When I was a second lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps at 22 years old, one of my captains at The Basic School was a rugged Marine who’d been awarded the Bronze Star for defending an isolated combat outpost from repeated Taliban attacks.
One day, he told me, “If you’re strong everywhere, it means that you’re strong nowhere. You need to gather intelligence, determine the enemy’s most likely avenue of approach, and orient your defensive position toward it. If you try to defend everywhere at once, you’ll fail.”
I’d offer similar advice to startups. The constraints of capital, talent, and time already leave you vulnerable to the competition’s every move. Trying to position yourself as a one-stop shop just spreads your resources even thinner. The question then is, why do so many startups still try to be all things to all people so soon out of the gate?
Too Big Too Soon
Startups often feel pressured to look bigger than they are. They want to show that they’re at the cutting edge of technology and get the attention of customers by promising a combination of features beyond anything that’s available on the market.
But buyers have become more and more savvy. They can smell even a hint of nonsense from a mile away. This is why they’re increasingly likely to conduct extensive research before making a purchase, which can mean requesting to test out a product before they buy it. When buyers realize that companies are overpromising and underdelivering, it damages the company’s reputation and lowers the likelihood of future success.
Every successful startup excelled at one thing first before expanding into other features. Netflix, for example, became the best in on-demand DVD rentals, while Amazon became the best online bookseller. The same can be said for Google with search, Facebook with connecting college students, and Uber with black car ride-sharing.
Since dominating in its core competencies, Netflix now excels in streaming services and creating proprietary content. Amazon is doing something similar — with the addition of selling all physical goods and offering cloud-computing services. Google still provides search, but has added email, video calls, maps, and even self-driving cars to its roster. Facebook connects people regardless of school affiliation and also runs a marketplace, Instagram, and WhatsApp, while Uber has branched out from a black car service into UberX and UberEats.
When you have nailed down your core competency and built it into a successful business, subsequent product lines must compliment your core business as part of a comprehensive corporate strategy in order to continue growing in a profitable and sustainable matter. Consider WeWork, for example, which had carved out a strong niche in the shared workspace market. The company began investing in more than just office space, moving into retail, housing, preschools, college campuses, food startups, and a wave generator for inland surfing.
That’s a lot of positions to defend — and a confusing corporate structure. That’s why it was no big surprise when WeWork recently pulled its IPO. The company also just received a $1.75 billion line of credit from Goldman Sachs to help clean up its debt and keep the ship afloat.
“What do you need to start a business? Three simple things: know your product better than anyone, know your customer, and have a burning desire to succeed.” – Dave Thomas
More Isn’t Always More
Adding features to match every perceived customer need is tempting. Logic would tell you that more of a good thing means an even better thing, but when it comes to startups, that’s simply not the case.
When my startup was pitching our product, which is smart camera software used for gun detection, to a large global company, the company pointed out that one of our competitors also uses computer vision to detect guns — on top of behavioral analysis, license plate reading, healthcare analysis, abandoned object recognition, people tracking for retail, and seemingly countless other applications. They asked why they should go with us when all we do is gun detection.
I knew of the competitor they were referencing. I knew the company was roughly the same size as us, so I understood a bit about their true capabilities and limitations. And I know that it’s not possible to be good at everything at once.
I said, “If you need a bunch of bells and whistles, ask yourself whether it’s realistic for a seed-stage company to deliver effectively on all of these promises.” I suggested they hold the company’s feet to the fire and test the products rigorously before making a decision.
3 Questions for Staying Focused
As a startup founder, you need to ask yourself three questions when looking to improve your offerings, and the answers should help you maintain a sharper focus on your core competency. Otherwise, you risk losing sight of your target audience and expanding too far too soon.
1. What is the most critical customer pain point we want to solve?
For the most part, your answer will fall into one of four fairly broad categories: cost, productivity, ease of use, and assistance. Cost obviously involves a financial problem, like overpaying for a product or service. Productivity centers on time — or the lack thereof. Ease of process involves making a complicated matter simpler, and assistance is all about support.
Invest in the research to uncover where your customers’ biggest pain points lie. Then, understand how your product or service can best solve that problem only. The first step in staying focused is zeroing in on one pain point and knowing you will need to maximize your offering’s ability to solve it.
“If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution.” – Steve Jobs
2. Are we building a valuable solution to this pain point?
Once you’ve established the problem your offering will address, you should determine whether what you have to offer is actually the best way for customers to solve it. Can your product or service take them easily from point A, where they have the problem, to point B, where it has been significantly remedied or entirely solved? If not, it’s time to pivot your strategy and improve your offering to better deliver that one solution, rather than just adding bells and whistles.
3. Are we using feedback to improve?
Nobody knows a pain point better than consumers. Once your product or service is in people’s hands, welcome their feedback with open arms. The more input you can gather, the better.
You can use the feedback directly to build your development road map, allowing you to improve upon your product or service in the way customers most want to see. Hearing from customers themselves is the only way to know the true extent to which you are solving your customers’ problems.
To bring the most value to your customers, focus in rather than expanding out. Startups form around solving problems in the first place, so the attention should remain on finding the very best solution. Focus on what you’re good at and master this area before moving into other uncharted waters. That’s the foundation of success.