November 10, 2011
Startup founders have boundless ambition. Most founders can imagine their platform concept having broad appeal and meeting the needs of many customers, with numerous products, often across many markets. Investors love to hear about platforms and big visions for success. This ambition is contagious but also very dangerous.
Repeat after me: “Startups Rarely Do Anything Well.” I believe this mantra is the key to startup success. The sooner a founder gets realistic about the need to focus, the more likely the founder will be successful. To succeed, a startup needs to become world class at something that a large enough group of customers value. Becoming world class at something is non-trivial. It is very challenging for a small group of people to create something that is world class. It is nearly impossible for that group to create multiple things that are world class.
Think of most of the fastest scaling startups of our time and how they started. Twitter, Groupon, Gilt Group, Dropbox, AirBnB etc. They didn’t start with multiple products or even multiple target audiences. Over time, they may have grown into broader platforms, but even today those platforms have limited capabilities that most people would refer to as world class. Given the billion plus dollar valuations of these startups, one might expect that many of them would now offer multiple products and broaden their platforms, but looking back at the list, the range of products offered from each of these companies is highly focused.
Ultimately, the reason this is such an important mantra for startups is that success is so dependent on focus and prioritization. A music student who wants to become a world class cello player needs to practice for hours a day. That almost definitely prevents the same student from also being a world-class soccer player or even a world class piano player for that matter. Being good at both pursuits is possible, but being world class at either activity requires an incredible amount of focus and prioritization of which activity to be practicing many hours per day. The same is true of startups. Division of extremely scarce resources among multiple goals is highly detrimental to becoming among the best in the world at something customers greatly value. The challenge is deciding which of these goals is truly the big opportunity and justifies all the resources. Hedging or multi-pronged ambition is almost never an outcome maximizing option.
I encourage startups to dream big, but to focus small. While having a huge vision of the future, remember that if you are among the best in the world at solving one problem, you’ve achieved something rare. Aspiring to this goal alone is likely a multi-year rollercoaster pursuit.