As the fundraising environment continues to get harder in 2023, founders & investors are deep into rationalizing business plans & finding ways to cut burn. The first temptation is to follow what I call an “excel sheet” approach – starting with the largest expense items without enough strategic thinking around the revised set of goals, business constraints in this new environment, what is working well right now, & how capital should be most efficiently allocated going-forward.
As opposed to big companies, startups operate with a finite runway, trying to address significant customer problems that remain unaddressed by large incumbents. This requires constant innovation – essentially doing hard, non-consensus things across the stack, everything from technology & design to customer experience & business model, that incumbents aren’t doing.
While big companies can afford to be relatively unscientific in cutting costs & still tide through tough macros with the help of their existing PMF, startups unfortunately, have no option but to play offense at all times in order to continue innovating & thereby, give themselves a chance to survive & succeed. In financial terms, this implies investing incremental $$ into innovation that drives more revenue (& profit), which is what will ultimately save a startup, not investor cash sitting in the bank.
So how should founders think about playing offense while being capital-constrained? I would like to propose a thinking tool called the “Focus Canvas“:
- As a first step, rather than focusing on P&L line items, break down your business into specific buckets. These could include customer segments (eg. Individual, SMB, Enterprise etc.), product lines (eg. shrink-wrapped, custom deployment, pure services etc.), platforms (eg. desktop app, iOS, Android, browser extensions etc.), distribution channels (eg. self-serve, inside sales, direct sales, channel partners etc.), geographies (eg. US, EU, India etc.), teams by function/ type (eg. engg., product, design, sales, marketing, offshore contractors, agencies etc.) & other buckets that are relevant for your business.
- Arrange all the relevant buckets & their constituent elements on a single page. This is your “Focus Canvas“.
- On the top-left corner, list the most updated business goals for this year that all stakeholders in the company have aligned on. These could be things like “hit $1Mn ARR”, “show x% retention”, “start fundraising in Q4” etc.
- On the top-right corner, list all the business constraints you expect to face this year. These could be things like “12 months runway left”, “only 2 backend engineers”, “sales cycle taking 6+ months to close” etc.
- Now, as you are looking at this Focus Canvas, try and answer the question “what is working well right now?”*. You need to define “working well” for each bucket as per your specific context, also taking into account the above goals & constraints. It could be driven by one or more of revenue growth, most profitable, highest ROI, generating the most valuable feedback, creating the most differentiation, highest team productivity etc. *Note: this step is well-suited for a team workshop/ brainstorming session.
- The most important step – for each bucket, put a ✅ in front of the element(s) you believe is your best bet to achieve this year’s business goals while navigating expected constraints. Then, ❌ out all other elements in the bucket. This is where ruthless focus is extremely important for the Canvas to do its job well – ideally, force yourself to ✅ only your #1 focus element. In the case of most startups, that’s probably all you can afford to execute anyway.
- Finally, take the ✅ element from each bucket & weave them into a simple, 1-2 paragraph Focus Narrative. An example to illustrate this – “In 2023, we will focus on the Enterprise customer segment & offer them the standard product suite with a billable custom deployment services wrapper. The product roadmap will focus on the desktop app. We will double down on the internal sales model for distribution, with founders pitching in for strategic logos. To increase our team’s efficiency, we will significantly reduce contractor headcount & re-allocate them to full-time hires in engineering & internal sales.”
This Focus Canvas now provides a clear & strategic view of opportunities to both cut burn & re-allocate resources, while staying on track to achieve business goals & making progress toward PMF. The Focus Narrative can be used to socialize the going-forward strategy across teams in an easy-to-remember way. If used well (read: with ruthless focus), this approach can help startups in playing offense even in a tough economic environment.
PS: sharing a Focus Canvas template that you can use as a starting point. Feel free to download a copy & modify it as per your requirements.
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