The irresistible pressure to expand

Focus isn’t easy, but it’s easier than doing everything

There’s a dangerous pressure in business.

The pressure to have more and more products, so we can capture more of the market. To further and further expand our target market, so we can appeal to everyone. Or to provide more and more services, so we can do more work with our current customers.

To do more, so we can make more.

In their book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, Al Ries and Jack Trout called this the “irresistible pressure to expand.”

Every business feels this pressure. Our customers might be asking for more products or services, or we might be chasing new revenue opportunities. And we can start to think that if we want to grow our business, our business must grow—that we must provide more to our customers or to a wider market.

But, either way, we face the same dilemma: Doing more costs more.

Not just in expenses.

But in energy. In administration. In vendor calls. In sales pitches. In customer service issues. In marketing meetings. In never-ending email and messages. In confusion.

And those costs add up much more quickly.

As Michael E. Porter famously said, companies that try to do too much can get “stuck in the middle” between being low-cost and differentiated.

When a company is stuck in the middle, increased profit becomes increasingly difficult for one of two reasons: either they aren’t differentiated enough to charge higher unit costs, or they’re not efficient enough to get their costs below their competitors’ price floor.

That downward pressure on margins then drives the business to expand even further in pursuit of revenue. And the cycle repeats.

Doing more is often the cause of the struggle, not the solution. The pressure, while strong, is a distraction. Instead of doing more, we must do actually do less.

We must fight the pressure to expand with commitment to focus.

And that begins with identifying what our business is best suited to do and becoming the very best at that for a particular set of customers—pouring all our energy into constantly improving within our narrower field of expertise.

And if low-cost is our focus, we must fully commit to it, making the necessary sacrifices—we will have to do less somewhere else.

“Marketing is a battle of ideas,” Ries and Trout said, “so if you are to succeed, you must have an idea or attribute of your own to focus your efforts around.”

Offering more doesn’t necessarily make us more attractive, but it does make it less clear what we’re best at. If we don’t stand for something in particular, for a particular customer set, we’ll end up spending a fortune—in dollars or time—trying to convince prospects to work with us.

But with focus, marketing gets easier because it’s clear to you and your prospects exactly what you’re best at, and for whom.

Operations and costs get easier to manage because you’re getting better and better at a few things, instead of trying to to keep up with everything.

And you’ll spend more time on the “real” work, instead of all the paperwork and procedure that expansion proliferates.

Focusing can feel like we’re turning our back on so many things. That we’re closing doors. That we’re leaving money on the table. Or that we’ll be less resilient, less able to respond to changes in the market.

Even Clayton Christensen admitted that “focus is scary.” Blair Enns says choosing a focus “remains The Difficult Business Decision.” Ries and Trout called focusing “the ultimate marketing sacrifice.”

But focus allows for flexibility because profit provides room to think. To make long-term decisions. To grow sustainably, carefully, in the direction of our choosing. And to prepare for the future so there are fewer things we need to respond to in the first place.

So you can make more choices, instead of reactions.

Of course, we are all fighting an irresistible pressure—we will, at times, take on more than we should. We’ll say yes when we should really say no.

But it’s still worth fighting that pressure. It’s still worth trying to focus and striving to stand for something. Because as Ries and Trout continued:

“The essence of marketing is narrowing the focus.

You can't stand for something if you chase after everything.”

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Further Reading:
The most important question in strategy.
The only way under high heaven.

If you don’t know what to scale back so you can focus, I’d love to chat it out: