Don’t Drop The Baby


This XSeed blog was written by XSeed CapitalPartner, Robert Siegel, and originally appeared in The Accelerators blog of the Wall Street Journal.

One of the biggest challenges of technology businesses is maintaining a consistent focus on the critical activities that will help grow a company as quickly and sustainably as possible.

When a company is in its early stages, the confusion of determining product/market fit, combined with the challenges of building a team while developing a new technology can lead to confusion and sometimes a fatal lack of focus. As entrepreneurs embark on their journey and attempt to gain customer traction, they are sometimes tempted to go off-course and chase potential “partners” who may want a slight variation of a company’s initial product with only “a small amount of custom work.” At first blush, this can seem appealing as it can generate early revenue and serve as a lighthouse account that can lead to additional customers in the future.

Unfortunately, too often these side projects become expensive distractions. Not only do they take away from where the company is headed, but there are unintended consequences for taking on these projects: ongoing sales and customer service support is needed, engineering maintenance needs to be addressed and continued executive time is spent managing these partners which end up taking away from a startup’s primary task.

These challenges are not unique to startups. Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel, understood this better than any business leader for whom I had the privilege of working. He had a way of getting tens of thousands of employees to maniacally focus on whatever was the key issue confronting their business at a given moment in time. When I joined the company in 1994, if he asked anyone at the company, “What is Job One?” All Intel employees would reply (likely in unison): “Sell Pentium!” Andy wanted absolute clarity of thought for all employees on where everyone should be spending their time and what was the most important goal facing the firm.

One way for companies of all sizes to think about this linchpin challenge is to focus on “the big Xs” of their business. This expression comes from Six Sigma, a set of techniques and tools for the improvement of the manufactory process, developed by Motorola in 1986. Some of the most successful large companies in the world, including firms such as Amazon, Samsung, 3M and GE use the Six Sigma technique. While these sizable companies are radically different than most startups, the idea of bringing quality and focus through discipline and measured techniques can be a powerful mindset for firms of all sizes.

In Six Sigma methodology, a mathematical equation generates measured sales, profits, growth rate, etc. Figuring out “the big Xs” for a company is not always easy to do. Sometimes it is easier to think about what not to do — what projects a company should not undertake in order to stay focused. As with a business, focusing on what not to do can help a company figure out what it should do.

Ok, so what does any of the above have to do with not dropping the baby? When our oldest child was born my wife and I received a ton of advice from well-intentioned friends: We should use this car seat and not that other one, we should use this stroller and definitely not that one, we should put the baby on a fixed feeding schedule, we should feed the baby whenever she was hungry, we should let her cry herself to sleep, etc.

I quickly became very frustrated and annoyed. We were given books that would show how experienced doctors had studied thousands of children and come up with the right way to raise a child. Of course, other friends would give us other books from doctors that had studied thousands of children saying we should do the exact opposite of what the first doctor proposed. With my head spinning, I realized, however, that all doctors agreed on one thing:Don’t drop the baby. No matter what book I read, pretty much all pediatricians seemed to agree that it was really important not to drop the baby.

And I’ve realized that for every company, large or small, the ability to clearly articulate the most important thing for the organization is critical to maintain focus and figure out which items people should work on and which items to skip. So, choose your mantra: Focus on job one. Figure out “the big Xs.” Don’t drop the baby.