The F-Word: Focus

Your Best Career

By Liz Ward

Focus is a good thing. And essential in new businesses, where resources – time, money and bandwidth – are especially limited.

But focus is easier said than done.

What is focus, really?

The dictionary defines focus as “the center of activity or area of greatest energy.” Business guru Michael Porter would say that focus is strategy. “Of course strategy is hard,” says Porter. “It’s about making tough choices.” And that’s the essence of focus – making tough choices about what your company stands for and you’re going to do as well as what you’re not.

Finding focus is heavy lifting, but the great news is that once you’ve identified your focus, it makes other choices simpler.

It’s especially hard to entrepreneurs to focus. Typically, they are idea people and idea people tend to have lots of ideas. And the more conceptual they are as thinkers, the bigger they can imagine the scope of their enterprise and the more painful it is to think about limits.

Entrepreneurs also tend to be involved in every detail of their company. They know too much. So when it comes time to giving the elevator pitch and highlighting the few most important, relevant-to-customers/investors points, it’s immensely challenging to focus and refrain from mentioning all those great features and benefits that they’ve slaved over. (Most of my start-up clients clock about 45 minutes for the first-round elevator pitch – well beyond the length of any elevator ride or the attention span of anyone you’re not paying to listen to you.)

What is the secret of finding focus?

Think of your focal point as a bulls-eye – the core of what your company does and is, the one thing you want to be famous for, that you don’t ever want to dilute or get distracted from or let a competitor get better at than you.

I had a client a while back who struggled with this concept. The company was about 10 years old, hugely successful but growing in an unfocused and unsustainable way. The company was still run by the original founder – a brilliant idea guy with a dislike for limits. While his executive team described the company as being in the children’s book business (basically, they were), he told us they were in the “media” business and envisioned his company painting murals in children’s hospitals as one of their next ventures. In other words, there was no bulls-eye. There was of a huge circle with no defined center. The product development team was paralyzed – they had scores of great ideas but no basis for evaluating them or figuring out what to do next. When you don’t have a clearly defined center, it’s hard to craft a growth strategy.

Apple, by contrast, clearly knows its center. “Apple-ness” is a distinctive and powerful combination of design and intuitive interface and functionality that is at the center of everything Apple does. The Apple brand is so well defined and distinctive that it’s hard to imagine Apple ever losing its way.

Think about focus as a sweet spot.

The sweet spot is where your power is most concentrated and you get the most impact for your effort. When companies know and play from their sweet spot, they’re playing from their greatest strengths.

Astrum Solar, a mid-Atlantic-based solar start-up, decided to focus on spreading solar power to roofs across America by changing the way solar panels are marketed to consumers. Their sweet spot is transforming solar panels from an appliance installation into an enjoyable and exciting experience of “going solar” that customers want to tell all their friends about. We found this sweet spot through insights into what people considering solar, what was missing in the market and what particular talents and expertise enabled them to do best. Using their own funding, the company has grown the business from a single city to seven states in two years and is the fastest growing solar company in their region. They play to their sweet spot – focusing resources on delivering and owning a benefit in a distinctive way.

Think about focus as leverage

Archimedes, the inventor of leverage, said: “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the earth with a lever”. Similar to the idea of the sweet spot, leverage is about finding a way to generate the greatest possible power per ounce of effort. The key is to find the right place to stand.

PINK did just that – they found a place to stand to be able to move something really big: empowering women to have the courage to do what they love. Since its inception six years ago, PINK has built a huge audience by providing women with inspirational and practical information that helps them go after what they want both personally and professionally. PINK stands and delivers consistently from one strong place, and they now own the unique position of trusted advisor to professional women.

Whichever of these mental images or tools works best for you, the underlying principles are the same:

1. Find the center: the core of what your business is about.

2. Make it little and big – not a lot of words, simple to articulate and internalize and execute, but huge in concept and potential to inspire.

3. Focus your resources on it: to really see results, put the full weight of your conviction behind it and don’t get distracted from it.

Maintaining focus in business should be a dynamic process. V. Kasturi Rangan, a professor of Marketing at Harvard Business School, wrote an article about nonprofits and staying true to a mission that has some great phrases (equally applicable to for-profits). He talks about “mission stick vs. market pull”. Businesses have to determine how to respond to market changes – new opportunities or new threats – without losing their focus. There are “commercial winds” that companies should respond to, but not, Rangan says, if it causes a “drift or a drain”.

There are lots of tools to help you focus. One tool that was created for project management, the Critical Path analysis, is also helpful for maintaining focus. The analysis requires that you define an important and complex task and identify everything that needs to happen (and in what sequence/timing) to get it done. If you think about your company’s most important benefit to your customers as that task, anything that doesn’t directly help deliver the benefit is not on your critical path.


Liz Ward is the Principal at Thought Partners, a marketing consultancy that specializes in helping companies reinvent themselves and build successful brands.

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