Focus Is About The People You Serve

Ask an climate tech engineer or scientist what the focus of their start up company is, and you’re likely to hear a statement beginning with the words, “we make…”. That shouldn’t be surprising because scientists and engineers invent things.

Ask a CFO what the focus of the company is, and you’re likely to hear the company’s vision and goals, and strategy for generating a specific amount of revenue or even the eventual sale price plus EBIDTA.

The problem with both of these definitions is they spotlight the speaker instead of the audience.

Instead, the focus should be about the people you serve and how it will impact their lives.

When I start working with a new client, I take a page from Jim Collins and ask The Five Whys. By asking “Why is that important?” repeatedly, it forces my clients to change their perspective from looking at themselves in a mirror to looking through a two-way mirror at their audience. Let me use the biomaterials industry as an example.

Me:  What’s Your Focus?

Client: We take (insert waste stream) and turn it into a (name your product)

Me: Why Is That Important?

Client:  Because we are taking something that would end up in a landfill and repurpose it into something useful.

Me:  Why Is That Important?

Client:  Because eventually, we are going to run out of (name of the commodity) if we keep on the same path, and our landfills will overflow and cause damage to the environment.

Me:  Why Is That Important?

Client: Running out of (name of the commodity) would be catastrophic to the economy, and we can’t keep dumping waste in our oceans.

Me: Why Is That Important?

Client:  (Running out of patience with me) Because people need an alternative to (name of the commodity) that isn’t sustainable and polluting our environment.

Me:  Why Is That Important?

Client: Because we have a moral obligation to leave a habitable planet for future generations, which requires us to stop using up all of the (name of the commodity) and fouling our land, air, and water.


After five whys, they have turned their perspective 180 degrees. Now they can see their work through the eyes of their audience. They are framing their mission and vision from “something we sell” to “something that will give our customers a better chance to live a more sustainable life. The company is contributing to its customer’s success.

Many in the branding world would use the term “mission” to describe what I’ve helped my client distill, but I prefer using the word “focus” because it’s a hybrid of the mission and the vision.

If your company is pitching investors, the mission is the unmet need for the customer or user who will eventually pay you. If your company is post-revenue, you can talk in the present tense about how you are meeting that need to build your customer/user base. If your clients are institutions, the unmet need might not be directly theirs, but rather their customers who in turn will want to pay the institution for their unmet need.

What you make or build should never be about you. It’s about meeting the needs of a customer who buys or invests in your product because it aligns with their own personal/institutional story.

Everyone doesn’t need your widget, nor does everyone want your widget. But by finding your focus, you will simultaneously winnow down your audience and discover if you have a business model outside of a laboratory.

CleanTech Focus