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In a world where social media platforms (e.g. LinkedIn, Twitter/X, YouTube, TikTok, etc.) are awash with the next big business idea, Shiny Object Syndrome (SOS) has spread like a virus among entrepreneurs, business owners, and executive-level leaders.

What’s this term, you ask?

Well, Shiny Object Syndrome is the irresistible pull towards new projects, new technology, and new trends at the cost of long-term goals and a coherent big picture.

Think of it as the entrepreneur's Achilles' heel: the strength that enables them to explore new opportunities is also a weakness when it comes to maintaining focus.

Shiny Object SyndromeA habit where entrepreneurs and business owners chase new opportunities, technologies, or trends at the expense of long-term focus and well-being.

Why Is Shiny Object Syndrome A Problem?

Startups, the rocket ships of the small business universe, are especially vulnerable. A single shiny new object can throw you off course, causing procrastination and a lack of focus. A simple scroll through LinkedIn might suddenly have you diving into the latest podcast or Forbes article claiming to have found the secret sauce to business success.

Keep in mind that the strength of a startup depends on how deeply they fit a specific niche and how deeply they solve a specific pain point!

Unlike larger companies, startups can hyper-specialize, which enables them to capture customers from bigger competitors. Therefore, if you run into Shiny Object Syndrome, you’re putting the future of your startup at risk.

That’s right - Shiny Object Syndrome can kill off startups like the Grim Reaper.

As a founder of an SMB myself, I’ve experienced firsthand all the different ways that Shiny Object Syndrome can throw a wrench into the gears and cause unnecessary fires at work. That’s why I want to talk through three of the ways that Shiny Object Syndrome has thrown me off-course:

  • Mental health and well-being
  • Resource drain
  • Opportunity cost

1. Mental Health and Well-being

The constant chase can have real implications for mental health. The stress of continually starting new initiatives and projects is far from conducive to entrepreneur well-being.

Research demonstrates that when you switch between contexts, you lose up to 25 minutes of productivity every time you change focus (Fuze, 2013). Assuming that you have only 8 working hours a day, every switch eats up 5% of your mental bandwidth.

And, Cornell University’s research reveals startling stats: 45% of people say context-switching makes them less productive, and 43% of people say switching between tasks causes fatigue.

No wonder Shiny Object Syndrome tires us out like a dog chasing its own tail!

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2. Resource Drain

Picture this: You're working on a new product, and then bam! A new trend in SEO catches your eye, and now you've derailed your entire workflow.

The time it takes to explore a new idea, assess its upside, estimate its costs - all of that is work, even if it doesn’t ultimately produce anything. This work costs real resources!

That’s why having a tight product philosophy and a robust product strategy is so critical; it drives focus and prevents resource drain in the first place.

3. Opportunity Cost

As a startup founder, your time management needs to be on point. The constant chase of the next shiny object means that important tasks sometimes fall through the cracks.

Remember, every hour you spend looking at non-core initiatives is an hour that you’re gifting to your competitors. Your competitors definitely don’t need you to hand them more ammo!

Plus, the question is almost never “does this new direction provide value to our customers?” The answer is almost always yes.

Instead, the question we should ask is “does this new direction provide more value than what we currently have in flight?”

You’ll find that the answer is usually “no.”

Problem AreaImpact on Startup
Mental HealthErosion of well-being and focus.
Resource DrainDerails workflow and prioritization.
Opportunity CostMissed long-term goals and opportunities.

Statistics Snapshot:

According to Forbes, approximately 90% of startups fail, with a significant reason being lack of focus and poor time management. In other words, SOS could really be sinking your ship!

Source: Forbes

Recognizing Shiny Object Syndrome

Before you can overcome Shiny Object Syndrome, you have to know it’s happening. Trust me, it's like FOMO but for entrepreneurs, startup aficionados, and product managers.

Signs You Have Shiny Object Syndrome

  1. Never-Ending To-Do List: If your to-do list includes multiple uninitiated new projects, you’re in trouble.
  2. Social Media Triggers: Scrolling through LinkedIn gives you more business ideas than you can handle.
  3. Excitement Over Execution: You get more amped about new opportunities than implementing your existing strategies.

Signs You're Working for a Founder with Shiny Object Syndrome

  1. Project Management Chaos: The focus is always on the newest project, never on completing what’s started.
  2. Conflicting Directives: One week it's a new product focus, the next week it’s optimizing for SEO.
  3. Lack of Cohesion: There’s no long-term strategy, just a series of short-term initiatives.
1Never-ending to-do listProject Management Chaos
2LinkedIn triggers FOMOConflicting Directives
3Excitement over executionLack of Cohesion

The Cure for Shiny Object Syndrome

You know how exercise, sleep, and healthy food helps you stay out of reach from the Grim Reaper?

We can do the exact same thing, but for our startups instead. Here’s a playbook to overcome Shiny Object Syndrome and turn your small business into a laser-focused powerhouse.

1. Ruthless Prioritization

Embrace mental models to help with prioritization, like the Eisenhower Box, to separate urgent tasks from mere fads. Another way to help with prioritization is to use a framework like the RICE method.

Want to take it a step further? Check out this curated set of prioritization software.

2. Limit New Initiatives

Filter all new opportunities and new trends through your existing business goals and only take on what aligns. You can use something like a Kanban board where you put an artificial limit on “how many projects can we have in flight.”

Personally, I’ve found that limiting myself to the top 3 initiatives has helped me live a much saner life.

3. Foster Accountability

Accountability cures SOS faster than you can say "ChatGPT." Set metrics and measure your progress. If you find that a new idea doesn’t really move the metrics, then it’s time to let go of that idea.

PrioritizationUse tools to separate urgent tasks from distractions.
Limit InitiativesStick to business goals when considering new opportunities.
AccountabilityUse metrics and tracking.

Final Thoughts

Shiny Object Syndrome isn't just startup jargon; it's a real business challenge that can affect your focus, workflow, and ultimately your success.

But fear not! With rigorous prioritization, smart project management, and a firm eye on your long-term objectives, you can turn that allure for the new shiny thing into a passion for sustainable growth.

It’s not about the next shiny object; it’s about the big picture. By focusing on the deepest pain of our most valuable customers as our north star, we’re much less likely to waver in our execution.

Remember the Forbes statistic I mentioned earlier, where poor focus causes startups to fail? Let’s change that stat with our own hands, and take control of our startups’ destiny!

Nobody ever said that cheating startup death would be easy - but it’s definitely worth it.

Want more helpful resources to keep your startup on track (and avoid SOS)? Subscribe to The Product Manager Newsletter!

By Clement Kao

Clement Kao is Founder of Product Teacher, a product management education company that accelerates product talent through corporate training workshops, on-demand video courses, and executive coaching. Before founding Product Teacher, Clement shipped 10+ multi-million dollar products as a group product manager at multiple companies, driving successful exits worth billions of dollars in aggregate. Clement’s writing has been featured on Amplitude, Mixpanel, Gainsight, and other leading publications.