Based on my experience in starting and coaching new businesses, the one area most often linked to small business...
and startup failure is a gradual loss of focus. There are numerous reasons that can cause fledgling businesses to lose sight of the end game, but without a solid course correction, all eventually result in the same outcome. When focus is lost, the end is inevitable.
Let me elaborate on what I mean by staying focused, or what I think of as keeping an eye on the prize. You started with a vision or a concept of what you wanted to build as a business. You created a solid plan and probably even talked others into investing time and money in your dream. Throughout this process and up to this point, however, your new business endeavor has been mostly theoretical. You may have some prototypes or a small client base, but the goal you set for yourself was much larger -- a grand operational masterpiece. The vision of what lies way down the road is the prize.
The path between here and there will include a variety of situations that will cause one to lose sight of the prize. Let me detail a few of the more common ones.
Too much passion
I admit to being guilty of this a few times in my life. Great ideas often go hand in hand with great passion. But you can become too passionate about an idea and lose focus on the critical steps needed to make it happen. You know what this feels like, I am sure. You can't see past your own vision, a condition sometimes described as having one's head in the clouds. I have found that the best way to combat this is to bring others into the mix early. You need a trusted advisor, mentor or coach to bounce ideas off of and for someone to pull your feet down to the ground.
Too many visions spoil the deal
In small business launches, it is often the case that three or four individuals come up with the original vision together. There is nothing wrong with that, and, in fact, having partners can often make the whole experience much more enjoyable and have a higher likelihood of success. Unfortunately, it can just as often significantly increase the chances of losing a unified focus.
I was recently coaching a group of young entrepreneurs who had a fantastic idea. We met twice a week over the first three months. By the fourth month, I unfortunately had to tell them that I could no longer helpthem. For the first hour of every two-hour meeting, I had to remind and cajole them in to coming back to their unified and original vision. Every week, each one of them would go off on tangents that they swore would make their fantastic idea even better and that we must alter the plan immediately. Many of the tangents were actually great ideas, yet the original plan was the pre-requisite for them all. They disbanded a couple months later and now, a year down the road, we are seeing their idea come to life at the hands of a handful of others.
Expectations from investors
After you have received your funding and a reasonable time has passed in your timeline, the patience of your investor group will begin to run thin. It's just one of those inevitable things. With their thinning patience will come new expectations to move faster, or to take a look at this other company, or to add more people to the mix, et cetera. The list goes on and on and although some suggestions may be of actual help, most will be pure distractions. Maintain the focus. They have put money in and I don't know of any investors that are going to pull their money out before they even make it to the game.
Eye on the prize
Other causes of losing your focus may be less within your control. They include rapidly evolving technology, political circumstances and regulatory changes. And sometimes, passion wanes and you lose the energy to see it through. I have been there, it happens. Any of these roadblocks can cause you to miss that critical time-to-market window, or result in disjointed technology and/or user experiences, confused messaging and marketing campaigns and, of course, failure to launch at all.
Inoculate against startup failure
So here is what I do for each vision that I am trying to see to fruition. I start by writing a very concise vision statement. One sentence or a few words that best describes the prize at the end of this race. I write it down on a small card and carry it with me wherever I go. Then later, when the team is growing and things are becoming real, I plaster it on the wall somewhere with strict instructions for it never to be removed or erased. See it, say it, do it! Whenever you feel focus start to blur, revisit the vision statement. Keeping your eye on the prize will help you weather most storms on your path to success.
About the author:
When he's not starting new businesses, Bryan Barringer is an independent enterprise mobility consultant and speaker, specializing in mobility, user adoption, UX/UI design, customer acquisition, product design/management and strategy and business development. Most recently at FedEx, he was in charge of evaluating mobile solutions for operations and sales professionals and leading FedEx Services' Office of Mobility and Collaboration.
For more concrete advice from SearchCIO's small business columnist on how to get your small business off the ground, check out his columns on convincing investors your startup is worth their money, raising the funds for your business concept and the benefits of crowdsourcing.