Focus or Fail - saying no to great ideas

Focus is critically important to startups and large companies. Focus requires saying no to some great ideas. Having lots of smart people and lots of money in the bank can make it hard to say no. I was mentoring a startup, helping them sort through where to focus and how to prioritize the opportunities. I told them to choose their customers carefully. Huh? That's right, choose your customers carefully, and choose what you build / productize even more carefully.

Great ideas come from customers, partners, and employees. Big customers can have very specific needs, and demand those features in your product. Sometimes those customer demands align with your vision, but when they don't...just say no. For a startup that needs all the revenue they can get, saying no to a big customer is very hard. But, saying yes to customer requests that take you away from your strategic vision can paint you into a corner that you never get out of. Once you have those features and those customers you can't just kill are stuck. Your product will never again be the universal, adaptable platform you intended it to be.

Saying no to great ideas from super smart employees is even more difficult. Startups need to focus or they will fail. Big companies have the same problem. Read this Q&A with Apple CEO Steve Jobs from a BusinessWeek interview back in 2004. 

Q: Apple has long been an innovative place with lots of smart, passionate engineers. But it seemed to fall off the map in the years before you returned in 1997. What happened?
 Let's start at the beginning. Both [Apple co-founder] Steve Wozniak and I -- and I think I can speak for Woz -- got our view of what a technology company should be while working for Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. And the first rule over there was to build great products. Well, Apple invented the PC as we know it, and then it invented the graphical user interface as we know it eight years later [with the introduction of the Mac]. But then, the company had a decade in which it took a nap.

Q: What can we learn from Apple's struggle to innovate during the decade before you returned in 1997?
 You need a very product-oriented culture, even in a technology company. Lots of companies have tons of great engineers and smart people. But ultimately, there needs to be some gravitational force that pulls it all together. Otherwise, you can get great pieces of technology all floating around the universe. But it doesn't add up to much. That's what was missing at Apple for a while. There were bits and pieces of interesting things floating around, but not that gravitational pull.

People always ask me why did Apple really fail for those years, and it's easy to blame it on certain people or personalities. Certainly, there was some of that. But there's a far more insightful way to think about it. Apple had a monopoly on the graphical user interface for almost 10 years. That's a long time. And how are monopolies lost? Think about it. Some very good product people invent some very good products, and the company achieves a monopoly.

But after that, the product people aren't the ones that drive the company forward anymore. It's the marketing guys or the ones who expand the business into Latin America or whatever. Because what's the point of focusing on making the product even better when the only company you can take business from is yourself?

So a different group of people start to move up. And who usually ends up running the show? The sales guy. John Akers at IBM (IBM ) is the consummate example. Then one day, the monopoly expires for whatever reason. But by then the best product people have left, or they're no longer listened to. And so the company goes through this tumultuous time, and it either survives or it doesn't.

Q: Is this common in the industry?
 Look at Microsoft (MSFT ) -- who's running Microsoft?

Q: Steve Ballmer.
 Right, the sales guy. Case closed. And that's what happened at Apple, as well.

Remember, this interview with Jobs was back in 2004. He is referring to the time at Apple when he was ousted and John Sculley (sales guy) took over Apple. Jobs says the same thing happened at IBM and Microsoft. 

John Battelle wrote an interesting post today about Google's brand. His point was that Google is moving beyond being just a search company to being a software company with many products, and that this changes the brand identity. Good point. This graphic jumped out at me.

All Goog Products

John Battelle's article, my experience mentoring that startup, and the Jobs interview, crystallized for me the importance of product focus. Yes, it is good to have multiple features and even multiple products, but they must, as Jobs would say, "add up to something". Every new feature and new product should support the company vision. It should leverage what you are doing and create real synergy. If it doesn't...just say no.

Hard to say no - It is easy to say no when you don't have the people, or the cash required, to do the job. It is much harder to say no if you are a startup that needs every customer you can get, or a big company with lots of employees and plenty of cash. Focus or fail. Focus on building great products, or fail with too many features that "don't add up".

Remember the Peanut Butter Manifesto by Brad Garlinghouse, former VP at Yahoo? Here is an excerpt that captures the essence;

We lack a focused, cohesive vision for our company. 

We want to do everything and be everything -- to everyone. We've known this for years, talk about it incessantly, but do nothing to fundamentally address it. We are scared to be left out. We are reactive instead of charting an unwavering course. We are separated into silos that far too frequently don't talk to each other. And when we do talk, it isn't to collaborate on a clearly focused strategy, but rather to argue and fight about ownership, strategies and tactics.


Our inclination and proclivity to repeatedly hire leaders from outside the company results in disparate visions of what winning looks like -- rather than a leadership team rallying around a single cohesive strategy.


I've heard our strategy described as spreading peanut butter across the myriad opportunities that continue to evolve in the online world. The result: a thin layer of investment spread across everything we do and thus we focus on nothing in particular.

Focus or Fail - It happens at startups, and it happens at big companies. It sounds easy, but it is much harder than you might imagine.

Don Dodge is a Developer Advocate at Google.  This blog post was originally published on April 22, 2010.  You can find this post as well as additional content on his blog called: Don Dodge on The Next Big Thing.