Execution Is An Order Of Magnitude Easier Than Opportunity

I heard a fascinating one-liner the other day that I had knee jerk negative reaction to but when I thought about it more thought was deeply insightful, especially in the context of big established companies vs. new entrepreneurial companies.

A CEO of a very large, successful company said “execution is an order of magnitude easier than opportunity.” In the context of young startups, I often feel exactly the opposite. Opportunity is everywhere, but execution in a bitch.

But then I thought about this a little. For a big company that dominates a market, it’s totally focused on execution. The company is built for execution and, assuming it is built well, just cranks things out. What it cranks out might be inspiring, or it might not be, but it’ll keep cranking things out.

For these companies, finding the new opportunity is really difficult. The company is tuned to defend its turf, not go find new turf. Execution is all about defending market position, maximizing profit, expanding market share in existing markets, and allocating resources. In a few extraordinary cases, this activity is massively inspired, usually around companies that love their products (Apple) or their customers (Virgin). So – for most of these companies, “execution” is easy relative to finding the new opportunities. And many of these large companies don’t focus on finding the next opportunity, or expanding their existing opportunity, until their business hits major headwinds, is in decline, or is massively disrupted. I give you Borders, B&N, and Blockbuster as examples here – awesome at execution until what they did became irrelevant and then it was too late for them to do anything about it (other than maybe B&N, who might pull off their transition.)

In contrast, startups are totally focused on the new opportunity. Assuming they find it, and it’s a big one, execution becomes the main challenge in front of them. Their activity is all about scaling up the organization, hiring people like crazy, building a culture of shipping great product consistently, reacting effectively to early customer feedback, and continuing to evolve their products to meet the new massive opportunity they are going after.

From the eyes of a big company CEO, finding the opportunity is hard. From the eyes of a startup CEO, the opportunity is everything – execution is hard.

My insight is simple: “context matters immensely.” As young companies grow rapidly, they have to focus on becoming execution machines and recognize that at some point they’ll start struggling with identifying the next evolution of their opportunity space. Assuming the opportunity they are going after is massive, this won’t matter for a while. But the execution dynamics will. And when you find yourself executing well, dominating your market segment, and growing quickly, you’ve got to make sure you keep focusing on expanding the opportunity, especially since that’s going to get harder as you get bigger.