Lack of Focus

As the stock market continues to flounder around (mostly the wrong direction) and some people in the middle east continue to try to destroy each other, I woke up this morning pondering failure.  I thought of another “classical entrepreneurial lesson” that we made at Martingale Softwarelack of focus.

When we started Martingale Software in 1984, our original vision was “to write software for the new Apple Macintosh.”  That was pretty broad, so as we sat around in a classroom somewhere at MIT (because it had a nice big blackboard that we could scribble on, plus it made us feel grown up), we decided to narrow our focus.  After many hours (or was it minutes?) of discussion, we decided we would write “graphics software for the new Apple Macintosh.”  Once we landed on this, we immediately started designing stuff, well before we had our Apple Lisa (a requirement for writing software for the first Macs.)

We quickly got distracted.  One of my early mentors – Gene Scott (who also happened to be our investor – he put up the initial $10,000 for Martingale) – was the founder and chairman of Scott Instruments – a voice recognition software company in Denton, Texas.  Scott Instruments created the VET/2 (Voice Entry Terminal for the Apple II) – one of the first functional speech recognition systems (Gene’s son David was a research pioneer in this area.)  Scott Instruments asked us to write an application for the VET/2 for the Macintosh – we couldn’t resist so we had our first contract.

Of course, this had nothing to do with our vision for Martingale.  I’m sure we rationalized this by thinking something like “we’ve got to eat”, but since we lived in a fraternity and food was regularly available, this was a hollow rationalization.

Several months later, through some random introduction, we met a local investment management company (probably the 1980’s equivalent of a small hedge fund – I want to say they were called Harbor Capital, but the particular neurons that would remember that have been destroyed.)  They wanted us to do some spreadsheet / graphics stuff for them.  Ok – graphics – a little closer.  But – they used PCs.  So – we rationalized again, went out and bought a Compaq Luggable, and did some more consulting work.

Between school, our “extra curricular activities”, and our two contracts, we never wrote much graphics software for the Mac.  While we eventually figured out how to get a program on the Lisa written, compiled, built, saved on a floppy disk, and running on the Mac, our “graphics software” was never much more than a very simple window / menu system.  We never shipped it.

The contracts enabled us to “be in business” for a while, but they had nothing to do with the business we set out to create.  While the work enabled “survival”, our complete lack of focus (among many other things) contributed to our ultimate demise.  Now – we could have repositioned Martingale as a customer software company – or any number of other things – but we continued to hang on to the idea that we were going to build a graphics software company. 

While survival was nice (and fun for a while), at some point you have to decide what you are going to focus on.  If you don’t, as a Brazilian friend of mine once said – pounding his fist into his palm – “our lack of focus will fuck us” (say that three times fast with a Brazilian accent.)

  • Always a fine line. Too much focus and you’ll starve, too little and you’ll starve. Guy Kawasaki, in The Art of the Start, highly recommends contracting random jobs to bootstrap the machine until your focus can drive things on its own. Makes great sense to me, though may be a hard pill to swallow. There’s the obvious risk of the contracting doing nothing but leading you further and further away from your focus though.

  • Seems like you guys were doing some early bootstrapping? Is that really so bad. Was there really a market for Mac graphics? I love the idea of pursing things that interest you but was there a market for the Mac stuff? Would you have been more satisfied if you had tried the Mac stuff and seen that to it’s conclusion? Focus with no customers is really just a hobby not a business. Nothing wrong with a hobby though.

  • While what we were doing could be called “bootstrapping”, it was completely unfocused. In my first successful company (Feld Technologies), we bootstrapped the entire thing from day one (we had $10 of paid in capital.) However, we had a goal and purpose that was consistent with the bootstrapping / consulting work that we did.

    In the case of Martingale, we were just “doing stuff.” It was totally random, had no long term vision or cohesiveness, no “focus”, and ultimately wasn’t really “bootstrapping” since we never really had any straps to pull our boots up with (it’s not clear we ever had any boots either.)

  • Dave Jilk

    You forgot to mention that when we got the Compaq, we also took on another partner (Jeff Pierick) because none of us knew anything about PCs at the time. You liked this idea because your dad had kept telling you not to have partners, so apparently the more the better.

  • Brad,

    Now that you’re on the other side of things, how do you help pass along this lesson to your portfolio entrepreneurs?

    How often do you see them crossing that “fine line” and, even more importantly, how ready are they to accept a nudge back the other direction?

  • I’ve actually found this to be one of the funner and more interesting long term strategy issues with companies that I’ve funded. Some entrepreurs aren’t focused enough; some are too focused. So – it’s an ongoing conversation, especially as new opportunities that aren’t exactly in the sweet spot of the existing business occur.

    I’ve rarely found a good entrepreneur that’s non-responsive to this topic (either direction). These are open and active conversations that are often vigorous. If the entrepreneur doesn’t want to talk about this, it’s an early indicator of a real problem.

  • Jeff Pierick

    Ah, yes … Martingale Software. What a fun team. That was my first consulting gig. I developed Lotus 123 charts for a firm in downtown Boston. The charts were actually printed on an ink-pen plotter. Boy do I feel old now! But I know that time got me prepared for the “real world”. I’ve been consulting ever since (more or less). Thanks for the start Brad.

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