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As consumers, we all get distracted. It seems to happen more easily and frequently these days. Instead of focusing on work or driving or watching the kids, we constantly check Facebook, email, Twitter, and Instagram. And it seems to have led us to suffer from exceedingly short attention spans. We prefer bite-size news blurbs to long-form journalism. We fast forward through TV commercials and binge-watch shows because we are too impatient to wait. This pandemic of impatience has become so pervasive that even the companies that enable our distractions are beginning to take some corrective action. Apple, for instance, has introduced new features to help us interact with our devices less (e.g., Screen Time in iOS 12).
But I want to focus on a similar malady that afflicts some startup founders: the temptation to focus on the wrong initiatives, to veer off into unproductive territory. By “wrong,” I mean initiatives that don’t directly further the mission and growth of the company. Building a company is tough. It involves hard work, long hours, and difficult decisions. And unless and until you have a huge exit, there’s very little glory in it. Considering our widespread distraction contagion, coupled with a natural human tendency to avoid difficulty and discomfort, it is understandable that founders are often easily distracted by shiny objects.
“Deliberately do less and focus only on what's essential to your company's success.”
Shiny objects can include anything that distracts a founder from making progress towards the company’s mission. These often include press opportunities. Of course, good press focused on your target market can be a valuable tool for customer acquisition. But I’m referring to vanity press. A random podcast outside of your industry vertical asks you to be a guest. Your hometown newspaper wants to do a story about you. Your alma mater wants to feature you in its alumni magazine. These opportunities stroke our egos and make us feel good. And they are the type of thing that might make our moms proud. But before you pursue them, ask yourself if doing so will help you grow your company. More so, ask yourself if this would be the best use of your time to grow the company. And be honest with yourself. We are all tempted to rationalize. “Well, it will build brand recognition,” or “If someone in my town who reads the article is a potential customer, then they might call us.” While that’s possible, if it’s unlikely, then you probably shouldn’t be wasting your time.
Another shiny object is the allure of building sexy new product features that don’t solve customers’ pain points. Yes, technology is great, but only when it helps us solve problems. Adding features to your product should be a careful and thoughtful process focused on the needs of the consumer. Not just because you think a feature is cool or because it utilizes current trendy tech like AI or machine learning. Avoid feature bloat and focus on the core features that will truly benefit your customers. And yes, ICOs are shiny objects and pursuing one for your company because it’s trendy is a giant waste of time and resources.
One more example: spending time and resources to track and build meaningless stats. Again, this is a vanity-based decision and one you would be wise to avoid. I am a firm believer in tracking a small group of the most important KPIs to your business (see my previous article about the 12 KPIs you must know: https://medium.com/startupsco/the-dirty-dozen-12-kpis-you-must-know-before-pitching-your-startup-9791192bbda5). But if you run a brick-and-mortar hardware store and you are spending time tracking the amount of time people spend on your website and taking actions to encourage them to spend more time, you could probably be more productive doing something else. Focus on those areas of the business where monetization is the strongest.
“Networking” can also be a major time-suck for founders. Building your network sounds good, but before devoting hours to this, think about how it will directly benefit your company. This distraction takes multiple forms, including spending aimless hours on LinkedIn and attending networking event after networking event. It is all too easy to use networking as an excuse for avoiding hard work. Targeted outreach that adds value is good; moseying around three nights a week at events saturated with overeager salespeople is not.
In order to build a great company, you must first identify a few key goals that will lead to success (here’s a hint: they should all be directly related to increasing sales or profits). Next, commit yourself fully to these goals. Avoid the temptation to be distracted by mind candy. Put your head down and focus on achieving your goals.
Deliberately do less and focus only on what’s essential to your company’s success. Strategically eliminate everything that is nonessential. The resulting feeling of flow and single-minded drive will outweigh the transient sting of FOMO that may arise when you learn to say “no.”
Avoid shiny objects. Clarity of purpose leads to success.