On Startup Focus and Founder Distractions

Jeff Solomon
8 min readJul 13, 2023

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How the smallest deviation from the plan can have monumental negative effects on the entire org.

Over nearly 30 years as an entrepreneur, I’ve learned a lot through trial and error. I’ve had mentors at various stages in my career, but mentorship, particularly for entrepreneurs, is a relatively new concept. In recent years various mentor platforms have popped up for almost every field, entrepreneurship being a popular one. Sites like clarity.fm and Mentorcruise are proving to be an incredible resource for entrepreneurs and founders of all types.

While I’ll never stop undertaking my own entrepreneurial journeys, I’ve found mentoring others to be highly rewarding and a nice source of low overhead cashflow for me. In 13 years I’ve worked with over 1000 entrepreneurs, founders, product people, and tech professionals. For real, that’s not an exaggeration (here are some metrics):

Clarity.fm — 637 calls
Mentorcruise — 22 mentees
Mentorcam — 5 mentees
Direct (via bak.me) — 162 video calls
Udemy (via my online course) — 211 students

Book a call with me on clarity.fm

Plus, I’ve worked with 115 high school students via a semester-long, full-credit entrepreneurship course at Brentwood School in Los Angeles which I developed from scratch and taught for the past 8 years.

So yeah, I dig mentorship. And I think just about everyone I’ve worked with will confirm I’ve provided them with a ton of value.

One thing I’m really good at is coming up with feedback, experiences, and strategies on-the-fly with minimal information and context. I think this is what most of my mentees would say is my greatest skill. In 30 minutes I’m able to distill a situation, needs, and potential for almost everyone I speak with and come up with actionable feedback at the moment.

In other words, I listen intently and get to the point quickly.

For the most part, as an entrepreneur, I’ve been through so much, and have seen others go through almost everything else. From venture funding, product-market fit, customer development, operations, founder issues, cashflow management, marketing, revenue growth, product, sales, legal, et al. I’m a hardcore generalist, so I have at least some helpful feedback for almost every situation.

Most of the time I find myself sharing a lot of the same experiences and strategies, but occasionally I find myself dropping a nugget that even surprises me. This happened just yesterday in a mentorship meeting with a founder and his executive team of five.

I’ll start with some context around one of the most common issues for founders and startups. Focus.

Lack of focus is probably the most negatively impactful factor of startup failure. Too many entrepreneurs try to do too many things at best doing all of them with mediocrity. Startup success is largely achieved by doing one thing really really well.

Someone once told me “you can only sit on one toilet at a time”. This couldn’t be more true for startups, entrepreneurs, and founders.

When I remind founders about this fact it never comes as a surprise. It’s pretty obvious and intuitive for most people. But here’s the rub. Here’s the little nugget that dawned on me yesterday.

☝ Whatever a founder focuses on, the rest of the company focuses on, even if they don’t realize it.

In any startup, there are two types of distractions that cause a reduction in focus. There are company distractions and founder distractions.

Company distractions are those things that the company decides to work on that split focus. This could be working on multiple products at once. Or targeting too many verticals. Or working on partnerships. Or fundraising. Basically, anything that everyone knows is being worked on, whether everyone agrees with it or not.

Founder distractions are both subtle and dubious. These are the things that a founder decides to work on that are outside the scope of the company's agreed-upon core focus. On the surface, it may seem obvious that such distractions are detrimental because the founder is the key player in the organization and anything they are distracted by affects the whole company.

But it’s way more problematic than this.

I say that whatever the founder spends time on is the distraction that the rest of the company will lose focus from. In other words, when the founder spends on something that’s not the core focus of the business, they are inadvertently causing others in the organization to spend time on that, even if the founder thinks it’s an isolated activity.

The founder is the quarterback, if the quarterback is focused on anything other than the play at hand, the team will be distracted.

This happens constantly in startups. Here are some examples.

Let me say first that this article assumes that the company has already set the priority and focus for the business and is doing a good job at doing that and only that. If this hasn’t been done, then nothing else should matter.

Example #1 — Product Ideas

As the founder, you constantly think of new product ideas and features. You don’t want to distract the core team on this (good thinking) so you start working with an outside resource to scope some things out. This outside resource is also working with the marketing team on an initiative. Soon enough the product team hears about this new idea.

If you have a laser-focused team, then this will likely cause irritation and maybe even resentment. If you have a passionate team, they might find the new idea intriguing. Either way, they’re already distracted.

This compounds as more discussions happen. Eventually, it comes up in a product meeting as something the company may do in the future, but you tell everyone not to focus on it. You continue to spend more time on the idea, in a vacuum you think, maybe have a sleepless night thinking about it. In short order, this innocuous side project has become a subconscious thorn in the productive side for just about everyone at the company.

☝ Things change. It’s a fact. Better ideas come along that require re-prioritizing and re-focusing the company. That’s fine. But you need to be disciplined in the approach to change management.

This applies to little things like making a button red instead of blue and big things like building a saas platform instead of building a consumer app. Both changes are impactful, so when something comes along that makes a lot of sense, have a process in place to evaluate a change and make sure the entire org is supporting it before just embarking on a little experimentation.

Example #2 — New Markets

You’ve done good work collecting data and you’ve decided your initial target market should be X. But your founder is in a meeting with investors and they suggest market Y could also be a good one. You graciously agree but try to sway them back to X. Your investors are persuasive, pushy even, they’re anxious because your product isn’t live yet. Yadda.

They convince you, and you compromise, to do a little digging into Y and report back. You are focused so you go to your assistant or utility player to help with the research. They get stuck and go to the head of marketing for help. And so it goes.

☝ All of these examples assume you, the founder, is incredibly disciplined by default and you at least make an effort to isolate your larger team from the distraction. That’s rarely the case so most of you probably go right to the most impactful resource in the company as soon as the idea pops into your head.

That’s way worse obviously.

Example #3 — Partnerships

You’re heads-down on building and launching your MVP. You start stressing about how to launch your product; how to get users; how to grow revenue. All important stuff of course and much of that should be talked about and worked on as part of your core focus. After you’ve done all that and have a go-to-market plan, you read an article on TC about how partner A massively helped partner B grow. You think that’s the missing ingredient to your launch strategy. You bring the idea to your head of marketing.

They push back and say let’s back burner this until the product is launched. You agree, but secretly you’re back-channeling to various companies about a partnership. One bites and wants you to prepare some materials and do a quick presentation on the product vision. Now you’re marketing team is making Powerpoints and product is building a custom demo for a product that doesn’t even work yet. C’est la vie.

☝ Let me caveat that none of this thinking is bad. In the grand scheme of things, as a founder, you’ll need to come up with a million ideas for products, features, marketing, partnerships, and everything else to win at the startup game.

But you can only do so much so fast. Get in the habit of putting ideas on the back burner, just build a list of potential things and check it weekly against your core assumptions driving your current priority and focus.

Example #4 — Marketing Initiatives

You’ve got a go-to-market plan. You’ve built a budget around the specific initiatives you have confidence will work, or at least are the worthiest to try first. One night you’re life partner sees a clever TikTok story that’s really an ad and you have an epiphany. We should add TikTok to our rollout strategy. You likely forgot the hour-long session your team had about why it doesn’t make sense to try TikTok initially but long term it could be a good marketing source for the business.

You engage your finance head to build a quick model on TikTok marketing and maybe even toy with some creative ideas with a freelance resource. At the same time, your Marketing Director needs to work on some numbers with finance on the Youtube strategy and can’t get time on the calendar for 3 days because they’re boondoggling on your TikTok stuff. That’s a +1 for distractions.

☝ All of this is a general guideline for increasing the probability of success in a startup. I’m sure you’ve read all the articles about how unlikely it is for any startup to win by default. The cards are stacked against you. In my experience, the best you can do is optimize the odds of success.

The idea of staying focused on the one thing you think (and have data to support) is the best-known path will increase you’re chances of success. But every startup path is hella wonky. When you look back, and from a birdseye view, you will see all kinds of twists and turns. But when you’re in the thick of it, especially early on, less is almost always more.

The list goes on, and you see the problem. Even these obtuse examples demonstrate that the smallest founder distraction can wreak havoc.

So I can’t stress it enough. Pick a focus, base that focus on as much customer development as possible, then stay focused. As a founder your actions cause waves throughout the organization, so it’s up to you to keep everything and everyone pointed in the right direction.

Want to take a call with me? Book directly on my website at https://bak.me.

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Jeff Solomon

Entrepreneur & 6x founder @velocify @amplifyla @markuphero @audiojoyapps @geekingapp | Teacher. Advisor. Content Creator. Product. Marketing. Startups. Dad.