Sadly, it’s often tempting as a business owner to try and do too many things. The thought process tends to go like this–Well, we’re good at this, and this, and this, and this, and we’re not so good at this but we can do it so we’ll tell people we do it, and we can learn how to do this other thing, and since we can do all these things that means there’s more money for us to make, and plus people will come to us because they’ll be able to get all these services in one place.
Just one problem–it doesn’t work.
Ok, maybe it works for some people, but I’m realizing it hasn’t worked out as well for me as I believe the alternative would have, and I suspect a lot of people fall into the same trap I did. You see, MWI does two things quite well on a consistent basis–web design and search engine optimization. But over the years we’ve tried our hand at content management, custom back-end development/programming, advertising, naming, branding, print design, packaging…and the list goes on.
Trying to do too much can easily lead to three negative consequences; spreading yourself too thin, doing things you’re not really good at, and confusing your customers.
If you’re a freelancer, then the danger of spreading yourself too thin is all too relevant. You may very well be able to do a lot of things well, but even if you can you still run into the issue of not being able to specialize in any one thing and be the best at it. You can’t be the best designer and the best programmer. In fact, you can’t be a good designer and a good programmer. Wait, let me try one more time–you can’t be a designer and a programmer, unless you’re bad at both. Yeah, that works. Alright, alright, maybe you could be a great designer and a great programmer, I’m just saying I’ve never seen anyone who was good at one who was anywhere close to remotely good at the other. Now you might be great at designing logos, brochures, and packaging, but that’s not what I’m talking about because those are all the same thing–graphic design, although in reality, if you were to specialize at just one of those the principle still applies, since you would logically become better at whatever it is you do all day to the exclusion of other things.
But even agencies can easily spread themselves too thin. If you’re trying to do ten things, then you’re refining your business model to do ten things instead of one, and that means that you’ll never do any one of those ten things as well as you could do that one thing if that’s all you worked on.
And if you’re trying to do ten things, you’re probably allowing yourself or your company to do something you’re not good at. About two years ago we decided we wanted to be an ad agency. Why? Cause those guys make all the easy money, that’s why. Turns out we had no idea what we were doing, it was harder to get into the business than we thought, and it ended up hurting us in that it distracted us from focusing on what we were good at in the first place. At the end of a year I looked back and thought “Now why in the world did I try to do that?”
Before I go any further, I don’t want to confuse focus with ignorance. Just because you’re focused on one or two things doesn’t mean you ignore everything else. Even though we’re not an ad agency, it’s good for us to know how ad agencies work and what they do. It’s just not what we’re focused on.
Think of your experience like a capital letter T. The horizontal top represents broad experience, but it’s also superficial. The vertical line represents your focus, your area of expertise, what you’re good at, and in that area your knowledge should be profound and deep. If you try to do ten things at once, you’re getting the horizontal part of the T, but not the vertical part. In other words, you’re not really that good at anything. If you focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else, you’re probably better off than the other way, but you’ll also be the guy locked in a closet who everybody thinks is weird. You want to have a broad yet superficial knowledge of many things so that you can see the connections between what you know well and what you know not so well so you can tie them together and add value.
For example, I’ve worked with many types of clients including a dairy, a software company, an eating disorder treatment center, a bank, a printer, a magazine, and a zoo. Although my deep expertise is web design and SEO, it didn’t hurt that when I was a kid I toured a dairy a few times or that I had previously worked with an online grocery company. It didn’t hurt that I had a master’s degree in information systems management and understood the software development cycle when I worked with the software company. It didn’t hurt that I have always been overweight when I worked with the eating disorder treatment facility…well, I guess that did hurt me, but hey, when life gives you lemons…you get the picture. Lots of experience with lots of different things is good, and focus in a narrow area is also good.
One of the consequences of trying to do things you’re not an expert at is that the level of quality you provide isn’t that great, and you can become known as a low-quality provider. We’ve had a few programming projects that haven’t gone so well lately, and it’s cause me to review our entire history of programming. We’ve been doing programming since the company started, but as I look back, programming was never what we were really good at. Most of our projects turned out well enough, but even the ones that went well never went as smoothly as our web design projects, nor were they as profitable for us. I know some companies that have focused almost exclusively on programming, and because they had that focus they molded their entire business model around it, and they’ve done a lot better than we have with it.
An additional consequence of doing things you aren’t the best at is that it takes your focus off of what you are good at. If I had never tried to do any programming projects and had just focused on web design, we could have hired more designers or better designers instead of hiring programmers. We would have had a better shot at getting know for being the best web design firm around. But instead, we’ve settled for mediocrity in design because we were constantly distracted by programming projects.
Finally, if you try to do too many things then your customers don’t know what you’re good at. The idea that customers want a firm that does everything isn’t generally the case. My experience is that there are more clients shopping for a specific service than there are clients shopping for an agency that does everything because that’s how business works. The CEO walks into the VP of Marketing’s office and says “We need someone to do SEO for our website and we’ve got to find the best firm around to do it, right now.” The VP of Marketing calls her friend and says “Who do you know who does SEO?” Let’s say the friend knows about MWI, but also knows three other companies that provide SEO services and that’s all the other companies do. Who do you think is going to be top of mind for the friend who’s making the referral? Not MWI, because that person associates MWI with doing a lot of other things and not being “the best” or the SEO specialist. But if MWI were to brand itself as doing nothing but SEO, then it’s more likely that when SEO opportunities arose MWI would be top of mind.
So when you start thinking about diversifying, take a moment and consider it carefully. I’ve run a “diverse” company for eight years now, and I’m telling you I think being focused is better. And when I tell you I’m working on a redesign of the MWI site, I think you can guess what parts of the website might disappear.