Focus is something so easy to say but difficult to do.

It’s hard for everyone. I have a hard time with it as my friends and colleagues can verify. I’m grateful that my job allows for a reasonable amount of ADD.

Focus in startups can be quite difficult as well. Everything is unproven and plenty of obstacles show up every day. It’s easy to think about adding more features, new types of customers, new one-offs to make the quarter.

But the one thing that keeps startups focused is the obvious constraint – limited capital. Most every early stage company is understaffed and under resourced for the task ahead. They can never match Google’s salaries or perks. They can’t afford the nicest office space. They can never hire as many people as they want. All they can do is hire the best people they can afford that believe in the founders, believe in the product and can function as a team. Then, the gun goes off and they build like mad.

That’s why startups have this unique advantage over bigger companies. Limited funding provides a forcing function. Big companies have big headcount and big budgets. Big companies have competing teams. They have competing products and agendas. They have competing execs. They have office politcs and never ending process.

I was reading John Gruber’s post about Apple today. He paraphrases Apple’s COO, Tim Cook’s talk from the Goldman conference about focus:

“We are the most focused company that I know of or have read of or have any knowledge of. We say no to good ideas every day. We say no to great ideas in order to keep the amount of things we focus on very small in number so that we can put enormous energy behind the ones we do choose. The table each of you are sitting at today, you could probably put every product on it that Apple makes, yet Apple’s revenue last year was $40 billion. I think any other company that could say that is an oil company.”

I’m sure there are plenty of big company headaches at Apple. I know they have their share of office politics. But one thing is clear: they are focused. And it shows.

(update: missed a link. Gruber’s summary came from Dan Frommer’s post here).