Anyone who knows me well knows I have a history of over-extending myself.
The first time I started a business, I was the single mother of a toddler. I renovated my only full bathroom while also adopting a puppy. I took over a struggling arts non-profit when I worked a 60-hour corporate job. During one famous six-month period, I filed my divorce, remodeled my bedroom, re-landscaped my back-yard, and threw a self-catered dinner-party for 30 people—while still working that 60-hour job.
And like so many of us, every creative idea I have gets added to my mental pile. I own dozens of domain names, and more partially-written manuscripts than I will ever admit. I’ve been remodeling the same house for 19 years. My collections of fabric, beads, and yarn are long-lived and vast. I bake my own birthday cakes and do my own electrical wiring (just not usually on the same day).
So, while I get a lot done, it’s never enough for me. I’m usually some combination of inspired, fulfilled, overwhelmed, and exhausted.
The Over-Doer as CEO
Unsurprisingly, this attitude spills over into how I run my business. I always want to do more than is possible. I am slow to hire help, and then just as slow to delegate.
I’ve also been very reluctant to focus on specific service lines or industries. Looking back historically on clients and projects, no particular industry stands out, and seldom are two projects are alike. Personally, that’s kinda fun. I’m always doing something new, or something different, or something more.
But, practically, that’s pretty stressful. And not the soundest business strategy. Businesses—especially professional service businesses like mine—thrive best when we specialize. Pick some industries, pick some offerings. Pick a freaking lane!
Lessons from the Chip Factory
At the place I used to work, there’s a legendary story from 1985. The CEO and the President were discussing the seemingly unsolvable problem they faced: their core business was floundering in a chasm of weakened demand due to foreign competition, with no relief in sight. But this business meant everything to them. It was what had built them, for over fifteen years.
They struggled to keep things afloat, bleeding money, until the day they asked themselves a telling question: If the board replaced us tomorrow, what would the new CEO do?
The answer was clear—anyone new would exit the current core business and refocus on what was profitable. So, the “fired themselves” as the story goes, walked out out of the room and walked back in as the new leadership. They refocused the company on an up-and-coming business line better suited to current profitability and demand. And that business is the one they are still known for to this day, as a multibillion-dollar corporation, and one of the top brands on the planet.
But to get there, they had to give up on something that had meant everything to them. They couldn’t just ramp up the new business. They also had to shut the old one down.
I was in a meeting a few weeks ago with a two of the best business gurus in town, Ciara Pressler and Stephen Green, and this issue came up. Stephen told a great story about a local business who survived recession and grew enormously, because they stood their ground. They had guardrails—this is what we do, this is what we don’t do. Then during a downturn, much of the work they were offered was in the “don’t-do” category. And they turned it down. And years later, they are doing tremendously.
Whether you’re a solopreneur with a mortgage payment, a small business needing to make payroll, or a huge enterprise with a board of directors and shareholders breathing down your neck, turning away business can be painful and terrifying. But sometimes, it is necessary.
My consultancy, Xinnia, is now four years old and I’ve been working with my advisors on where to go next. It’s still in-progress, but as I work to articulate what we do, I’m also paying attention to what we don’t do. Just because I know how to do something doesn’t mean it’s what Xinnia should be selling. Just because there is a need doesn’t mean we should be the one to meet it.
What Don’t You Do?
Whether it’s your business, your job or your hobby, what you don’t do is as important to understand as what you do.
So, what don’t you do?