The Forest vs. The Trees: A Story About Focus

The Forest vs. The Trees: A Story About Focus

I'm going to share a story about the forest vs. the trees. But it's not the story you're expecting to hear.

My last blog post was about Doing Less, Better, which is my theme for 2015.

A big part of doing less, better is achieving focus. But that very word is often misunderstood. Focus means the elimination of distractions, not the mitigation of distractions. Let's dig into that more deeply:

The first hard thing in a startup is knowing what to focus on initially. When you first start, you don't have strong product/market fit in anything, so like any good LeanStartup you might start with a hypothesis and work through the build --> measure --> learn cycle as quickly and effectively as you can. The key is to find some early area of traction & demand that you can build off of.

Having a solid initial hypothesis is important, but I would argue that even more important is being close to customers and listening to them intently. You're probably not listening to your customers closely enough, even if you think you are. They will tell you where your hypothesis is wrong. They won't be able to tell you what they do want -- they won't know what they don't know -- but they will absolutely be able to react to what you put in front of them.

So far, so good. But here's what usually happens in startups: You start doing several experiments because you desperately want to find that traction. So instead of just iterating on one thing to make it better, you move on, saying "well that didn't work," except you don't really move on. You keep it around, kind of. Maybe you have a customer or two using it. Or you're generating some revenue from it. Or you've invested so much code, time and cost into it that you can't just bear to completely shut it down. This is where things get dangerous. It's absurdly hard to force yourself to either a) keep iterating on it until it gets better or b) to shut it down completely. In fact, in my experience, this is what separates the massively successful startups from the rest of them. Less successful startups do a lot of mitigation. More successful startups do a lot of elimination.

I've been trying to find a way to explain this simply, and in the shower the other morning, it hit me: Trees.

Let's say you're CEO of a startup that's not yet profitable. Just envision that each initiative in your business is represented by a small, young sapling.

Now here's the kicker: You only have a certain amount of water. That water is your funding. Water is precious and expensive to get. You have to make a choice: Do you concentrate your water on just one of the saplings, or do you water them all equally?

It sounds so obvious, right? You want to grow a tall, strong tree. But it's so very hard to let those other trees die. That's where startups make a false choice: They mitigate by watering the other trees, just enough so they don't die. But not enough for them to grow, either.

And a startup is just like a tree in another way, too: When the tree gets big enough, its root system will be able to capture its own water from the ground. And when a startup matures enough, it too can start to feed itself. It can become profitable. But this only happens when you focus your water on just one tree. If you try to water them all, none of them will reach the stage where their roots can really take hold.

And this is how, ironically, by cutting water off to all your trees but one, your tree will grow big, strong and tall. It will drop acorns around it and spawn other trees. It will create a forest.

But by spreading your water out to many trees, all of them will die, and you will be left with an empty field.

Focus means being ruthless about watering only one tree, so that you can successfully build your forest.