JT Marino and Daehee Park are the founders of Tuft & Needle, an e-commerce mattress startup cutting out the industry gimmicks and markups.
As a startup, every day is a battle against distractions—meaningless or nice-to-have ideas from customers, team members and advisors—that may throw you off course.
Even more valuable than cash on hand is time. Diverting your focus can doom your startup to mediocrity or stall it midair as your competitors sail right by you.
Time is precious
In the beginning, it’s important to identify the problem and to build the solution as quickly as possible. It’s natural to focus because you only have a small amount of runway—whether you just left your job with personal savings or if you have raised a seed round of funding. Because of this, you’re time-boxed and you have to hustle to build your product or service quickly to see some sign of traction.
Once you’ve discovered some traction and a product that resonates with customers, now is when you have to double down and begin to build an exceptional product. At this point, now you have more activities than just the product to worry about. You have to run the business day to day and build a team—all while differentiating your brand and producing a product people love.
Accept that you can’t do it all
As difficult as it is to remind yourself that you can’t fix everything, you have to learn to say no. For example, when your customers ask for other products, you know those offerings are wanted and they will sell. But just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should.
If you pursue those paths, it’s going to divert the potential energy to make your core product great and instead lead to just good enough.
If you view focus as a function of time, you’ll realize how powerful it can be.
Here’s a quick mathematical exercise. If you focus on a product for just 30 minutes a day, that’s only about 14 days in a year that you’re actually focusing on your product. But if you were to focus on a single product for 3 hours a day, that’s nearly 86 days a year.
Imagine the difference in quality and thoughtfulness of a product you could build in that amount of time. Now consider scaling that level of focus to a team of 10 people. That’s a little over two full years of non-stop focused time that can be funneled into building something extraordinary.
Focus improves your core values
Other than just building a great product, focus helps communicate the purpose of your product to the world. It helps with your customers’ understanding of what it is you do and how it compares.
In the case of physical products, it removes complexity of choice so that it’s easier to make a buying decision. In the case of software products, it prevents bloat in the user interface so that it’s more delightful to use.
Once you’re on track to focusing and relentlessly reducing scope, it then frees up time so that you can continue to execute on building an exceptional experience. The supporting components include service level differentiators such as customer support, delivery times and packaging.
Once our product achieved traction in the early days at Tuft & Needle, we were immediately presented with the challenge of holding ourselves back from releasing other offerings. This was especially true in an industry where our competitors typically have over a dozen models to choose from. If we wanted to differentiate ourselves, we had to make our product delightful—down to the stitch.
Because we had one product, it gave us the time to have conversations with customers and collect feedback to continue to iterate and to make it better. If we had additional products to support, we wouldn’t have been able to do it as quickly or at all.
The focus also provided us the time to develop a lean and stable supply chain that could scale along with our sales growth. We had more time to hire and interview people, as well as to develop processes for providing services with everything else that supports the product.
Streamline your mission
With focus as a core tenet, we ask ourselves weekly: Can we reduce our scope? Can we focus on less? For the projects that we do take on, are they in line with our mission and our goals? Will our customers think there is too much choice?
Having a mission statement can be really useful for guiding the answers to these questions. It’s a useful tool for building autonomy around the team’s focus. If the mission is clear, then the company’s projects are self regulating. Team members can question it themselves.
Differentiate your startup because the odds are already stacked against you. Don’t spread yourself thin by building too many products or too many features. Stay focused and be exceptional.