Focus: The Key to Scaling Successfully

Helping the next generation of American business scale is what wakes us up in the morning, but every once in a while we're kept up at night wondering why some companies don't make it. After working with more than 100 of the most innovative companies around, and being immersed in the world of emerging companies, we've started to observe a common trait among all the destined-for-greatness companies: Focus!

The One Thing

Eli Portnoy, CEO and Co-Founder of ThinkNear, put it best in his Entrepreneur article: "All great startups start by doing one thing really, really well." Amen to that, but I'd go one step further and say that every company started by doing one thing really well. It doesn't matter if they went from hamburgers to hamburgers and fries, it all started with one idea or objective in mind. 

The business world posits that this is competitive advantage, but it's not. Competitive advantage is very real and necessary, but it emerges out of focus. From focus companies gain insight into their ultimate goal -- the problem that a business solves or the value it creates.

Finding focus is not something that happens overnight, nor is it static. Once a company finds it's focus, it has to maintain it adapting, re-interpreting and refining so that the ultimate goal does not disappear from view. It sounds very simple and easy, when it's juxtaposed within the context of the controlled chaos that is a business, it becomes, as PIQERS founder and CEO, Ali Mese put it, "a battle against distractions." Mese may have been talking about the injurious effect of information overload  on the contemporary entrepreneur's productivity, but his idea just as easily applies to organizations.

In our experience we've seen more than our fair share of companies who cast aside focus and try to do it all - delivering a product/service, managing their back office operations, handling customer support, marketing. It's admirable, and up to a certain stage necessary, but our deep experience with outsourcing and growth companies has also shown us that delegating tasks does not equal a loss of control, nor does it mean losing focus. If anything it's just the opposite.

Focus is not Concentration

More often than not, focus is equated with concentration. I posit something different. Where concentration is tactical and essentially narrow -- you concentrate on a task, for example -- focus is much broader and strategic. A business can never afford to be focused on one task, but when it does have focus it's business units can concentrate on carrying out their respective actions effectively.

Moreover, focus is fluid. Every organization has to adjust it's focus. The closest metaphor is adjusting your visual depth perception in order to see an object clearly.

The Cost Not Focusing

Mike Shepherd of GrowthPoint Partners is credited with saying that the the most precious resource in a growing company is the founder's bandwidth. Again, I'd amend that to say it's the bandwidth of the workforce that is adding value for customers. When companies lose focus, they end up passing along that cost to the customer. Whether it's a breakdown in support, value or delivery of service - it shows up.

Consider a fictional, growing company that provides customers with a pet daycare service. If demand grows so much and employees who are supposed to be managing schedules and pick up and drop off are now doing things like handling customer calls things can break down quickly. It makes more sense to focus on delivering the best service possible and delegating the task of handling the calls to a good provider. Freeing up the bandwidth to deal with issues like your supply chain, or product development -- these are where the focus have to be: without focus on these critical tasks, the ultimate goal is lost and organizations turn into administrative entities caught up in the "how" of their enterprise and not the "why?"

Focus as a Strategic Business Imperative

If it hasn't become abundantly clear already, it should be made clear that focus isn't just a practice: it's a business driver.

In the absence of focus we've seen companies lose the ability to manage their business effectively at a time when they are trying to manage an increase in scale -- one of the most complex and tricky activities out there.

Here's an example. An e-commerce company that makes widgets  is growing rapidly. More customers are buying the product, but they're also calling in for support more often. The solution is address the design issue that's leading to the calls, but the team that handles product development is also handling customer support and managing some of the back office tasks related to the company's e-commerce website.

To solve the problem, the company hires more interns adding headcount to the company but not necessarily adding value. The interns have no customer support experience and so even though the product team has been somewhat relieved of their dual role, the CEO is now up at night sweating the spike in negative reviews online.

The smart thing would have been to focus on solving the issue that ticked off customers and delegate the task of customer care to a specialist. I know, it sounds suspiciously, self-serving coming from an outsourcing provider, but the truth is we see it time-and-time again.

With a sense of focus prioritization becomes easy, and more importantly companies can focus on scaling the elements of an organization that contribute to the ultimate goal. That's the art of scaling -- true fruit of focus.

May 07, 2014