Why focusing on a few products is hard

“Focus is about saying no.” This quote is perhaps apocryphal but it’s credited to Steve Jobs. It’s not a novel idea. Many companies chant this mantra but do they really understand what focus implies?

Focus is the antithesis of portfolio theory. Portfolio theory is a great concept. Every pedestrian in New York City has experienced it. While the weather is fine, street vendors sell their regular wares, but when a rainstorm appears it seems everyone is selling umbrellas.

The idea that you keep umbrellas in stock seems very prudent. It’s a hedge that people will need a different product under different circumstances. Maintaining a product portfolio is a way of selecting a collection of products that has collectively lower risk than any individual product. The formulation of this even earned its creators the Nobel prize.

But “focus” is the willful rejection of this theory. By saying no to alternatives you increase risk disproportionally to the reward. If you have the means to maintain a portfolio it certainly seems imprudent not to do so.

So why would someone want to focus?

The answer is that too much diversification is dangerous. It’s dilutive to everything the company uses to create value: its resources, its processes and its priorities. It dulls the mind and tarnishes the brand.

So focus is not just saying no. It’s being supremely confident in what you say yes to. It’s having the ability to call the winners and the losers. A company that lives and breathes product gains this confidence. A company that puts markets or profit formulas first never obtains the confidence to focus, inflates its portfolio and thus risks everything.