When startups shouldn’t focus

Hadley Harris

By Hadley Harris and Anthony Ha

Startup founders have probably heard this advice a lot: You need to focus on doing one thing well.

Don’t worry, we’re not trying to convince you that this is bad advice. Startups should absolutely focus on doing one thing well — after they’ve found product-market fit. But we’ve seen founders embrace this idea at exactly the wrong time, before they’ve found PMF.

That doesn’t mean those founders aren’t iterating at all. Instead, they approach iteration in a narrow, brute force sort of way. Rather than building and testing new core product features, they keep trying to push the same product in the hopes that something will change; rather than stepping back and thinking holistically about the problem they were trying to solve, they commit themselves to a single approach.

This is completely understandable: We all fall in love with our own ideas, and this tendency is only reinforced by the mantra of focusing on one thing. But founders can end up banging their heads against the wall trying to do the same thing (but better), at the exact moment when they need to be running lots of different experiments.

As a result, when we see seed-stage companies fail, it’s often because they simply didn’t try out enough different ideas before they ran out of money and time.

You may notice a common thread with a blog post we wrote earlier about the danger of prematurely believing you’ve found product-market fit. In both cases, founders are taking potentially useful advice but applying it way too soon. They’re rushing to get out of the crucial phase that comes before PMF, a phase that should be all about testing out different ideas with big, ambitious experiments that could move the needle for the company.

So yes, founders should focus. But not right away — they need to find the right things to focus on first.

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