Unfocus to refocus

I’m currently building my fourth software business. It’s called Codespeed and it’s a developer tools SaaS and platform that solves costly software development problems like tech debt, onboarding, security and other expensive, unmet issues in the architecture and development of code. We’re accomplishing this by better aligning the needs of a business among engineers through a collaborative layer of dev tooling.

Two of the largest cost centers in any engineering department revolve around continuous rewrites and refactors due to tech debt and the exceptional amount of time required to ramp up new developers to a codebase, let alone the time engineers who have already made significant contributions to a large application take in revisiting their work long into the future. Security is another area where costs can grow exponentially when collaboration in the code fails. Codespeed is a uniquely social developer tool, which means it also provides opportunities in emerging crypto, DAO and other web3 spaces as well.

I began building and selling software products at age 13 when I started an online gaming company where kids like me could customize avatars and save them to use around the web and even offline by arranging a nearly limitless number of combinations in outfits, accessories, and even background options.

This was the age when dial-up internet reigned supreme, so the portability of user generated content on smart phones was a long way off. I had an exceptionally successful web app version of the game with around 5,000 per day, so I decided to sell an offline version for those who wanted to use the game even if someone was already tying up the sole phone line in their house (really) or any number of other dial-up limitations that most young people would find hilarious today. I burned, tested, and shipped physical CDs to 100s of customers, creating a portable game long before mobile gaming ever existed.

I eventually sold that business to a large gaming company, and went on to work as a professional software engineer writing custom applications for businesses of all sizes, building my own agency, working through college, and going on to build two more software startups in eCommerce and marketing.

Relentless focus & execution

One of the first lessons I learned as an entrepreneur both building and selling code was that relentless focus on execution, shipping and refining my approach as I worked vs. excessive strategizing was just as important in the work of building a business as it was in the process of writing code in an “agile” methodology.

Agile, adaptive thinking and execution is just as important in the building of a business that scales as it is in the writing of the code itself. Just like the architecture of large software applications, building or growing a business is an incredibly complex process that requires consistent execution for long periods of time. You’re often pulled in many different directions each requiring unique perspectives and ways of thinking including technical, creative, and persuasive thought.

For example, I’m considering how our content marketing strategy at Codespeed will align with our sales process as we ship the first version of our SaaS product and platform which requires both creative, persuasive and analytical thinking in business terms.

I think the creative thinking is actually one of the least honed skills among technical software founders, in the sense that in the early days of building any software business, the founding team must build a cohesive narrative and story around the opportunities and overwhelming value their product can provide to customers. As humans, we’re deeply guided by the evolution of our ancestors, and story telling is one of the most essential ways to build trust and understanding between your business and your customer’s, even in highly-technical, B2B software businesses.

In these early days, hard work executing on a vision rather than overthinking about strategy is what will ensure your startup flourishes or fails. While long hours filled with hard work are key to growth and success during this time, a defining aspect of executing at scale requires that you focus on the right areas of growth.

Shipping a product and launching a new business takes relentless focus on what matters and what will move the needle. You need to make the moves that are the lowest “cost” (whether in time or money) in addition to the greatest potential upside. Precise, targeted execution that delivers the greatest possible returns requires decisive leadership at each early, incremental stage of a startup. This work isn’t easy and requires making fast decisions around focus and of course adaptation when things go wrong — or increased focus on what goes right.

As I mentioned, the process of learning by doing — adapting as you go and quickly refocusing when necessary — is a core part of agile software development methodologies, so it’s no surprise that this same adaptive process is reflective of developing the business side of a software company as well.

But learning how to win something like a triathlon while tumbling down class V rapids can gradually weigh on your ability to continuously adapt and focus as a leader. This mental exhaustion doesn’t purely relate to regular decision fatigue per se. Rather, as the business continues to grow in all directions and areas at once — such as in building sales synergies with marketing, ongoing brand development, building your MVP or v1, recruitment, legal, accounting, and of course, fundraising — every decision that you make has the potential to exponentially launch or destruct your business.

Unfocus to refocus

While rapid growth is the goal of many software entrepreneurs, many ignore the fact that they must first maintain the kind of clear and confident mind needed to achieve the ruthless focus and rapid adaptation required to continuously execute at this scale for long periods of time. They may burn out, fail to recognize problems before they snowball into company killers, or fall prey to any number of cognitive biases that lead to failing products, teams and businesses.

Instead, a relentless focus on execution and adaptation requires equally relentless replenishment of the source of those abilities. In fact, it’s one of your most important responsibilities to your team and your customers as a leader.

Thinking clearly is a skill in itself that can be lost just as easily as it can be gained, like a muscle that must be continuously flexed to maintain its strength. In order to build the unrelenting, highly targeted focus you need to succeed, you must first learn how to unfocus to later refocus. On top of the hard work of building a business, working hard to continuously replenish your cognitive abilities will ensure you’re able to focus and invest in executing on decisions that yield the greatest possible returns for you, your team, and most importantly, your customers.

If you neglect to “unfocus” by taking periods of time away from work to observe other parts of the world and life that have no direct relation to your business, then you’re simply not making the intelligent, well reasoned decisions you need to succeed at work. Your ability to reason, problem solve, plan, absorb complex concepts, and learn from experience truly depends on your ability to unfocus and then refocus your mind at a regular rate.

Because every decision around the investment of time and money is crucial to the success or failure of a startup in its early stages, maintaining the ability to rest, flex, recalibrate and even appreciate wonder with your mind is one of the most important foundations you’ll build and grow as a successful software entrepreneur or leader.

So get outside on the weekends. Go out for a nice meal after a long day of coding or interface design. And take time to ponder the wonder of the world with others or in peaceful solitude. It’s the best way to replenish your ability to focus the flow of precious resources exactly where you need them when you return.

Published November 7, 2021