Flexibility or Focus…The Founders Dilemma

Yesterday afternoon I had yet another opportunity to participate in a Tiger Session for one of my clients.   Well, I didn’t so much participate as much as spectate and facilitate as our 4 carefully selected tigers went to work tearing into my client. 

One of Ben Franklin Technology Partners signature value-adds is our Tiger Session.  We identify a particular crossroads issue with one of our clients.  The client prepares and presents a slide deck that provides the background necessary for the tigers to help the founders think through that particular issue.  However, I always advise my clients that all aspects of the business will be on the table.  Just because we’re going to try to focus on sales strategy doesn’t mean the rest of your business is off the table.  Oh, no.  It’s open kimono time and yesterday was a prime example.

For confidentiality, I can’t really describe the company for you, but it really doesn’t matter for my point here.  The tigers, however, were unbelieveably outstanding.  Marketing consultant John Chaya, former McKinsey consultant and Originate Ventures co-founder Eric Arnson, Inflection Point’s Jeff Davison and legendary Fred Beste.  (If you link to anything, link to the Fred Beste piece.  It is a bit dated, but describes the Tiger Session way better than I will here.)

The group of Tigers have absolutely no stake in the success of the company.  Their willingness to spend three hours during and a few hours before the session is extraordinarily gracious.  It is amazing to me how such aggressive challenging of almost every aspect of my client’s business plan could be done with such love and caring.

I warn all my clients entering the session, “You probably won’t get more than a minute or two into your presentation before you’ll be challenged on things”.  True to form, the challenging began BEFORE the presentation began.  As the Tigers introduced themselves, one acknowledged that neither of the two founder’s business cards indicated who was CEO.  One is Founder and COO and the other is Founder and CTO.  This was perhaps the most precisely accurate shot between the eyes ever, metaphorically speaking, and it opened into the immediate soul-searching type of event I’d come to expect.  The company’s target markets, margins, marketing strategy, product mix…virtually every aspect of the company, was laid bare for examination.  But the point of this post was what dominated the final half-hour of discussion…how does a founding team know when to stay relentlessly focused on their pre-calculated target and when do they stray a bit to chase down the inevitable tangent opportunities that arise?

I heard Guy Kawasaki speak once and one of his 10 slides said “Let 1,000 flowers bloom.”.   (read the whole thing at the link, not just #6!)  I think his point may be the answer to the “Be flexible or be focused” question.  I think the answer is “Be flexible enough to see your focus”.  My client in the Tiger session has a product that could become a platform for a series of branded products.  They’ve launched a first product as a consumer product, but there are significant business-to-business sales opportunities available to them.  One of the founders has extensive, senior marketing experience in the consumer products space.  It is entirely possible, I think the Tigers were telling him, that not everything is a consumer product.  Be flexible enough to see what you really have.  Stretch around and make sure that your personal comfort zone is not the road to ruin.  He may be too focused. 

The other founder is a highly technical, inventive guy.  Every person he’d pitch the company to would say “have you thought about a this, or can you make somthing with it that does this”.  He’s a problem solver and continually brings those ideas into the strategic discussions.  He may be too flexible.  Focus 80% on the product at hand, optimize it for customer base that emerges for it, deliver semi-customized products for them if necessary, and then flex to find the new thing.

One answer yesterday to the generic question “How do you coach your clients when to be flexible and when to focus”, was to “deliver a product to a customer”.  Put 95% of what customers, advisors, neighbors, investors, etc. suggest in terms of products to you, in the back of your mind, not on the benchtop.  Listen to real customers that you have come to believe might actually buy something.  If one of them asks for something that can be done at as-good or better margins than what you’re currently earning, then consider it.  If you use that sort of criteria to determine whether to flex or focus, you could get it right every time.

About TechonomicMan

Manager, Entrepreneurial Services at Ben Franklin Technology Partners in Northeast PA.
This entry was posted in Entrepreneurial Advice and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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