In the world of startups, there is a very powerful magic spell that is often overlooked: focus. The enchanting secret of successful startups usually lies not in magic formulas or arcane tricks but in the ability to do one thing, and do it damn well.
It is very tempting to fall into the trap of wanting to offer multiple services. The clothing store with a coffee bar, the marketing consultant who also offers his partner's design services, or the furniture maker who also offers painting work are frequently heard ideas. But no matter how logical this may seem, it rarely contributes to focus and therefore success.
Why is focus so important as a startup?
In my early years, I worked a lot with a creative duo that had founded ‘The House of Inspiration'. This was supposed to be a gathering hub for all kinds of creatives, but I don't think it ever went beyond subletting a workplace to an image editor.
That's because almost every startup is hard enough in the beginning. You have your hands full finding your first customers for what you are good at and getting better at it. Good is really not good enough! If you also spend a lot of time finding partners and talent, offering these services, and monitoring collaboration and quality, this is almost always at the expense of your own offering.
In addition, you quickly have a positioning problem. Are you a design agency, a DTP studio, or a creative duo? Focus as a startup helps you enormously to position yourself correctly and clearly.
After focusing you can always differentiate
Working with the creative duo, my own business at that time had grown into a diverse team spanning strategy, creativity, DTP, events, digital media, events and software development. We started with digital media and, based on customer requests, added the design department, followed by the DTP department, the strategy department, and so on.
But if you think about companies like Amazon, which now offers everything you can think of, things turn out the same way. It was an online bookshop. At Airbnb you could only rent rooms in the beginning, Uber only had 1 type of taxi service in the beginning and Tesla only had 1 model.
Apple only had 1 model of computer, Microsoft started with the Windows operating system, Google only had one search engine, and Instagram initially only allowed you to share photos. All these companies owe their success as startups to the focus on 1 service or product.
There are exceptions to the rule of focus
In 2018, my partners and I started a video-calling platform where people all over the world can offer their services via video calling. On ‘The One’, as the platform is called, you can create a profile and tell what you have to offer, and if someone needs your knowledge, support, or expertise, they pay you per minute during video-calling.
In conversations with potential investors, the same topic kept coming up. Focus on 1 target group and service. Although this article is also about that, it is slightly different in these types of cases. Our focus is video calling. What all investors wanted is that we also had a focus on who would use the platform. For example, coaches or online marketers. But suppose Spotify only started with hard rock music. Would it have been a success? Or suppose that YouTube, as a startup, only allowed videos about gardening. Could they have become market leaders?
Focus as a startup is therefore more about the activity and service you provide and, especially if you are a platform, the offering may be diffuse.
As a startup, focus on your core business
A good friend of mine is going to offer unique coaching and retreat locations in Europe. She is completely at home in that world and therefore has a nice network through which she can guarantee quality.
If you ask me, I see a lot of potential in this platform, provided that the focus remains on the core business. Once you have the technology in place, you can easily add fewer qualitative coaches and retreats. Let customers add a review and the visitor will automatically see the differences between the offerings. That's how it works with booking a hotel, right?
Although the reasoning is correct, this is still a startup mistake. The core business is offering high-quality coaches and retreats. These are difficult to find and they answer a market demand very clearly. This makes the positioning clear and the visitor knows exactly what the offer is. The more diffuse you make this in the beginning, the harder it will be to gain fame.
A step further would be to think that if you do have visitors, you could also offer holiday trips. After all, visitors want to go somewhere, don't they? It seems logical and maybe a nice idea, but in addition to making your positioning even more difficult, it completely takes the focus off your core strategy and business model.
Focus with a clear goal in mind as a startup
The former Twitter, now called X, is a very special exception to the rule. Normally, as a startup, you know exactly what your goal is and with which business model and strategy you want to achieve success. Although you can - and probably will - adjust this gradually, this forms the foundation of almost all successful start-ups. But things were different with Twitter.
Twitter had a clear focus on what you should and should not be able to do with the platform, but in the beginning, it had absolutely no idea what you should be able to do with it or who it was intended for. It wasn't until users started experimenting with posting news, organizing events, and having discussions that the current X took shape and gained popularity.
Normally, this approach is often doomed to failure, although it is increasingly common to see initiatives arise whose functionality is determined by what the users want. In that case, the company focuses on the frameworks within which users can determine this.
How do you monitor your focus as a startup?
In my 30+ years as an entrepreneur and (startup/executive) coach, I have come to believe more and more to ‘keep things as simple as possible'. For me, that is the most important rule for maintaining focus as a startup. But there's more.
Another important aspect of maintaining focus is to have a clear idea of what the purpose of your startup is. What is the dream you are pursuing and why is that dream relevant to the world or society? If you know why you do what you do and how it is valuable, you also know what you can do. If you can keep it small and simple, the chance of success as a startup is greatest.
Another rule is not to ask yourself what you can do to make your dream come true and make money, but ‘what is the least you can’ do to make your dream come true and make money. If you put that down on paper, you'll be well on your way to doing exactly what will make you succeed.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why is focus so important for startups?
Focus enables startups to focus on one core activity or service, allowing them to distinguish themselves, improve, and clarify their positioning.
Are there exceptions to the rule of focus for startups?
Yes, some successful startups started without a clear focus on a specific audience or service, but gradually developed their offerings based on feedback and user interactions.
How can a startup maintain its focus amid growth and diversification?
It is essential for startups to keep their core business or service as their focus, even as they grow and discover new opportunities. By remaining clear about their goal and purpose, they can monitor their focus.
What are some practical tips to maintain focus as a startup?
Some tips are: keep it as simple as possible, know what your purpose is and why you do what you do, focus on the essence of your dream and business, and ask yourself what is the least you can do to achieve your goal.
How can a startup deal with finding the right focus in a rapidly changing market?
Startups can stay flexible and adapt to changes in the market by regularly evaluating their strategies and goals, using customer and user feedback, and focusing on providing value that is relevant to their target audience.