What we can and cannot do

How focusing can help us get unstuck

Last week’s newsletter was about how we can get “stuck in the middle,” and struggle to charge profitable prices. Today’s is about the decisions we can make to get unstuck.

People reportedly spend about an hour every week just deciding what to watch on Netflix. And more than two hours every week deciding what to eat.

And that was before the pandemic.

Our ability to make decisions ultimately comes down to our options. In the case of Netflix, we may have too many options and we can’t choose between them.

Or we may feel like there are no good options available, so we avoid making the decision altogether.

Likewise, in our businesses, having too many options or too few can make us feel stuck.

That’s because, as Clayton Christensen wrote in The Innovator’s Dilemma, it is ultimately a “company’s customers who effectively control what it can and cannot do.”

The clients we have available to us and their assessment of our value determines what our business is capable of doing.

We might have plenty of clients—we have too many options—but our margins are so slim that we feel exhausted. Or we may be spending all our time trying to acquire new clients—we have too few options—in an endless loop.

And in either case, we feel stuck.

To get unstuck, we need to focus.

If we’re inundated with work, we can start by focusing on just one subset of our potential clients. Or one core element of our current service offering. Or a particularly unique style that we can lean into to set ourselves apart.

The goal is to increase our expertise and speciality in one important area. To become so good, so uniquely capable, so precisely targeted at one audience that we’re harder to substitute with another option.

When we do too much for too many people we can be too easily replaced with other generalist providers. We’re essentially a commodity, which has a set market price.

But a business that’s unique and specially focused on one key area or client set can’t be so easily substituted, and therefore has far more options.

A designer or bookkeeper who finds themselves overtaxed but underpaid could consider focusing on the industry that’s home to their best customers. Or they could focus on one particular style, technology, or process that a specific type of client needs most and values above everything else.

By focusing and limiting what they do, they increase their client’s motivation to work with someone who really gets their challenge and specializes in it.

And even if our struggle is with having too few clients—too few options from which too choose—the key is to focus.

A practitioner-turned-consultant struggling to find new work could start by focusing on their current or ideal clients. What makes their business, their approach, their style, their experience—themselves—so perfectly fitted to the client’s “Job To Be Done”?

“Organizations that lack clarity on what the real jobs their customers hire them to do,” Christensen wrote, “can fall into the trap of providing one-size-fits-all solutions that ultimately satisfy no one.”

We can sometimes feel that the secret to getting more clients is by offering more services, or by offering our services to more people. But one-size-fits-all fits nobody, so we’ll actually end up spending all our time selling and convincing.

Instead, focus on what makes your approach unique and especially suited to your clients’ true “Job To Be Done”—the ultimate outcome they’re hoping for or the struggle they’re trying to overcome.

Identify the context surrounding their initial realization that they need help to achieve their goal or solve their problem. Focus your energy and efforts on promoting why yours is the best business for that job, at that moment.

And then find opportunities to give prospective clients a taste of what it’s like to work with you.

The clients are out there, but they won’t know to hire us unless we’re clearly focused on what they need most, when they need it.

It turns out that, when we focus, we don’t end up with fewer good options, we get far more great ones. Because we’re doing something somebody really needs and is motivated to buy.

Some businesses focus on scale—doing everything for everybody—by investing heavily upfront, aggressively driving down their costs, and providing good enough service at an unbeatable price to the type of client who values price above all.

But many owners of service businesses don’t want to be the cheapest option, they want to be the best option.

And that means they need to be uniquely good at what they do.

That’s possible by focusing, by not doing too many things for too many people, and getting really, really good at a particular speciality, process, or style.

The harder it is to replace you, the more your clients will value what you do.

Because nobody does it like you.

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But all of this is easier written than done. So what are the actual actions we need to take to get unstuck?

I’ll address just that in next week’s newsletter.