Opportunity vs Focus is the key struggle of the entrepreneur

Much has been said about the importance of staying focused in a business.  This has been one of the elements of success at GrubHub.  But I’ve always been a little bit uncomfortable with explaining this concept to colleagues.  Occasionally, someone will propose a great concept of a flanking product at our business with solid metrics and unit case analysis.  Often my response to the idea is “well, sounds good, but isn’t in our sweet spot”.  Yet it feels intellectually dishonest to dismiss a potential cash cow on a weak philosophical position.  On the other hand, we can’t evaluate every single idea, so where is the balance?

Guilty until proven Innocent

Every new business concept is by default seen as a distraction… until the case exists to overturn that bias.  There are lots of data points supporting the principle of focus: learned journals, sage advice, personal experience. These things consistently reinforce the idea that less is more. Tangential ideas are distractions rather than opportunities.

In practical terms this means that at some point an idea must be dismissed because it smells of distractions. Even before the concept is fully understood and examined, it must be discarded.  Such a waste…. Some other startup will probably make a killing on it, but we can’t divert the resources.  Stick it on a post-it and move on.

Explore the closest idea that is still NOT in scope

For every business there is are ideas that is so close and so tempting that it doesn’t seem distracting, but brilliantly accretive.  This idea has a siren song… tempting us to abandon the principles of focus and steady execution.  Words like opportunity cost, synergy, accretive, outside the box, and aggressive taunt us to take the risk and make the concept a core piece of the business.

So what makes the cut, and what doesn’t? Where is the line?  The best way to find that line is to thoroughly explore the closest idea that doesn’t cut the mustard.  I’m talking about identifying a real opportunity, that is so close to the current business that it would take only minimal effort to attain, but is just a hair’s breadth too distracting to embrace.  This exercise brings into clear focus the critical line between focus and distraction.  It gives us a ruebrick by which to judge new concepts as being sufficiently relevant to explore.

Execution over Innovation

When I was 6 years old my grandfather said to me “I had the idea for rear windshield wipers before anybody… if I had just done something with it, I’d be a rich man”   A lot of people have this concept that the path to riches is an idea.  However the path to success is execution, not ingenuity.

Simplicity is necessary for excellent execution.  Excellent execution is necessary for bringing a product to market.  The flash of insight that starts the ball rolling is the critical big bang, but that same insight  adds complexity,  which is anathema to excellent execution.

How does an entrepreneur embrace the execution of bringing a new concept to life, but reject the temptation to endlessly add features and new product lines.  Frankly, most don’t. This mix of expansive creativity and restrictive focus are in direct opposition, and therefore rare to find.

A counterbalance is nice

My business partner Matt often holds the opposing view to me on this.  He tends to lean towards opportunity and expansion where I naturally fit into focus and execution.  The tension is helpful because it leads to spirited debate on a case by case basis.

It also leads to a lot of eye rolling on both sides as we both present our respective positions, which both of us have made and heard ad nasuem.

Published by Mike Evans

Founder of Fixer.com. Founded GrubHub in 2004. Rode my bike across the US. Wrote a sci-fi novel.

2 thoughts on “Opportunity vs Focus is the key struggle of the entrepreneur

  1. Even though my business is very young and still growing, I run into this problem a lot already. I continually run into clients and businesses that ask me to dive into different things for them. This forces me to go back and ask myself, “is this something I should be offering?” It seems to be a constant struggle to keep my business model and services narrowed down to what I originally offered to clients. However, keeping it simple and narrowed, I am slowing building a reputation for being the go-to business for filling that need.
    I believe that the more narrowed my business is, the easier it is gain reputation and the easier it is to spread via word-of-mouth. Even though there are many, many opportunities out there to expand into and tackle, staying simple, narrowed, and focussed allows a company to build and reputation and grow in a given market. That’s just my two cents – but who knows, that could change in the next few months.

  2. I think you hit the nail on the head with the comments: “Simplicity is necessary for excellent execution. Excellent execution is necessary for bringing a product to market. The flash of insight that starts the ball rolling is the critical big bang, but that same insight adds complexity, which is anathema to excellent execution.”
    Right now, I am struggling with restraining the exuberance of the members of my innovation team who have come up with great ideas, but need to focus on coming up with a MVP (minimum viable product) that can help us launch the solution into the market.

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