Do you remember the image during the credits of the movie Forrest Gump, where a feather is floating through the sky, being carried in whatever direction the wind would take it? That is a perfect visual of what not to do, when trying to build a business.
Business success requires an almost religious level of focus on the goal at hand, while not letting the whims or pet projects of our customers, investors or employees blow us in different directions. The entrepreneur that can keep the team focused and not easily distracted is the one that will most successfully get to the finish line.
What is focus?
The best way to define focus might be to give you a personal example of what focus is not. Yes, even yours truly has fallen victim to a loss of focus during the early days of my executive career. And, this example from my iExplore days will pound home the point.
iExplore was a consumer portal to research and purchase adventure tours, where our primary strength was consumer marketing online, while relying on ground operator partners to run the trips. But, in our early days, we got lured into the corporate incentive travel business by one of our customers. The notion of selling 100 passengers per booking, instead of two passengers per booking, sounded worth it to a startup trying to scale its business.
But, in chasing that business, we quickly learned that the corporate incentive business is driven by a B2B sales team, not consumer marketers. We didn’t have the right kind of team, with meeting planner relationships. Also, the skill sets required for customer success were a lot more than marketing. We needed professional event planners and boots on the ground to be really successful. And that just wasn’t our consumer model, since we didn’t actually have to run the trips ourselves.
Attempting to get into the corporate incentive business was the equivalent of me leading the team down a rabbit hole. That “flavor of the month” looked like a good move, based on the financial upside of a business like that, but without the right sales and operations team involved, it was simply a fool’s errand. It ultimately distracted us from focusing on continued success in our consumer business. So, the point here: Don’t let a “flavor of the month” lead you down any rabbit holes, as those rarely bear fruit, long term.
Don't confuse focus with stubbornness.
There was a major pivot point in our history, when iExplore began to sell advertising on our website. I really wanted to stay focused on being a travel-revenue-only business, as I thought the ads were going to clutter up the site and hurt the user experience. But, my fellow executives passionately made their case to do a small advertising test on our website. And, the result was a new-found revenue stream and a 75 percent profit margin business that far exceeded the 10 percent profits margins we were getting from our travel revenues.
The point here was, had I stay solely focused on being a travel business, we would have missed an even bigger opportunity to evolve into a big travel media business. Once we learned that 30 percent of our revenues were driving 75 percent of our bottom line profits, the team shifted directions toward what we saw as the future of our business success.
You can only build 1 business at a time.
Once iExplore made the decision we were shifting our focus to being a media business, from a travel business, that changed everything from a website design perspective. And, that ruffled a lot of feathers internally from our travel department, which believed that the media business was actually hurting the company. There was a constant tug-of-war between the travel business and media business, fighting for prominence and positioning on the web pages. What was good for one was bad for the other.
I actually thought having the two lines of business fighting with each other would create a good balance on the website, by not letting the user experience get bogged down by too many ads. But what I should have done was pull the plug on the travel business altogether and let the high-margin media business drive the train. The media business required fewer people to build, drove three times the profitability and was very sticky with a high level of repeat clients. Hindsight is 20/20, but we should have had better focus on that one business line to truly maximize our success.
But, it was a scary thing to do, exiting the core business upon which the company was founded. But never be scared to make the right business decision, even if it means killing your sacred cows.
Defining the goals to focus on.
To define the key business goals that the management team needs to focus on, a more formal strategic business planning process is required. Most entrepreneurs don’t know how, or don’t take the time, to run that process. It's a vital process to implement. Even if you do it in abbreviated fashion, taking the time to define your strategic plan will make sure the voices of all stakeholders are heard and ensure you are truly focused on the right objectives to maximize success for your business, long term.
Keeping the team focused on those goals.
Once a plan is set, your job as CEO is to make sure your entire management team stays focused on hitting those goals and not running down any new rabbit holes. At your next strategic planning process, any new ideas -- and the odd rabbit hole -- can be considered. You can’t have your CFO building a sedan, your COO building a minivan and your CTO building an SUV, when all agreed during the planning process you were going to build a luxury coupe. Focus, more focus and still more focus will help you achieve your business goals a lot faster.