“Extraordinary results are determined by how narrow you can make your focus.” – Jay Papasan
The Startup High
I remember the very first day of starting my own business. It was October 29th, 2006. The time frame between initial idea to selling our first website to a client was three days. To say we “hit the ground running” is an understatement. Those first few days were the beginning of a 6 week long high that was with me 24/7. All of it was new. Simple things like going to Office Depot and getting some basic office supplies seemed like such a milestone of success. Everything was progress and exciting because we were starting from zero. As long as I was doing something, the business was moving forward. Needless to say, this euphoric state would not last.
Soon, all of the problems, opportunities, and questions that needed to be answered came by the truckload. How do we market? What services do we offer. How much do we charge? What kind of contracts should we have? This list went on and on. In hindsight, I don’t regret starting the business flying by the seat of our pants. Even today, I would advocate going the route we did versus planning and thinking about it for months beforehand. However, without any real prior business experience, or even industry experience, I faced a long road with many tough battles to fight. How would I know which ones were the right battles? The reality is that I didn’t and I wouldn’t for quite some time. In this post I will reflect on how I went from my head spinning every day to focused, driven productivity and let the results speak for themselves.
There are really two main problems that get in the way of focusing on the right thing in your business.
The Default Task Problem
The good ole’ default task conundrum. For many people, myself included, once you are faced with an onslaught of things to be done, one very quickly defaults to a state of comfort. What I am good at and what I know how to do best becomes one’s “default task.” Your default tasks become a bulk of your day because it feels like you are accomplishing something. It doesn’t matter if what you accomplished was important, but you DID accomplish something is the myth you tell yourself. For me this was organizing, planning, preparing, creating infrastructure, setting up processes, all very operational tasks. It’s not that these were unimportant items but looking back I don’t think they were the MOST important.
Why do we resort to default tasks? Most often we do this because satisfying work comes from being able to link effort and reward. As an example, if you are a great widget maker it is easy to be motivated to successfully create 100 widgets versus having to create and implement a marketing plan that you’ve never done before and have no idea how to do. Since your brain doesn’t like pain and difficulty it is going to nicely guide you to create the 100 widgets and save the marketing plan for later…whenever that is. Your brain will lie to you and make you feel like those 100 widgets made you successful that day. Since the widget maker doesn’t know how to create a marketing plan and has no idea if his efforts will work, it will be very hard for her to connect the dots between effort and results.
For some people, their default task might actually be very beneficial to helping the business grow in whatever state it is in. Fortunately for me, my business partner’s default task in the beginning stages of the company was selling and developing. These were probably the MOST important tasks in those early stages. I could do one but not the other and unfortunately we didn’t have dozens of leads beating down our door. With the benefit of hindsight I could certainly have done a lot of other things that were very important but I didn’t have enough experience at that point to identify what those were. Now, I do. Knowing can be half the battle, so beware of falling into your default traps.
I’m an optimist by nature and somewhat of a dreamer. When the business first started, the world seemed to have opened up with unlimited opportunities. Technically the opportunities were limitless, but no business survives very long if it explores every single one available. In the early years, we explored all types of services from hosting, SEO/SEM, print, branding, general marketing, different development languages, platforms, and just about anything else you could quantify under design or web services. Simply put, if it looked like it would drive revenue and fulfill our client’s need, we said YES. But we should have said NO. It seemed impossible, why on earth would we say no when it feels so good to say yes?
I have long been inspired by a quote from a professional poker player (I can’t recall who) but it goes something to the effect of “it’s not the hands you play that makes you great, it’s the hands you fold.” In the unlikely comparison of poker to business a lot of success comes down to what you say “no” to more than how many times you say “yes”. At heart, it killed the optimist in me to preach saying no. However, we didn’t start to achieve success until we narrowed our focus and limited our service offerings. Saying no allowed us time and energy to focus on being great at a few things rather than mediocre at a lot of things.
From $1M to $5M
The best results come from the practice of focusing on the next biggest problem or opportunity for your business. Even if it is not your strong suit, you need to solve the most important problem or opportunity at the current moment. Once I figured that out, I was able to designate key focus areas for the business that ultimately took my business from $1M in annual revenue to over $5M.
Your day, your week, your month, your years, should all have a focus. If it matters most, then it’s the only thing worth doing. Tackle the problem, give it a foundation to live upon, and move on to the next thing. Most likely you will have to come back to that most important thing at some point, and that’s great. Progress and growth in business is a never ending loop of problem solving. Solve the right problem, stay focused on it, and say no to anything that tries to get in the way. Now go work on the next most important thing in your business.
Interested more in this concept? Here are a couple of things that can help:
- Read The One Thing by Jay Papasan
- Check out this article about Steve Jobs and his thoughts on saying No
Thanks for reading!