Have you ever had that impression of working like crazy just to end up feeling exhausted and without any sign of progress?
I spent a lot of time in the past caught in hustling mode. Just mindlessly plowing ahead with the next task on the list. It worked for a while, but I got to a point where it felt like swimming upstream. Lots of efforts without moving much.
As you’re scaling up your tech startup, hustling could become your worst enemy.
In this post, we’ll show you how moving from hustle to focus can boost your team’s output and help you transform spread too thin into laser focused.
The most important skill to scale a startup
As you scale, tasks and problems start to pile up. To reach your goals, you’ll need to get awesome at focusing on the wildly important.
One of the most famous examples of “extreme focus” is Steve Jobs’ return to Apple in 1997. At the time, the company was struggling and lost in creating a huge (and forgettable) catalog of products - printers, cameras, servers - you name it.
Knowing that the huge number of offerings only caused the company to lose focus, Jobs completely streamlined the company’s product line cutting it by 70%. He focused on the company’s strengths and visualized the new product portfolio into a grid.
At the end of the exercise, the grid held just four products. The iMac and iBook targeted consumers while more powerful versions catered to professionals.
Applying this extreme focus to your own startup is very tough. It’s a bit like the investment advice: buy low, sell high. Easier said than done.
There will always be an opportunity to expand your product portfolio, add a new feature, partner with another company, launch a new market.
Your human fear of missing out will ruthlessly fight against any attempt to focus.
If you manage to focus though, you will get two instant benefits:
Better resource allocation People always complain that there’s not enough people and too much to do. Once you narrow your focus, you’ll discover that you may have enough people. A streamlined product portfolio and geographic footprint give you the opportunity to concentrate your resources on what will move the needle. Remember the Battle of Trafalgar.
More headspace Focusing on less will also allow you and your team to put calm, centered, and productive effort into your projects. That means less interruptions and mental noise and more accomplished faster. It’s no surprise that mediation has gone mainstream.
Removing should be your first reflex
In any company, there’s always someone adding another project, tasks, initiatives to the list.
Let’s launch in the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Latam, Asia. World domination! Let’s make a sales push for a specific customer segment. Let’s completely revamp our UI or build this new cool feature that will give users more control and customization options.
Human nature seems to be hard-wired to always add, not so much to subtract.
Instead, try taking a smarter approach to your work. Don’t get bogged down with distractions. Think about how often your employees and partners come up with the next big idea.
Every single week, employees, CEOs, business development reps, and entrepreneurs reach out to me to talk about a new project, how their AI tech could help 10X my sales results or how we could develop a strategic partnership.
I could talk to all of them. But every minute I put into listening to them is not invested into the company's wildly important goals. The brainpower I put into evaluating their ideas does not go to the company’s wildly important goals.
I’m not saying you should be an asshole, but you need to develop the habit of removing instead of adding.
At every opportunity, ask yourself whether adding another thing to your to-do list is the best idea. You don’t need a junk filter on your client email. You just need to learn to be your own filter.
The simplest way to narrow your focus
To narrow your focus, try applying the now well known Pareto Principle. If you're not completely sure about what’s really critical in your business, it’s the simplest way to know you’re on the right track.
The Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule suggests that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. For instance:
20% of your customers or markets generate 80% of your revenues or profits.
20% of your product development efforts bring your platform to 80% of completion.
20% of your products drive 80% of your growth.
By flipping the principle around, it also means that another 80% of the clients could contribute to only 20% of profits. That’s a lot of time being used on generating far fewer results.
Find your 80/20
Your first job should be to identify what’s your 80/20. Have a good look at your data and find where 80% of the value is created by 20% of your efforts. If you don’t know where to start, check the details of your customer segments, markets, products, marketing channels. There’s an 80/20 everywhere.
If the French market brings you 80% of your revenues, focus on it. If small businesses represent only 20% of your customer base, but generate 80% of transactions on your digital marketplace, focus on them.
Once that’s clear to you, make it clear to your entire management team. With everyone onboard, it will get so much easier to stop wasting time and energy.
I’ve had so many meetings in the past where we got bogged down in endless discussions about a tiny operational issue. Once your team is clear on your focus, give everyone the right to raise the “80/20 Flag” when time gets wasted on minor things.
If you’ve rewired your reflexes and learned from the Pareto principle and Priority Reminder, the answer should be clear. From an operational excellence perspective, narrowing your focus leads to large gains in company execution. You’ll make better and smarter decisions and achieve greater success for your efforts.
Fighting the shiny object syndrome
Now that you’re sold on the importance of focus and of removing instead of constantly adding, you can move to the next stage of your rehab process: overcoming the shiny object syndrome (S.O.S).
S.O.S. is a problem that plagues even experienced leaders and commonly diverts company resources away from reaching their full potential. It’s when the latest social media fad or a recent news release completely derails your efforts and makes you revert back to your old ways of chasing the latest and greatest thing.
In a tech company, it’s often easy to diagnose S.O.S simply by looking at the product roadmap. If you’re running a feature factory, chances are you got S.O.S. In a feature factory, there’s often a long list of new features to be developed.
A product feature is something your product can do. An outcome is what your product can deliver or the problem it can solve. Converting to an outcomes-based product roadmap can reduce S.O.S in several ways:
You reduce the number of planned features for your products. Prioritizing outcomes means you’ll stop overloading your product with shiny new features. Less is more, remember? Instead, you’ll focus on improving your existing products, which tends to be a better use of your resources since you’re not starting from scratch over and over again.
Your teams will work better together because outcomes raise accountability. For example, a desired outcome “to reach a thousand new users by the end of the year” involves teamwork with different departments in your company. The traditional alternative to attract new users is to focus on adding marketable features to your product. The latter simply isn’t as binding to your whole company since it only puts a single department to work - marketing.
Outcomes are more measurable than features, meaning you can track progress and stay on top of your goals.
Once you know your focus, you’ll start making progress, but you will most likely relapse. To stay on track there are a few tricks to use.
Lead by example
Say no to new ideas, no matter how great they may sound. In Rework, the Founders of Basecamp recommend an even more radical approach: Say no by default.
“It’s so easy to say yes. Yes to another feature, yes to an overly optimistic deadline, yes to a mediocre design. Soon the stack of things you’ve said yes to grows so tall you can’t even see the things you should really be doing. “
“Start getting into the habit of saying no — even to many of your best ideas.”
Use the Priority Reminder
The Priority Reminder is a technique I use that works like magic with direct reports. Here’s how it works.
In your next one-on-one, work together to determine her top 3-5 priorities. As time goes by, that direct report will come to you with ideas or potential new initiatives. Everytime she suggests something new, ask her: “What are your top priorities again? Does your new idea will help you reach those top goals faster or better?”
Most of the time, they will say no and get back to work. Make sure you do the same with yourself.
By staying on track to accomplish your company goals, and ignoring everything else, don’t think of yourself as a bad guy who always says ‘no.’ Instead, you’re the hero that leads by example and demonstrates to your teams that focusing on the wildly important is the best path forward to scale your startup.
Build that One Magic Skill to Scale Your Business
If you realized you got S.O.S. or any other focus issues in your business, what are you going to do about it? We’re launching an online course soon that covers focus and execution. It will also look at how to design and grow a meaningful and impactful business from end to end. Sign up to get exclusive updates, early discounts and be the first to have access to new courses.
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