May 13, 2012

Focus

“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!