In my experience as a business mentor, one of the biggest challenges I see is a failure to focus. Most of you aspiring entrepreneurs have new ideas on a regular basis, and find it hard deciding which to pursue, or try to tackle several at the same time. The result is that nothing ever really gets done well, or you burn out trying to address too many opportunities, all at the same time.
Good examples of initial focus by an entrepreneur would include Jeff Bezos when he started Amazon as an online marketplace for books only, and Elon Musk starting PayPal as an online bank. Both have obviously been able to expand their focus and impact, based on learning from early challenges, availability of additional resources, and early success applied more broadly.
In addition to personal focus, I find that the best entrepreneurs build and demand a culture of focus and excellence in their team, their investors, and even their advisors. This culture is best maintained by every business leader at every stage of company maturity. You will find it highlighted, for example, in most articles about Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk even today.
Here are the key elements that I look for as an entrepreneur mentor, as indications of a top level of focus:
Willing to share your personal story to build credibility. Even if this is your first startup, you must have some personal life evidence that you finish things you start, never give up, and stay focused. Every investor will tell you that they invest in the person, more than the product, because they have learned that people with focus find success.
Mark Zuckerberg, now the well-known founder of Facebook, convinced early investors of his ability to focus by relating the story that he had just completed a year-long challenge to only eat meat that he killed himself, in an effort to learn about sustainable resources.
Documented business objectives and a timeline. Of course, these may need to be updated for cause, but it’s hard to get anywhere if you don’t have a specific destination. Unless you have a proven track record, investors still look for a written business plan, even if only a few pages. Key parameters always include opportunity size and forecast.
Some element of “secret sauce” or intellectual property. It clearly takes focus to create and file a patent, but it will give you a tremendous advantage over “me too” competitors. Without a sustainable advantage, it’s almost impossible these days to keep an existing giant from smashing you as soon as your idea gets traction.
I often hear the pushback that it is too difficult and expensive to file a startup product patent, and yet I can tell you from personal experience that the process can be done for a couple of hundred dollars by any focused entrepreneur with average intelligence.
Highlight results and urgency, rather than variety of activities. I look for a highly motivated team, who measures themselves by results against aggressive schedules. This ability to focus and get the job done is the only way to keep you ahead of competitors today’s in a rapidly evolving market with highly demanding customers.
Demonstrate real knowledge of your market and competitors. Most aspiring startups have a great product idea, but a good product doesn’t make a business. Even if I am impressed with your technology, you have to convince me with evidence that your customers are ready to buy, and you have what it takes to differentiate from competitors.
Able to prioritize and keep your attention on the right items. We are all busy, and it’s easy to be driven by the daily crisis, rather than the few key objectives that will make or break your startup effort. If I ask you for the top three items you spend your time on, I expect to hear a correlation with key business objectives and items within your control.
Celebrate small victories at every step along the way. Just the process of breaking your journey into steps, and planning to recognize success at each step, will force you to maintain focus. There is no room in business for the “big bang,” or single big success. Focus is all about keeping things moving, with no room for status quo or complacency.
In the long term, and to have a long term, your mindset and that of your team needs to be to find innovative ways to sharpen your focus, while improving customer value and time to market. Anything less will lower your credibility with investors, and confuse potential customers. Over time, your credibility and resources will increase, and you too can then aim to be the next unicorn.
*** First published on Inc.com on 05/19/2020 ***