When beginners attend auto racing or high performance driving school, they are taught that drivers tend to go where they’re looking and, where they look is usually only 10-15 feet in front of their vehicle. I see this all the time as I’m riding my bike. While cycling on the right side of a shoulder, a passing car will wonder into the shoulder right where I’m riding even when there’s no oncoming traffic. I know that the driver is looking at me, even thinking that he/she should avoid me. Nonetheless, because they’re looking at me, they tend to steer that way (just because you’re paranoid . . . ). High performance drivers are taught to look much further out and to strategically optimize their driving around a point further ahead and to let their natural tendency to steer where they’re looking take them to where they want to end up, instead of just reacting to what they see directly in front of them.
Things are similar with startups. It’s often easy to get caught with your head down, focused on near-term problems and opportunities while ignoring the big picture and where the new enterprise should be headed. As with focusing on what’s happening on the road directly in front of you, when you solely focus on the myriad of short-term problems you have to deal with, they will consume your thoughts, energy and time. You will be constantly drawn towards them. Soon, the startup’s strategy will become less strategic and more tactical.
Here are a few short-term issues that I see grabbing the attention of startups all the time:
- features, features and more features – yeah, you have to add features to your product, you simply can’t (and don’t want to) add every requested feature all at once. There are two problems that come to mind here, one is that if you don’t step back and ask yourself if the feature moves you toward your strategic goal before implementing it, you run the risk of wasting very precious time and, two, if you focus all your attention on features at the expense of architecture, you can build a house of cards that will fail miserably later. Each feature should be weighed in the context of the product’s goals before time is spent on it.
- reaction versus response – when a startup has only a handful of customers, it’s easy for it to get distracted by the feedback it gets from any one of them. It’s easy to react to every call, email and tweet regarding the product and to try to address the needs or wants of the few people who seem to be paying attention. It’s important that the startup keep in mind, as with features, spending time with early users is valuable inasmuch as the feedback is taken in perspective. Is the customer the target customer, for example? If not, you may spend your time reacting to feedback that doesn’t help you land the kind of customers you’re trying to get.
- the technology itself – loads of startups end up getting caught in the vortex of the underlying technology at the expense of marketing or gathering customer input. Often, because that’s what the founders really know well. The product is required, of course, but is just not sufficient. Simply put, it is highly unlikely you can engineer a perfect product that will dazzle your customers and meet their needs on its first pass. Product development is much more than technology development and needs to include data from the market and from potential customers. Only when you have a complete package of technology, target customer input and market information do you have a real shot at delivering a successful product.
There are many more factors that cause startups to eschew strategy for tactics. A founding team needs to set a course based on a point reasonably far ahead and not optimize around what is happening now. That, of course, doesn’t mean that it can ignore what is taking place near-term. A good driver uses his/her peripheral vision to observe what’s happening close to the vehicle. Similarly, a startup needs to treat short-term tactics seriously, but only within the scope of the longer-term strategy. Longer term isn’t 10 years. That’s just not reasonable or even possible. But a year or two is reasonable with even a few brain cells reserved for thinking out even further.
Keep in mind, you steer where you’re looking. Steer the company toward a point in the reasonable future while keeping an eye on what’s happening today and you’ll find that you will encounter fewer mistakes, less rework and a smoother path to success.