Of Cat Herding, Fund Raising, and Business Focus

I woke up Friday morning to discover that I’d become a cat herder. You know the role: trying to get dozens and dozens of pieces and people corralled into some semblance of order. I should come to expect it in the few days before a DEMO Conference is set to begin. After all, I’ve been reprising this role twice a year for most of the last eleven. Still, it always strikes me that otherwise smart business people can get so caught up in the weeds that they lose focus on their own objectives.

Here’s a case (and would that it had only happened once these last few days): An exec from a demonstrating company scours the news wires, looking for mentions of other companies also participating in the event. Spying a perceived competitor (for the record: we don’t think these companies compete), the exec searches for every mention anywhere in the media, on blogs, on the company site, that might serve as evidence that the company “broke the rules” of DEMO. The “evidence” is packaged into a stern e-mail — usually couched in a tone of “far be it from me to call out another company, but…” — and sent along to DEMO’s PR team. I then get a call, confirm that the assumptions of the exec are, in fact, wrong. This is followed by an e-mail or phone call that assures the exec that we’re “on the case,” politely thanking him for his diligence.

Normally, I’d let this sort of thing slide, and it certainly wouldn’t be fodder for a post. But this time, the predictable tattle-tale thread dropped onto my desk at about the same time my Guidewire Group co-founder at and I were talking about focus. Guidewire is fund raising for the capital to bring to market an exciting (I think), scalable (we’re confident), very large (the comps confirm) product offering.

If you’re raised capital before, you know that the process is, to some degree, pitching followed by objection handling. If you’re not careful, you can quickly bastardize your pitch and your business incorporating VC “feedback,” and trying to anticipate every conceivable objection. And it’s only made worse when the objections are so completely out of your control: “What if Bush declares marshal law to preserve his presidency? How will your user acquisition model scale then!”

So Mike and I were talking about which venture commentary to accept and which to reject. Quickly, the line became apparent. We focus on the things we can control and refuse to waste an ounce of energy trying to get planets to align or otherwise commit unnatural acts that distract from our focus. (Frankly, it’s pretty good advice for life, too.)

So what’s this have to do with nervous demonstrators? I figure that any moment a company is focused on its competitor is, at this juncture in the young life of a product or a company, is a waste of time and energy. (Never mind that it’s annoying to me and my staff.) As I wrote to one person late last week, “keep your eye on your prize.” Focus on the things you can manage and don’t waste time speculating about what others might do.

In a market place that provides immediate feedback via blogs and other means, you’ll find out quickly how you stack up with potential customers and against real and perceived competitors. Agile companies can react quickly to those known conditions. Spending time anticipating, guessing, and supposing . . . well, that’s just borrowing trouble and taking your focus away from the things you really can do to affect the outcome of your business.

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