Startup Founders, Focus! (Yeah, but on what?)

Paul O'Brien
3 min readMay 25


Focus. We hear that word and advice bantered about A LOT in the startup community but rarely is that mentorship capably followed up with WHAT to focus on, and why.

This is what contributes to founders wasting time and failing. You think the advice is helpful; it’s not, it’s distracting.

Focus? Yes. But on what??

Most of the advice I hear given is misleading.

  • “Focus on customers,” okay, but which ones??
  • “Focus on fundraising,” sure… but that take a lot of time and attention. What happens if it doesn’t manifest, and we spent our focus trying?
  • “Focus on the product,” well that’s just dumb, if I’m being blunt. What if no one wants it or it’s flawed?

Focus on the wrong thing in this regard (As a startup founder mind you, this doesn’t apply to business owners or working professionals), causes waste that will burn you out and cause failure.

Focus On What?

Focus on the PROBLEM. Be fixated on the problem. Nurture an addiction to the problem so great you need to snort it.

Not, the solution, Paul?

The mistake most make, and where many, particularly many investors in being horrible at advising, is that “focus” does NOT mean focus on making your solution work! You get misled by the notion that you need to prove the solution can work because of requests for traction as evidence but you can’t ever prove anything will work as a company, because the solution alone isn’t a company. What you can do, all you can do, is incessantly focus on creating value by serving the challenges inherent in problem.

* Odds are ridiculously high that that solution won’t work, and the startup will fail *

So, what do you do? Focus on the problem so that all of your efforts, distractions, pivots, and executions contribute to creating value serving the challenges inherent in the problem.

Two things tend to happen when you focus on the solution (or something other than the problem):

  1. Focusing on the solution causes founders to waste time on things that *aren’t working* and therefore are wasteful.
  2. Losing focus on the problem causes the team to start chasing other opportunities unrelated to the problem; grasping at straws because you’ll take on anything that “seems” to help.

Operating Businesses (which aren’t startups!) focus on the solutions: delivering the solution to customers, serving customers with that, and profiting (and yes, I mean profiting, not making money, because an operating business can focus on reducing costs and earning revenue = profit).

Startups must focus on the problem because you can’t yet depend on the reliability or opportunity in whatever solution you’re providing at the moment.

Distracting yourself from solving the problem, to sell what you’re doing now to any customers or to chase a new opportunity that’s exciting but unrelated, is a COST — a distraction from adding experience, data, market share, or revenue, from within the same focus as the problem.

Stay focused such that everything you are doing is aligned to continuing to overcome the problem, whatever that takes, and as a result, all of your effort, even if/when not specifically what you want to be doing, supports your mission of solving the problem and building a sustainable, competitive, valuable company

Next time ANYONE advises you to simply “focus,” ask them:
1. On what?
2. Why?
3. How?

Because, if they can’t answer those 3 questions in a way that is actually helpful toward you creating value from working the problem, then their advice is distracting (and likely wrong).



Paul O'Brien

CEO of MediaTech Ventures, CMO to #VC, #Startup Advisor. I get you funded. Father, marketer, author, #Austin. @seobrien & @AccelerateTexas.