you have many “good” things/opportunities on your table. But reality is, you have limited resources (time, money, people, etc.) so that you must be focused and effectively use your resources. Focus is so easy to talk, but very hard to do, I am usually struggle with it and to remind me, I stick the principle of “two inches wide, two miles deep” in front of my desk as my guide to keep me focus. And it really helps.

    • Yes Bill – focus is very easy to understand, very hard to do. That’s why so few people do it. But you’re different – you can.