Hello, I’m Michael Sliwinski, founder of Nozbe - to-do app for business owners and their teams. I write essays, books, work on projects and I podcast for you using #iPadOnly in #NoOffice as I believe that work is not a place you go to, it’s a thing you do. More…

Focus like Steve Jobs


I read the biography of Steve Jobs when it came out. I was really impressed. Not only with the contents of the biography, but also with the fact that I read it so quickly, although it was such a big book (600+ pages in hardcover, 2500+ pages on my iPhone’s iBooks) - and I normally don’t read - I listen to audiobooks. But it was my tribute to Steve Jobs so I did it. And when I did, the most important lesson that stuck with me later was how much focused Steve Jobs was. (Note: I originally wrote this article for the Polish startup portal, MamStartup - this is an enhanced version in English)

Focus like Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs biography…

The biography by Walter Isaacson is quite controversial. And I admit there were parts I didn’t like. The author seems not to have understood very well our world of computer geeks (and Steve Jobs was one definitely) and in my opinion he didn’t investigate many aspects of Steve’s decisions deep enough, although he had resources (and access to everyone) to do that. I believe the author was a little in Steve’s “reality distortion field”, but who can blame him :-) Anyway, thanks to this book a larger audience could learn about Apple’s practices, it’s craze about privacy and secrecy and the “Steve Jobs way”.

The ultimate message was Steve’s ability to FOCUS - to concentrate on just few things… and saying NO a lot.

This is the recurring theme of the book. Steve Jobs has an amazing ability to just focus on what excites him the most and leave everything else behind as irrelevant. When he was starting Apple and needed parts from HP, he called their CEO and got them. When he needed to get anything done, he’d just shut the world out, focus like a shark and go for it. He had no issue saying NO to people. Also with his company’s product designs he always highlighted that the ability to say NO was the most important in his career.

When he got back to Apple in 1997 he had to say NO to a lot of things. He was horrified to discover that his company was doing too many products was pursuing too many projects. He started having interviews with project leads and shutting them down one by one. He was frustrated that they produced so many things and none of them were “wow” or “extraordinary”.

He got really frustrated (and we know from the book that he can get very angry) and drew a simple 2x2 table with four empty spots and announced they’d be producing 4 computers from now on. That’s right: FOUR. 2 desktops and 2 laptops (one for a consumer and one for a professional market). That’s right - he reduced a huge company to just focus on 4 things. “4 amazing things” as he’d put it. And these kinds of decisions are a reason why Apple is doing so well now.

The history might seem trivial but just think about it - a guy leading a multi-billion dollar company that, although on a verge of bankruptcy, still has resources to build a whole array of proudest, must focus on only four. And not more.

The idea of FOUCS in startups and entrepreneurship in general

We, entrepreneurs or startup owners, have a big problem - we have lots of great ideas. We are very interested in our industry, we read lots of blogs, news sites and get engaged in many conversations with fellows like us. We exchange ideas, motivate each other and the more we go the more ideas to make the world a better place we can find. We tend to brag how many projects we’ve got going on, how many things we got started, how much stuff we’ve got on our plate…

That’s cool. That’s amazing… but that’s all too much.

Just think about it - a big company like Apple at the end of the ’90s was still hiring thousands of employees, yet they just focused on four products. And a startup or a small company, sometimes being just a few people (2-3 guys in a “garage”) can be still developing a handful of projects at the same time. Why?

Instead of focusing on our MVP - Minimum Viable Product (a concept from a “Lean Startup method” by Eric Ries) and testing our one-and-only product out in the market to see if what we’re working on really makes sense and putting all out heart into it, we already tend to think about translating our not-yet-published product to 10 languages, doing a few other projects on the side and getting hired for consulting jobs to pay the rent…

I know, life is kinda hard all around but I encourage you to try to say NO to these temptations. We should all embrace it and learn this hard lesson from “uncle Steve” and just make sure what we do is amazing. Focus on one product and make it really great. And I’m not just saying it. This is what I learned the hard way last year.

In my company we started many projects at the same time last year and we couldn’t deliver them on time. We’re just a company of 9 and we still had this idea that we can do many things at once and deliver them quickly. Well, finally we are shipping them but the backlog was killing us. I would like to say I learned my lesson… but I haven’t. Just this month I had this roadmap of a new product I wanted to build and I was really excited about it. But I wanted to build it along building major releases of Nozbe (one of them is really a breakthrough - you’ll see in a few months). Fortunately a conversation with one of my mentors reminded me of the power of FOCUS and I’ve downplayed the new project to our “internal project” and I’ll be focusing on making sure we get the big Nozbe features done on time. You’ll love them.

We changed our thinking in my company to “weekly reviews”

Now we do “Weekly Reviews” with each other in my company (I do them with my CTO and my Chief of Customer Support) to make sure we are focused, we do what’s to be done and we deliver new features and ship new products as quickly as possible. We think big but make sure we stay on track and focus and police one another to keep our minds sharp and “on target”. Our users keep on saying they want this, that or the other feature, but what they really want is a great product that helps them get things done - and we can’t deliver this promise if we are not focused.

Are you focused like Steve? Are you going to be focused this year?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012 /focus-like-steve-jobs/