How do you get a camel?
Design a horse by committee.
It’s an old joke that illuminates an important point in the process of making something, whether it’s a car or a company. It doesn’t matter how smart the people in the room are. If there is no unifying purpose, you won’t end up with the outcome you need.
In the tech world, I see camels made all the time: companies that want to address every pain point of every potential customer or add a feature just because they can, whether anyone has asked for it or not. They have goals but no vision. These companies waste resources, talent, and time, three things that are already in short supply in the startup world. They have a lot of exciting press releases but not a lot of excited customers. All because they do too much.
As obvious as sticking to an underlying plan sounds, it’s harder than you’d think. As a company grows, so do its capabilities and ambitions. Distractions like new technology or new investors can be energizing. Some opportunities are worth running with. But, if they aren’t aligned with your organizational purpose, they can be toxic to your company. As a leader, you have to be able to tell the difference.
Never lose sight of the ultimate goal
If you try to do too much, you’ll end up being okay at a lot of things. But to run a successful business, okay doesn’t cut it. You have to be good enough that your product and customer experience is a differentiator in an already-crowded tech space.
As CEO of JotForm, much of my job is creating the narrative of the company and making it indelible on my employees and my customers. A clear, compelling vision is imperative to achieving results. A narrow focus allows you to leverage the unique skills and capabilities of your team and differentiate yourself in the market. Simple messaging resonates with customers, improving trust, which is vital to longevity.
Beyond your relationship with customers, being driven by your company’s original purpose unifies the organization and clarifies your decision-making processes, from marketing messages to hiring. Being specific about your purpose as a company allows you to quickly evaluate opportunities on standardized metrics. If it serves your primary focus, great. If not, leave it.
Being purpose-driven from the start is ideal, but it’s never too late to find your “why.” It can be a big strategy shift and lead to some employee attrition, but that’s a good thing. You want to have a team that is aligned with your reason for being, people who are as enthusiastic about your mission as you are. It’s also a good way to attract talent. Millennials are willing to compromise on areas such as compensation in order to do mission-driven work.
What’s better than being trendy? Being useful
When I first started JotForm 14 years ago, I set out to make a product that made robust online forms easy and intuitive for our customers. In the beginning, it was easy to stay focused. We had limited time and resources, and we needed all of them in order to do that one thing well.
As we grew, the freedom I expected from more revenue and a bigger staff to implement never came. I saw potential in so many different ideas and opportunities that it felt paralyzing. I wanted to take advantage of every new technology that hit the market. Who knows if this would be the thing that made the difference?
Of course, this mindset is self-defeating. JotForm has established itself as a leader in the market as much for the things we did do as the things we didn’t. We focused on steady, sustainable growth, which is impossible if you’re always chasing the next big thing.
It can sometimes be hard to sit out a trend. Trends are energizing. They come with attention and money. But they also distract you from your core mission and don’t last. If new technology can improve the experience for your customers, go for it. Otherwise, focus on being useful over being trendy. Your customers don’t care about what VCs are saying this week. They care that your product does what they expect it to do well. That one thing is worth more than any TechCrunch feature.
Don’t be afraid to let go
We all make mistakes. It’s how we learn. But, that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to let go of whatever is draining our resources. That is for two reasons.
The first is the sunk cost fallacy. The sunk cost fallacy is the tendency for people to continue investing resources into something because they’ve already spent time or money on it. The underlying concept is that you’re wasting money by stopping the pursuit of that option, even if it would waste even more money to continue.
The second is the endowment effect, which is our tendency to overvalue the things we already have. Psychologists think it’s because as people, we are generally loss-averse and place a high value on the idea of ownership. Basically, we resist letting go of things simply because they are ours, whether they have any true value to us or not.
It’s human nature to avoid wasting resources and to hold onto what you have — it’s baked into our survival instincts — but it’s important to know when the weight is making you stronger and when it’s dragging you down. To avoid sticking with a failing strategy, allow room for doubt and dissent on your team. Regularly evaluate what’s working and what’s not. Though to many successful people quitting feels like failure, freeing up resources to try something else is an indicator of agility and strong leadership.