How to Maintain Focus Behind the Wheel of a High-Growth Startup

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Living in Boston and traveling as frequently as I do (California, New York, Seattle, Atlanta, etc.), I don’t get to drive my car as often as I’d like. To me, driving is liberating. I like being in control of where I go and how I get there, which reminds me a little bit of building and growing a software business.

Think about it.

We “engineer” growth. We “step on the gas” to “accelerate” revenue. We “look in the rearview mirror” to evaluate past performance and “gauge” the future. And we rely on “dashboards” to tell us everything we need to know about the operational and strategic effectiveness of the business.

To be more specific, here are a few key car components that relate to important business tools, practices, or processes:

  • GPS = Goals, objectives, metrics, etc.
  • Rearview and sideview mirrors = Quarterly operating reviews
  • Dashboard (speedometer, fuel gauge, etc.) = CRM, marketing automation, etc.
  • Gas/brake pedals = Hiring, sales and marketing investment, etc.

I’m sure there are several other comparisons to be made, but there’s one big component missing from that list: the windshield, which happens to be a very convenient metaphor for a company’s aspirations (or mission, vision, and values) and its external view of the market (customers, competitors, opportunities, etc.).

Common Startup CEO Mistake: Focusing Too Much on the Dashboard Instead of Keeping Your Eyes on the Road

There’s a reason your windshield is larger than any other component in the car. Without it, you wouldn’t know where you were going, you certainly wouldn’t be able to avoid all of those “bumps in the road.”

No sane person drives a car by staring into the rearview or sideview mirrors, playing around with buttons on the dashboard, or fidgeting with the GPS (unless they have a death wish). Instead, we drive our cars by looking through the windshield and paying close attention to what’s happening outside of the car.

So, why do so many CEOs invest a disproportionate amount of their time on the internal operations of the business?

I’ve found that to be a bigger issue for founding CEOs, who justifiably spend the early months and years of their business’s growth ensuring the integrity of the company’s product, culture, and team. In the startup phase, it’s important to get those things right or the business will never really go anywhere. Once it comes time to scale, however, it’s a totally different scenario.

Maintaining External vs. Internal Focus is Critical When You’re Scaling

I spend a lot of time advising OpenView’s portfolio of expansion-stage CEOs to focus more on what’s happening outside their proverbial car (to understand their customers, competitors, market segments, etc.) than on the internal components (people, products, processes, etc.). The latter is obviously important even as a business scales, but it really only matters if the company is actually pointed in the right direction.

This only becomes more critical as a business goes faster and looks further into the future. When you’re driving a car 5 MPH in an empty parking lot very little damage can be done. If you want to be foolish and drive with your head down — focusing on your phone, the radio, the GPS, or any other distraction — the worst case scenario might be hitting an abandoned shopping cart.

When you’re driving 70 MPH on a crowded highway with a car full of people, however, everything changes. Total awareness of your surroundings becomes critical. Take your eyes off the road — even for a second to deal with an internal distraction — or deviate slightly from your course, and the results could be disastrous.

3 Key Things to Focus On

High growth startup management is fraught with competing priorities and potential distractions. How can you avoid letting them steer you off the road? Here are the three key things you should focus on:

  • Your best customers: Targeting any old customer won’t cut it. You need to identify and understand your best (aka most profitable, vocal, referenceable, etc.) customers. That can be done through effective customer segmentation and buyer insights research. For more on the those topics, I highly recommend reading OpenView’s eBook, Finding Your Best Customer: A Guide to Best Current B2B Customer Segmentation.
  • Your target market: Much of what I wrote above applies here, too. But beyond your best current customers, it’s also important to understand the broader target market those customers live in. See my series of posts on how to do that by clicking here.
  • Your competitors: When you’re a smaller expansion-stage company in an established market, you can’t afford to spend and invest like the larger incumbents you’re trying to beat. You’ve got to be smarter about how and where you attack their weaknesses — and you can’t ever let your guard down. Ever drive a car in Boston at rush hour? It’s a little like that. For more on how to slay your market’s goliath through smarter, leaner execution, check out this eBook from the OpenView team.

Photo by: Hector Garcia