Transcript: Paul Graham on Focus and Growth

Source: Launch Festival 2014 with Jason Calacanis

On focus

Jason Calacanis:

At its nature, what is the most important thing for startups to focus on?

Paul Graham:

There’s a meta answer to that.

The most important thing for startups to do is to focus. Because there are so many things you could be doing, one of them is the most important. You should be doing that, and not ANY of the others.

You should not be grabbing coffee with investors. When you want to raise money, you shift into fundraising mode and you go and raise money. You do not promiscuously meet with investors in the middle of the day when you should be working simply because they send you an email saying hey let’s grab coffee

There’s a thousand things you could be doing, and only one of them is the most important. You do the most important thing. It’s like optimizing software. There is some thing that is currently the bottleneck to making the software faster, you work on THAT. And that’s a lot of what we do at YC. We figure out, we sit down with people and look at all the things they could be doing and ask them “Which one is the most important?” They know the answer in their head, they just don’t ask themselves this question. And then I’m like, “OK. So why aren’t you doing that?” And they’re like “Oh gosh, I don’t know, I guess we could do that.”

On how to grow stuff


Startups wanna grow. ONe of the things YC really teaches people is how to grow stuff. What do you think the secrest of growing startsups are? In terms of techniques.


You gotta start with a small intense fire. So, suppose you’re the Apple I, you have to find–I mean I think they made something like 500 of those things. So all they had to do was find like 500 people to buy these computers and they launched Apple. Apple!

So you gotta find a small number of people–it’s necessarily going to be a small number of people; it’s impossible to make something that a large number of people are going to want a lot. So you’ve gotta find people who want what you’re making a lot. And that’s necessarily going to be a small number. And that’s ok. That’s how these giant things get started. You don’t have to do any better than Apple and Facebook.

You gotta know who those first users are, and how you’re gonna get them, and then you just sit down and you just have a party with those first few users. You just focus entirely on them, and you make them super super happy.

Like there’s a startup in the current batch, that is making a new mobile email client. And their beta group has 1 user: Sam Altman. Their goal is just to make Sam Altman happy. And Sam Altman uses email a lot on the go, and he knows what all the other options are too, so he’s sufficiently demanding that if they make him happy–they’ve used him as the positive for a mold, and they can now make lots of people happy. And that’s sufficient.

One of the things we tell startups in these extreme cases where you could just make one user happy, act like a consultant. Act like Sam has hired you to make an email app just for him. All you have to do is make Sam happy, it can even say Sam Altman at the top of the screen. That’s ok. Just so long as you make Sam feel that he would be bummed if you stopped working on this. That’s the test. Not like your friends say “Oh yeah it’s good, I’ll use it.” They have to be bummed if you stop working on it.


Ben Sullivan