The Entrepreneur’s Dilemma: Fear of Focus

Your origin story might be a “Eureka!” moment or you might have been drawn to the idea for years, but you are bringing your innovation to the market. A few early customers come over via word-of-mouth or friends in your network. You have some early funding. It’s hard but you love it.

Then, as the saying goes, “stuff is about to get real.” It becomes harder to win at scale. Pressures to continue to grow mount and your path to revenue becomes murky. Low-hanging-fruit customers become scarcer and now you need a go-to-market strategy with sales, marketing, operations, and customer success teams. Everyone has an important feature as your product roadmap exceeds your capacity to deliver it.

Robert Frost’s poem cemented the idea of a fork in the road, but you have not just two options in front of you, but … ten, a hundred, a thousand? Which path is the best one for success and how do you evaluate which you chose to follow?

Evolution vs. Shiny Penny

Your product or solution should evolve and grow. It may exceed your original plans. But there is evolution and there is – what my friend Alan Berkson calls – Shiny Penny Syndrome. As sources of revenue change, it is easy to lose your way and follow the money. There are no absolutes here as there are times where finding that next source of revenue “at any cost” is the best choice.

What is important is how to evaluate if you are either evolving or you are chasing:

  • Are you on still on the path you set out for yourself and for this product/solution?
  • Does that new source of revenue just “buy you time” or does it advance your innovation?
  • What is the impact on your people if you pivot into that new direction? Are they the right people to get you those new revenue sources or do you need to make a change?
  • What is the impact of ongoing support and infrastructure for this new direction? Are you factoring those costs into your new revenue model?

The temptations to follow that shiny new penny can be high. You have risked damn near everything to do something really amazing and you want to see it succeed. But following the penny may mean you miss the dollars you could have gotten if you stayed on your current path.

We Love Your Product, Except We Don’t

Customers love your product. Except … they don’t. The list of customizations and new innovations comes pouring in. Some are great ideas; others are not. They voices range from “Can I get this in blue?” to “Can I get the instructions in Latin as we only speak dead languages at our facility?” They love what you are bringing into the world, but … they have a few suggestions, a few customizations.

It may be relatively easy to appease those early customers, but have you considered the ongoing care and maintenance of those enhancements? What are the implications to the other roadmap items and other customers? Do you have the right resources to make these changes?

This won’t be your only customization exercise with a customer and as you shift your direction to win one, there will be two more waiting in the wings with their feature lists.

The Fear of Focus

This is also called a “pivot.” As an entrepreneur, you have to make decisions to keep your dream – your vision – alive. By now, it is not just your dream, but you have brought an entire ecosystem along for the ride – employees, customers, investors, stakeholders, advisors, etc. They are all looking to you to make the right decision. Is it time to pivot your strategy and go in a new direction?

However, does the pivot bastardize your dream? Can you get back to your original plan if you take this detour?

You have a truly amazing notion of the change you want to bring into the market and you brought smart people along to help with that vision. Were you all wrong? A pivot can be a necessity, but it can also be the white flag of your dreams.

Qualtrics has had recent coverage in everything from The New York Times to Forbes. They had ample opportunity to diverge from their original goals, but chose a path of evolution from online surveys to “experience management.” They focused on each customer win and sold them on the ideas they espoused to become a $2.7B company.

Evolution or ...

For every success story, there are a hundred great ideas that just never made it (and a thousand more than just never tried). It is painful to hear the “what could have been” stories of amazing ideas. The pressures are intense and the risks are high. Ultimately, it is now your call.

You have a great idea. Are you evolving or are you abandoning?  

++

Todd Wilms is a marketing and communications leader, residing in Silicon Valley. His views are his own, except for the other people who agree with him.