September 29th, 2021 | By: Wil Schroter
Startups can only be great at one thing — if we're even that lucky.
One of the greatest challenges in our early days is that our ideas for new features and strategies far outweighs not only our resources but the amount of progress we've made on our core product itself. We'll sit in strategy sessions saying, "Oh boy! What if we added this feature, or went down this path! Now that would be incredible!" without realizing our big ideas are actually going to be the death of us.
What we fail to understand is that great companies are built by maintaining a razor-sharp focus on their core product with an unrelenting drive to be the absolute best at that one thing, at the expense of all other distractions. Great Founders have the ability to never lose focus of what makes the product great and to (gracefully) bring the focus of their team back to what matters. It's way hard than it sounds.
Think of our product like a car. When we go to buy a car, of course we consider all of those features, like the sweet heated seats or the touch screen entertainment unit. Those features help us pick one car over another. But that's exactly where we get confused when we're building a metaphorical car for people.
If people don't want a car to begin with, it doesn't matter what features we put in it. And if our car is a crappy car, they also won't care what features it has. People buy a car first because they need transportation. No one buys a car and says, "Well I actually don't need to drive, I just love the fact that it has heated seats!"
We have to be awesome at building a car first and worry about features second. No matter how many features we add, if the car sucks, no one is going to buy it. Yet we tend to spend an insane amount of time distracted by so many features that aren't the car. If we can't build the best car, all the features in the world won't save us.
When we think about where to invest our valuable time and resources, we have to think about this as a zero-sum game. If we work on Feature A, it comes at the cost of Feature B. But if we're working on features at all, when what we should be doing is improving the core product, we're not only devaluing what we're in business to produce, we're giving our competition the opportunity to one-up us.
That's the real cost — investing in the wrong direction. If we were working in a total vacuum with zero competitors, then we could probably afford to make some of those mistakes. But in any competitive field, our mistakes are our competition's leap forward (and vice versa).
Every single major battle between two products was won by the company that built a better core product first. Tinder has added a bunch of features since launching, but the reason we know who Tinder is was because they came to the table with swiping left or right when other dating sites were using older mechanisms for matching. That was the product, that's why they are worth $10 billion.
When we start to split our focus away from our core product, we also overlook the fact that building a market-leading core product is no small feat. PayPal in its early days did just one thing well — allowing two people with an email address to exchange money. That's it. 20 years later you know what? That's still all they are good at! And that's OK.
In this startup business, if we can find one single thing that we're good at, or ideally the best at, we are orders of magnitude ahead in life. We need to think about being intently focused on being the best at our one thing at the expense of anything else that's simply a distraction.
One thing done better than anyone else is what defines every successful product we use today. In our early years, with resources being far from plentiful, as Founders we need to concentrate all of that focus into greatness. If we're so fortunate to achieve greatness in our market-leading product — awesome — let's go build a feature. But until we get there, let's shelve the features and concentrate our focus.
Why Can’t I be OK With Where I am? (podcast) Why is it that as Founders, we feel like we must constantly be chasing something - otherwise we don't feel satisfied? Listen in to find peace within Startup chaos!
Optimizing for Happiness. We do something in our planning at Startups.com that is relatively unheard of in the startup business: we optimize for happiness. Here’s how we do it.
How I Harness My Insane Startup Anxiety. There are two types of Founders: those that admit they are wracked with anxiety, and those that are lying about it. We’re all going to deal with it for the rest of our lives — so why not use it as a superpower, instead of reacting like it’s kryptonite?
Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.