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For the past three and a half years, I have been meeting occasionally with a nice young man named Aaron Witt who has a startup software business called ConvertMyEmail.com. Aaron is smart, he is earnest, he works hard, and he is making a modest amount of cash from the company. The business is one in an area that I happen to know a lot about (email software), and I think I have been mostly helpful in getting it going.

When we get together for our periodic mentoring sessions, Aaron is hyper-organized. He comes with a solid agenda; we go through it point by point. He has PERT charts that track his goals and what he has to accomplish when, and takes them to heart. He goes through during our session his stickiest points that he is wrestling with at the moment. He listens well and takes careful notes, and then more often than not acts upon them. As a mentee, he is one of my favorites because he has all these process things down pat. From the outside, it looks like he is making progress.

There is just one thing, almost Shakespearean in terms of a tragic flaw: he lacks focus.

When we began our sessions in late 2009, he had a full time job where he had to travel around the world for his company. As you might imagine, that took a lot of his time and I couldn’t really blame him for wanting to stay with the regular paycheck. But as it happened, another firm bought out his and he became redundant and was cut loose last year. Aha, I thought. Finally, time where he can really get behind his business and make it sing.

It hasn’t happened, although he is doing all the right things. Why? Because of his lack of focus.

We met this week for another mentoring session and an update, and he gave me the bad news. Well, he didn’t initially see it that way. “Did I mention that I am thinking about starting another company?” he asks. Oy vey, I am thinking. Here we go again. We discussed this new company – which has at its core a dandy idea – and I am beginning to think, he just can’t stay on company #1. I told him my feelings, and that he needs to stick with the first business and give it his all, otherwise he will be responsible for two failures. “That is what my wife tells me.” Yes, maybe I should give her a call (although there is something sacrosanct about the mentor/mentee confidence, similar to a confessional booth almost).


Coincidentally, I met another young entrepreneur this week for the first time. He was all over the map: in addition to working a full time job, he was starting a new company and volunteering at several charities. Focus, I told him. (It is like that line about plastics in The Graduate. You don’t need to say anything more.)

In all my years of coaching and mentoring entrepreneurs, focus is Job 1. Not raising capital (although that can be tricky). Not hiring the right programmer (ditto), or building the right set of Web sites and social media entities, or nailing customer satisfaction, or the hundreds of other things that can swallow a startup and quickly sink it. It is staying focused. Take your eye off the ball, and someone takes your ball away.

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More Stories By David Strom

David Strom is an international authority on network and Internet technologies. He has written extensively on the topic for 20 years for a wide variety of print publications and websites, such as The New York Times, TechTarget.com, PC Week/eWeek, Internet.com, Network World, Infoworld, Computerworld, Small Business Computing, Communications Week, Windows Sources, c|net and news.com, Web Review, Tom's Hardware, EETimes, and many others.