Focus is believed to be one of the most important factors in achieving success. This is true in all aspects of life, including personal and professional aspirations, and it applies to businesses as well as individuals on the same level.
For a business to focus, it must have clearly defined goals to drive its strategy. In startups, a focused strategy is even more critical, as new ventures lack the abundance of time and resources.
Focus has many interpretations. It’s not a dichotomous behavior (either you focus or you don’t), but it’s more of a scale; on one end, you have very sharp and narrow ‘laser-like’ focus, and the other end is broad, dispersed, and lacking in focus completely.
What does it mean for a start-up to be in-between the two polar ends of the scale?
A study that examined the focus scope of over 300 startups describes different scales of focus and their implications on startup’s success:
- Laser-Sharp Focus
New ventures that adopt a laser sharp focus target one single market opportunity and focus all their resources and attention on pursuing it. They deliberately neglect all other opportunities and strictly insist not to be disrupted by opportunistic alternatives. The common assumption in the startups’ ecosystem is that this is the only possible strategy for new ventures, and the reason for this is clear: startups lack the resources and capacity to branch out. They simply cannot afford not to be narrowly targeted in their strategy. However, this approach comes at a price: focus at the expense of flexibility, and laser-like focus may turn into a fatal lock-in ultimately rendering itself extremely dangerous for startups.
- Extended Focus
On the scale of resource allocation, extended focus is the middle part. At first, extended focus seems like an oxymoron, but a deeper observation reveals not only that it is possible, but also that it can be beneficial, if done right.So, what does extended focus mean? It refers to balancing the delicate trade-off between focus and flexibility, to avoid locking-in when working in an unpredictable environment, as startups often do.This can be executed by the start-ups by keeping related options open for backup or future growth. Startups that adopt the extended focus strategy keep most of their attention on a primary market, but allocate some resources to stay informed in alternative markets and to broaden their capacity so that pivoting and adaptation become more feasible. They might even choose to pursue two tightly related opportunities in parallel, to increase their value or mitigate their risk with minimum effort.
This is the other polar end of the scale. Firms at this end simply don’t know what they should focus on, so they strive to pursue different opportunities simultaneously, at least until uncertainty fades. While this approach helps them to maintain flexibility, it clearly prohibits their progress and might become detrimental as they risk spreading their scarce resources too frivolously.
Overall, the scope of focus that new firms adopt, or where they choose to position themselves on the scale, is critical not only for their success but also for the DNA of the firm they’re establishing. For example, it can influence how startups develop their technology and file their patents, what type of employees and stakeholders they gather, how they pick a brand name, develop their marketing approach, etc.
In startups, just as in life, the polar ends of the scale are usually too extreme. Instead of black and white, think gray. True, there are many shades of gray (50?), and some are better than others, but you should strive to find the shade that is right for your venture, and that enables you to focus as well as maintain your maneuverability.