All Sections

Ask the Expert -- Beyond shiny things: Focus is key for startups

Special to the Union Leader

May 06. 2018 9:49PM


One of the most frequent problems I see for founders of startups has to do with their focus. Some simply try too many things. Others aim for too large of an audience.

And finally some founders never get past the fun of thinking about doing something amazing to actually working on it. Not much can be done about dreamers, but the other two problems of focus can be addressed.

A surprising number of startup founders are trying to launch multiple startups at the same time.

For some there is an idea that if they pitch multiple different ideas, one will stick with investors and that is the one they should pursue. This never works. Many times, however, it isn’t an investment strategy so much as a penchant for tinkering with the next shiny object. If you find yourself in this situation ask yourself, if I am so quick to move on to other ideas do I really have passion and interest in my projects? What am I really trying to accomplish?

Pick the idea/project/startup that inspires you, and that you can validate has a reasonable business model, market, competitive landscape, etc. If you discover that it is a fun idea, but not a viable business you have your other projects to investigate. One at a time. Spreading your resources across multiple endeavors is a recipe for failure for everyone but Elon Musk, a person with shocking intellect, money, and drive. The rest of us are not Mr. Musk.

Some founders dismiss this as simply not being willing to do what is hard. There is a difference between trying to do the impossible, and trying to do everything at once. Finding a way to do the impossible is a great foundation for any startup. That is not the same as spreading yourself and your resources too thin.

When launching a startup we tend to have many grand plans, and can imagine how just about everyone will love/want/need our offering. We get so wrapped up in that vision that we can lose focus on what we need to accomplish today, this week, or this quarter.

If we tried to sell to and market to everyone not only would it be far too expensive, but our message wouldn’t resonate. Instead we focus on specific customer segments. Customer segments are discrete groups who have the same set of qualities that make them an appropriate target. We need to know enough about them so you can find them, appeal to them, and ultimately sell to them.

The difficulty is that different customer segments will have different pains or needs. Messaging that works for one will not likely work, or work as well, for another.

Take for example selling amazing tomato sauce. It may seem like anyone who would buy tomato sauce is a customer you should target. Consider though, that there may be many segments to offer to.

Individuals who are looking for high-end food items; independent restaurants; chain restaurants; grocery stores; white label channels; other food manufacturers who need the ingredient for their food items; etc.

The process to sell to them includes price, value proposition, identifying the buyer to contact, etc.,will likely be so different that one approach will never work for all.

The real trouble with trying to sell to everyone is not only the inefficiency of it but that it burns through the two most valuable assets a startup funder has at the most critical time. Those assets being time and money. Dividing up your small initial startup cash to conquer the world one penny at a time will produce virtually no result.

It will, however, take up a lot of your time.

Focus on a small group to start. Maybe it is a subset of the larger market you will be ultimately going after. Perhaps that group is a specific geographic region.

Learn how to perfect your startup offering with them. Get to the point when your customers love your product and would be upset if you shut down. Then own that small market. Use that growth as fuel to grow more and identify the next market to target.

Are you trying to boil the ocean or own and learn from a focused market? Is the customer segment you are targeting really just one customer segment, or are there multiple groups in there that could each need their own specific sales approach and marketing message?

Are you trying to juggle too many startups at once, or do you have passion for one and are you willing to focus on it alone?

Joshua Cyr runs the startup accelerator, Accelerate NH, at Alpha Loft, a strategic initiative of the New Hampshire High Tech Council. Joshua has previously owned small businesses, worked in marketing agencies, and co-founded a software startup. He can be found on twitter @jcyr or email

Ask The Expert

New Hampshire Highland Games
Friday, 9 a.m. - 9 p.m.,
Saturday, 8 a.m. - 9 p.m.,
Sunday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Full Throttle Weekend
Saturday, 8 a.m.

Portsmouth Fairy House Tour
Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.

Thomas Rhett
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.