You Don’t Have Enough (Customer) Focus

If you need heart surgery, do you go to a doctor, a surgeon, or heart surgeon? You probably go to the best heart surgeon you can find for your particular problem. Yet many service providers want to be the “doctor” instead of the “heart surgeon.”

In Austin, I meet a lot of small business owners who say they are in “web design”.

I’ll ask, “what kind of website is your specialty?”

“All of them.”

How can I recommend someone to this person? For one thing, there are dozens, if not hundreds of them. There would be no way to choose. For another thing, it would be like recommending any doctor to do your heart surgery.

On the other hand, you can stand out by standing for something. Lindsay Gattis of Logan Gattis Design helps companies pursue new markets, particularly in Latin America, by not just creating foreign language versions of their websites, but adjusting the design and message to fit local cultures. If I know someone trying to expand into Mexico, who will I recommend?

It’s hard to define your niche, because we all have fear of missing out (“FOMO”). I know what that’s like. As a consultant, I was a “pricing” expert, which seems like a pretty narrow niche, and I even went further, saying that we helped companies “increase profits by better use of pricing strategy, processes, and technology.” But for what kind of industries? What kind of problems? Most of our work was about aligning the market team and the sales team, and providing better information to sales, so they could sell more effectively without discounting. We got great word-of-mouth in this area, but it took almost forever to really focus on this sub-niche.

Getting focused isn’t about limiting yourself, however. It’s about freeing yourself to grow bigger. Instead of trying to do a little bit of everything, you can do one thing really well, again and again and again. Steve Jobs famously trimmed Apple’s bloated product line from hundreds of offerings to 10 or so when he returned to Apple. In trying to be everything to everybody, Apple had become nothing to anybody.

When you stand for something, you stand against it’s opposite. This may seem like you’re eliminating huge chunks of the market, but that’s okay. That part of the market has no compelling reason to buy from you, anyway. But the part of the market you focus on has a very compelling reason to buy from you. 37Signals’ project management application BaseCamp is known for simplicity and lack of features compared to more sophisticated tools. Many BaseCamp customers grow, in part thanks to the software, to the point that the application no longer works for them. They ask 37Signals to add features, but they refuse. They are happy even to see their own customers, who pay them money every month, graduate to other solutions, rather than give up on their niche focus. How has this worked out for them? Co-founder David Heinemeier Hansson commissioned a Zonda super car that’s not even street legal in the US, so he bought a home in Italy so he could drive it. Whether or not that’s what you’d do with your money, it doesn’t seem like 37Signals’ focus held back their business.

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