Forced Focus

Stripe is one of history’s greatest startup success stories. Launched in 2010 by two brothers, the payment processor became a unicorn in just four years, with its valuation peaking at $95 billion in 2021. It also solves just one problem: It allows businesses to accept money online.

At its core, Stripe is a few lines of code, but it’s code anyone can use to get paid from a customer, for anything whatsoever, right on their own website. Stripe has solved this same problem billions of times for millions of people, and that’s why, on top of growing very big very fast, it is — and that’s unusual for startups — also profitable to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Yesterday, I talked to a group of fellow writers. I asked if anyone else struggled in sticking to their plans. Most of them confirmed. “Shiny object syndrome is real,” my friend Ayo said. Jon Brosio related Ship 30 for 30, a 30-day writing challenge that has produced millions in revenue: “They just do the same thing, over and over and over again. ‘Write one post a day for 30 days.’ That’s it. They get you from zero to writing every day for 30 days. Cohort after cohort after cohort. And that’s why it works.”

In theory, I understand that focus works. I’ve understood it since 2015. In practice, like most people, I struggle with it. For almost eight years, I’ve been writing almost every day, but in hopping from platform to platform, I’ve wasted a lot of my audience-building potential. The same with Four Minute Books vs. my other income streams. The thing that I paid the least attention to is the also the one thing that consistently made money.

As I was wondering about what Ayo and Jon had said, about the difference between startups and creators that lets one party focus more easily than the other, I came up with a theory: In growing their teams from one to ten to hundreds, eventually thousands of people, startups must constantly justify their existence to new employees. Every time you hire someone, you have to explain your mission to them — and you better sound convincing. Therefore, each hire is a chance to zone in on that vision. To get clear on it and remember: “Oh, yeah, this is what we’re trying to do.”

Of course, the more employees you have, the more structures you must create to hold everyone accountable to that same mission on an everyday basis as well. But for you as the founder, a constant barrage of new employees and customers will make sure you keep solving that same problem, because that’s what everyone wants you to do.

In the case of Ship 30 for 30, it’s the cohort-based system that does the same thing, Jon pointed out. When you’ve got a group of people chomping at the bit to start writing as soon as you’ve closed the door behind the last one, there’s not a lot of time to think, to brainstorm, to get lost in shiny object syndrome. “Help us write! Here we are!” Nothing keeps your attention in the present like clamoring customers.

Meanwhile, a writer, or any solo creator, really, will forever remain at the whim of their own brain, including its countless biases and fallacies. If you’re selling books on Amazon, you’ll likely never even talk to your customer, let alone do you have any employees. It’s a free-for-all up there, and your mind is more than happy to send you in all kinds of creatively exciting but economically unfruitful directions — and that is our challenge.

Startups have problems too, of course. They might hire too much or too little, fail to get funding or run out of cash, or, like the individual creator, get distracted and lose their customers along with their focus on the problem they initially so brilliantly solved.

But there is something about this forced focus that comes with external accountability that, to me, as someone who’s only ever suffered from distraction, sounds liberating, almost soothing. And I now realize my Trello board with milestones won’t cut it. Paper plans are cheap. My mind has tossed thousands of those out the window.

I don’t yet know what I’ll do about this, but I know it’s worth thinking about. Where are you hurting your progress on your main goal by dedicating too much time and energy to secondary, not-really-necessary endeavors? Where can you do less instead of more? And how can you build some forced focus around the big mission once you’ve settled on it?

I’m not sure it’s as big a problem as online payments, but these questions pose a challenge for many of us. Who knows? If you can solve them for people again and again, perhaps you’ll build the next unicorn — but of course, that’ll require some serious focus.