Be the Tip of the Spear

You don’t have to look very hard to find entrepreneurship advice about the importance of focus. Like much advice in entrepreneurship, it’s hard to understand it until you’ve lived it.

There are a lot of reasons that Compass didn’t work out the way that we planned but looking back, one of the most important things I would have done differently is to focus on doing a single, smaller thing better than anyone else. Had we done that, we would have been able to grow Compass into a successful company sooner and would have still had a chance at achieving the same large vision.

Here’s my story of how we built Compass with a big vision, and how we could have benefitted from more focus:

 

 

We started building Compass with the vision of powering creative freelance services for small businesses –  starting with web design. This was a big, broad vision, and we started out with a broad product in order to learn more about the problem we were solving.

Starting with a freelance web design marketplace, we were able to gain initial traction. In Entering 2016, we’d acquired roughly 100 customers who’d paid us to facilitate a web design project for them using our network of freelance web designers.

At that time, I would have described our core competency as “facilitating simple web design projects with freelancers,” which really broke down into the following four competencies:

  1. Vetting and matching web designers

  2. Collecting relevant information and content designers need for a project

  3. Facilitating website design feedback

  4. Website project quality assurance

In the “early traction” phase of our business, we became intimately familiar with the pain points and the complexities of each of these.

However, our response to understanding these discrete parts was to try to get better at all of them simultaneously, so that we could build the best freelance web design marketplace.

In hindsight, I didn’t realize how great of an opportunity this was. Being able to break down our initial idea into discrete parts wasn’t just a way of understanding what we needed to do well– it was an opportunity to narrow our focus to a problem that we understood better than most, and solve it better than anyone.

Any product that was fully dedicated to any of these four competencies could have turned into successful businesses in their own right had we focused on it. However, we missed this opportunity. Instead of narrowing our focus, we tried to improve our already broad product and continue to grow.

One of my favorite examples is #3: facilitating web design feedback. We’d built some of these features into our product, but it was never able to get the focus it deserved. Earlier this year, a product called Pastel launched as a standalone visual website feedback tool. It was almost identical to one of the features we’d built, but by focusing, they were able to build better features that we didn't get to. They are the best product I’ve seen for easy-to-use website feedback, and at a bare minimum, they will build a profitable business.

 
 Our internal product we built for facilitating visual web design feedback for our projects in mid-2016.

Our internal product we built for facilitating visual web design feedback for our projects in mid-2016.

 
 
 Pastel's product, launched November of 2017.

Pastel's product, launched November of 2017.

 

While this is easy to say in hindsight, the question remains: would focusing on doing a single thing compromise our vision? Isn’t it important to think big?

After all, our goal was not to create a small, profitable business – it was to create a business that could power a large portion of the freelance economy.

While it may be counterintuitive, starting small wouldn’t have compromised our vision, it actually would have increased our chances of achieving it.

Let me illustrate with an example of how we could have focused, started smaller, and still achieve our vision:

  1. Build the best visual website feedback tool in the market

  2. Get traction with web designers who make the product a part of their workflow, and become profitable

  3. Reinvest in building out other features that web designers need to run their projects, like “Collecting relevant information and content designers need for a project” (#2 from above), ensuring that they’re also world class.

  4. Continue to grow, attracting a critical mass of web designers, with data on their projects and skills

  5. With world-class features that handle the competencies needed to facilitate freelance web design projects, introduce a marketplace by generating leads for existing web design users.

If we’d taken this path, we would still have a world-class visual website feedback tool with a significant user base even if we had failed at everything that came after.

Instead, by remaining broad, everything felt like we were pushing a boulder up the hill. When we slipped and lost control of the boulder, it rolled all the way back to the bottom and the product we’d built ultimately had no value.

Therefore, this method of starting small not only would have helped us get traction more rapidly and given us a better chance of attaining our end goal, but it would have also been less risky. Had we been successful with the initial product that would have been a profitable, self-sustaining business line which could have been valued at a few million dollars. We would have found ourselves in a position of leverage, where we could have patiently come up with the most strategically sound way to level up.

Examples outside of Compass

I’ve been fortunate to also see this play out with some of my friends who have started companies around the same time I did. The companies that have experienced rapid, sustained growth are the ones that started by doing something that no one else is doing, or doing something better than anyone else. On the other hand, the companies that have been pushing a boulder up the hill are those with broad products that require multiple competencies.

The best examples are Banza (chickpea pasta) and Felix Gray (stylish glasses that protect your eyes from the harmful effects of screens).

Building a physical product forces you to be focused. For those who want a healthier alternative to pasta, Banza is one of the best products in the world. For those who experience eye pain from looking at screens all day, but don’t want to wear bulky glasses, Felix Gray has the best products in the world.

For both of these companies, being a world-class product for a very small, specific niche has led to really fast growth. From there, they’ve been able to think about how to expand their product lines.

My advice to my former self

To summarize this into advice I’d give my 23-year-old self, it would be this:

It’s ok to start broad. That’s how you discover more acute, niche opportunities that are not obvious. But you should be looking for that small, discrete, important competency that you can be the best in the world at by a significant margin. Ask yourself:

  • Is this a single thing, or does it break down into other core competencies?

  • Can I be the best in the world at it?

  • Do people care enough about this?

  • Do enough people care enough about this?

If the answer to these four questions is “yes”, then focusing maniacally at being the best at it will help you find product-market fit more quickly, be in a better position to achieve a bigger vision, and de-risk your business. It will put you in a much higher leverage position as an entrepreneur.

Essentially, things get easier when you get product-market fit on a smaller scale, quickly, rather than taking a long time to find product-market fit on a larger scale.

After all, it’s easier to penetrate a market with a spear.