As a long-time business consultant and investor, especially to entrepreneurs, I recognize your sparkle of vision, to build the ultimate world-changing product. Every one of you sees yourself as the next Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or maybe even Steve Jobs.
Yet most of us succumb after a time to the short-term pressures of growing a business, and the long-term vision gets pushed aside.
Of course, it takes both short and long-term focus to survive, but I see too many businesses fall into some common product maladies, which ultimately keep them from becoming a unicorn, or achieving the level of disruptive change they initially envisioned. I found these maladies summarized well in a new book, Radical Product Thinking, by entrepreneur Radhika Dutt.
Radhika teaches entrepreneurship and innovation, and advises organizations around the world on how to build radical products that create a fundamental change instead of optimizing the status quo.
I agree with her seven “product diseases,” where the business execution challenges steal the focus away from that grand vision and holy grail that you all started out pursuing:
1. Hero syndrome – focusing on scale versus impact.
Everyone, especially your investors, wants high-growth, higher-return decisions, to make them a hero sooner. The trouble is that disruptive change usually takes more time, and scales slower than most people expect. Thus you are driven to short-term growth fixes versus radical change.
For example, a few years ago, the company Beepi had a vision to build a new market for buying and selling used cars, but became overly focused on fundraising to grow fast, and ignored many customer complaints. While the idea was great, they failed on execution.
2. Strategic swelling – more features than any other.
It’s easy to say “yes” to one more feature request after another, until the potential for real impact gets diluted. You spread yourself so thin across many areas, and don’t achieve any one goal at a breakthrough level. The solution is never to forget that initial clear purpose that translates into priorities.
Yahoo has been an example of a company which expanded in all directions through 53 acquisitions, to the point where most customers were confused, and it was overtaken by Google as your main search engine. Make sure your vision is clear and communicated.
3. Obsessive sales – must meet revenue goals.
As your startup starts to generate returns, you will recognize the pressure of quarterly revenue goals, with qualified big customer prospects needing just one more small change to close. It suddenly and consistently seems reasonable to trade off long-term goals for survival in the short term.
4. Metrics for everything.
This malady is focusing on “measurable” outcomes to determine success, rather than your goal of long-term change. To know what to measure, you need to remember what you’re actually trying to achieve. Don’t be over-reliant on measuring everything, and forget the breakthrough vision and strategy.
My advice is to focus on a handful of high-level metrics that matter, and are simple and relevant to organizational objectives. Tune out the stuff that could be impactful but isn’t actionable, as well as the stuff that’s actionable but not related to your impact and vision.
5. Locked-in syndrome – do what worked in the past.
Don’t commit to a technique, technology, or approach just because you have related expertise or because it has worked in the past. Always explore alternative solutions that might work better to achieve the impact you are hoping for. Focus on the real problem, rather than a favorite solution.
6. Pivotitis – keep pivoting till we get it right.
Directional changes in the face of a problem often result in wild swings in product offerings and customer segments, causing confused, demoralized, and exhausted teams. Sometimes the right solution is to push through problems, or at least first redefining your vision, strategy, and action plan.
7. Narcissus complex – look inward to see what helps.
Don’t lose focus on the customer, or open opportunities for competitors to pass you by with your own disruptive change. When you look first inward, you tend to measure yourself by internal benefits instead of the impact on the world. You may win the near-term battle but lose the war.
These business maladies can all be cured by starting with a clear vision of where you are going, and translating it to drive your everyday activities, rather than letting business issues drive your vision.
Otherwise, your most innovative and disruptive product thinking will be diluted and lost, killing your dream of a better world. Now is the time to develop a new mindset and stick to it.