Jesse Middleton and The Importance of 100% Focus On Your Best Idea

By Erin Griffith , written on April 27, 2012

From The News Desk

Any seasoned entrepreneur will tell you that a laser-like focus is key to a startup's success. The problem is that exceptions to that rule like Jack Dorsey, or even Bill Gates with his photo business Corbis, make it tempting to branch out and juggle more.

Jesse Middleton was one such juggler. He is co-founder of WeWork Labs, the entrepreneur residency part of the coworking network, WeWork. He also co-founded and led GuyHaus, a men's grooming products company with a subscription model. There was also GetMinders, a "take your medicine" reminder service for senior citizens. Most recently, he launched Backstory, a consumer-facing Web page editing software. The packed resume has garnered him comparisons to Dorsey and Gates, which he says makes him feel a little silly.

Particularly now. On the advice of mentors, friends, investors, and co-founders, he's dropped three of the gigs to focus on the one with the most potential, Backstory.

A few weeks ago, he quietly shut down Guyhaus. He's closed GetMinders, too. Then he hired a person to run the day-to-day operations at WeWork, which he remains involved as more of a community-builder.

The websites for Guyhaus and GetMinders now direct to Backstory. Middleton didn't even announce it to the press, because he wants investors and co-founders to know he's moved on, fully committed to Backstory. This is not his co-founders' first startup. Team Backstory includes Mike Oliver, a startup lawyer and an early employee (with whom Middleton first bonded over their shared love of pickles), and Andrew Sternthal, who ran biz dev at CDNOW and Shoprunner.

Backstory has potential. Like Greg wrote earlier this month, it's an impressive way for the Joey McNoCodes among us to simply and cheaply customize our websites.

Middleton knows the decision to kill his side projects, no matter how attached he had gotten, was important -- necessary, even. But that didn't make it any easier. As we've seen with Bebo, the entrepreneur that can't let go is an all-too-common tale, and it doesn't always have a positive ending like this one does. Middleton openly admits it may have taken him longer to let go than it should have. His investors saw the writing on the wall before he did. In many ways, it's like a breakup. People don't change and neither do businesses, Middleton said.

It's a lesson to young entrepreneurs. Find what's working. Find what isn't. Kill or fix the problem areas and move on. And of course, focus like crazy.

Now, if he fails, Middleton won't be able to blame it on a lack of focus. If any one of his companies had failed while he was working on them, it would have been more disappointing than shutting them down early. "You'll never look back and regret having a hyper focus," he said.

Still, killing something is easier said than done. Guyhaus launched five months ago and had already garnered a decent amount of traction and press attention. Figuring out how to tell customers that the service was shutting down was tricky.

Managing the expectations of team's investors was even trickier. Guyhaus raised a seed round of $250,000 from Michael Yavonditte, Charles Smith, Jason Yeh, and Michael Edwards. Backstory could not be more different from that company. Middleton said he's glad he didn't raise more money in his seed round, because otherwise Guyhaus might have gone on longer before he realized it was time to cut it off.

The pivot always creates an awkward situation. When Stickybits pivoted into, the new investors in didn't want the original Stickybits investors involved, since it was a totally new company. But the original investors argued that they'd invested in a team, not a product, so they stayed on. In the case of Guyhaus, some of the investors were ecommerce experts and may not re-invest in the next round Backstory raises.

But that's ok. Now, new investors know they're getting 100% of Middleton and his co-founders. And that's a much easier sell.

(Image via Fast Company.)