Focus is the magic word

In search of a topic for my first blog entry I remembered an interview given by Jan Koum, co-founder of Whatsapp, at the DLD conference in Munich just a few weeks before the company was acquired by Facebook. The interview struck a chord because it illustrated in the flesh what I consider to be one of the most important traits of a successful entrepreneur: focus. Or more specifically, the ability to articulate a clear and distinctive vision for a product, and to relentlessly concentrate the company’s activities on pursuing that vision.

Why is focus important? Every entrepreneur operates in a resource constrained environment. He needs to decide which ideas to pursue, and which ones to abandon. Being focused does not mean being blinkered. In the early stages of a venture when the team is trying to establish product-market fit, extensive testing and experimentation is a vital part of the process. The product vision is still formed and a team that is focused concentrates its activities on creating a strong MVP and tracking the right KPIs to demonstrate product-market fit. Capital requirements at this stage are minimal, and so is the opportunity cost of trying out new ideas and features. Focused teams are lean and disciplined (i.e. data driven) at this stage, and excel at solving one particular problem dramatically better than anyone else before them. Unfocused teams create a glut of new features, cluttering the application and distorting the original product vision beyond recognition.

On stage with Wired editor David Rowan, Jan highlighted that Whatsapp is “a basic utility…the simplicity of the product and the utility of the product is what really drives us. We want to have that simple, pure messaging experience.” More importantly, though, he was fully aware of his current priorities: “Someday in the future we will focus on monetisation but today we are more interested in making sure that those people who sign up have a great user experience. That the service always works. They have an application that is fast, that does not always crash, that is reliable. Because every single message counts.” At that stage, Jan’s team consisted of 50 employees in total – 25 engineers and another 20 focused on multi-lingual customer support. Whatsapp was processing around 50 billion messages a day. He left no room for froth.

While this left me impressed, the pivotal moment arrived when David Rowan attempted to draw comparisons between Whatsapp and Snapchat. “We are focused on messaging”, Jan stated, “we are not focused on being an advertising network or a gaming network or a disappearing photo network.” David dug deeper: “But if I want to send a photo and I want that photo to disappear, I cannot use Whatsapp.” Jan laconically replied: “That is the beauty of an open and free market system. You can download another application that lets you do that.” The audience was understandably bemused. And I had just learned an invaluable lesson.

As an investor, I draw comfort from founders who like Jan have the discipline and focus to set clear priorities for the business and allocate their resources accordingly. Of course, entrepreneurs need peripheral vision to retain their edge. Focus does not mean being blinkered. But one should beware the surrounding noise drowning out one’s vision for a product, and the pursuit of simplicity and elegance when solving a problem for a customer. Jan understands that less is more, and that he does not have to address every possible use case to succeed. The market will eventually take care of it.

You can watch the full DLD interview with Jan Koum here.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my personal views and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of Digital Science.

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