I’d like to believe it’s obvious why you should do only one thing (and do it well) when starting a company. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be including it in this aptly-named blog, Obvious Startup Advice. But, like so many things I write about here, what seems obvious to me is not always so obvious to everyone else.
For this one though, I decided to test it. When Megan and I discussed this post, I asked “why do you, Megan, think it’s important to only do one thing well when starting a business?” And she, perhaps unsurprisingly after months of listening to me barf up startup theories every week, hit the nail on the head. “Because it’s pretty hard to do even one thing, and the odds that you can do that one thing well are pretty low.” Ding ding ding! Get this woman some capital!
This was in stark contrast to the client I was coaching right before I spoke with Megan. Let’s say, for the sake of example, my client is an apple farmer. They’ve been apple farming for a few years now, and generally, it’s been a clusterfuck. Very. Few Apples. And while they’ve had moments of potential greatness, they’ve generally been swamped by extended periods of thrashing.
We were discussing their goals for 2021, and one of them is to massively shrink their focus. While the founders (supposedly) are committed to the apple business, in the same breath they tell me they have a team member who is probably better at orange farming, and maybe he should just farm oranges for them. Here’s how the conversation went:
Me: Do you really want to split your focus?
Them: Well, maybe. It could be a good opportunity.
Me: Have you had a year where you farmed apples really well?
Me: Then why are you making it more complicated?
Them: You’re right. We should probably get rid of that superfluous person, huh?
Me: Great decision.
The next thing they say to me, the Very. Next. Thing. is that they have a meeting tomorrow with someone who wants them to start farming hogs, and they might want to do that too. C’mon! We had just decided that it would be challenging for them to split their focus, but if someone comes along tomorrow and asks them to split their focus, they’re gonna to do it anyway? Apparently so.
To be clear, they haven’t yet established anything approaching product/market fit. Their entire business plan is based on conversations and supposition. If they took that meeting, and they feel like hog farming is so amazing it should be their singular focus, then go hog farms! (Megan’s Note: That was exactly how Eric said it to me on the phone, and while I often correct his goofs for print, that one was just too good.)
Unfortunately, this happens with this client every two weeks. And the odds are that rather than shift their whole business model for a really great opportunity, they’ll split their focus, again. Just their coach.
What is obviously not obvious to them is that the odds they can do even one thing well when starting a business are LOW. The odds they can simultaneously do multiple things well are VERY low. And, if you’re trying to derisk your business, that’s the first place you should start. Find your one good thing, and focus on it. Because that one good thing is going to take ALL of your focus.
A buddy of mine recently texted that he’d like to start talking to me about launching his business in a second city. I suggested we could talk about it next week during our regular meeting, but we could also talk about it in 30 seconds. And then I told him that he should consider launching in a second city when he no longer needs to manage the first city.
Remember how every product needs a CEO? It’s the same principle. Don’t launch a second business, second service, second customer type, second anything, until you can do the first thing without more personal involvement than a weekly check-in. Until you no longer need to be the CEO of that product or thing, it is really dangerous to lose focus. If and when the CEO moves away from that first thing, she better be damn ready to completely hand off management of it.
Maybe, depending on your business and your personality, that’s earlier than you think. There are plenty of people who are truly startup people. I, for instance, am well and truly a creation phase guy. I hate managing things (even if I’m good at helping other people do it). By all means, if you’re a creation person, abdicate your responsibilities to someone else once you’re done making it. But, then you’re probably not the CEO anymore. You might not have been the right CEO to begin with either, and that’s ok.
Years ago, I was told a story of how Dick Costolo ran things at Feedburner, a company that helped RSS feed management tools. Remember RSS? Anyway, every month or so, a salesperson would burst into his office with a massive new product idea based on something a prospect mentioned. Dick would listen patiently while the salesperson got it all out and then he’d ask a simple question — “have we gotten all the publishers on board yet?” Feedburner was acquired by Google for $100M and Dick later became the CEO of Twitter. Be like Dick Costolo.
If you do one thing well, congratulations! You’re already miles ahead of the pack. And it’s not worth your time, or the time of your customers, employees, investors, etc. to have you flail about trying to do something you’re not good at. Do your thing. Do it well. Do one thing well.
— Eric Marcoullier
Somedays I’m a little saltier than others. Hell, some meetings I’m saltier than others. But I always bring the love, even if I’m bracingly direct. I want my founders to succeed and the fastest way to that is a zero-bullshit policy of tough love, along with endless support. And the occasional “why the fuck are you still doing this thing that’s holding you and your company back?!?”