How to Stop Failing at Business

When I say, “the richest person in the world,” who comes to mind? Most people would say Bill Gates, perhaps a few would say Warren Buffet.

And the majority would be right… if you assumed that this didn’t mean the world’s richest person ever.

In that case the correct answer would be John D. Rockefeller Sr. The amount of wealth he created in the 1800′s and early 1900′s far eclipses the current top ten list of the worlds richest people combined.

That’s right: combined.

But I’m not going to give you a history lesson on Rockefeller. If you want to read more check out the distilled version of his biography here, by Dane Maxwell.

This post is about the single most important lesson I’ve learned from studying great entrepreneurs like Rockefeller, as well as from my own experiences (and mistakes) in the last 4 years as a student of business.

If I had to boil it all down to one thing, just one lesson, one idea that keeps coming up throughout my experiential as well as passive studies, it is this:

STOP MULTI-TASKING.

Let me rephrase that…

STOP DOING MORE THAN ONE BUSINESS AT ONCE.

Put yet another way:

FOCUS, gosh darnit! Focus on just one idea at a time.

Although I can happily say that I haven’t (to my knowledge) made any monumental mistakes in business, I can say that all of the little mistakes I have made have been the direct result of losing focus.

For example, even now, although I agree the idea of focus that I am advocating for here, I face the same dilemma with PetoVera’s business. I am working hard to balance my time between running our web design business, that which pays the bills, and successfully launching Saber Blast (PetoVera’s first product).

This is very difficult because both require my time and attention if they are going to be successful (or continue to be, in the case of PetoVera).

But I’m doing it all wrong, and I know it! I am not focused. That’s what is frustrating me.

Doing both right now, quite frankly, is hurting me and not helping the business to grow the way it should be. I’m sleeping less than I should and I’m not focused enough on streamlining and improving the core business. Most notably, we’re getting so many leads on the web design front we can barely handle the demand.

Some people would say “But that’s a good problem to have!” Yes, but it’s still a problem, one that needs to be solved if we want to continue providing a high quality service to clients.

Getting back to the root of the issue though, the reason this is a problem in the first place is because my company and I are (a) resource and time constrained and (b) I’m trying to do too many things at once. If I’m not careful, quality will suffer.

I see this same exact issue (but worse) with lots and lots of other entrepreneurs or wanna-be entrepreneurs. They are always biting off more than they can chew or bouncing back and forth from one business to another, rather than focusing on only one.

I believe the two main causes for this are (a) fear, (b) a lack of self-discipline, and (c) a lack of ability to think systematically.

Going back to Rockefeller for a moment, here is a man who was absolutely structured and rigid in his habits, like a marine groomed for war. Everyday he would exercise, read, make key business decisions, check on the key metrics for the company, spend time with family, and sleep. That was pretty what he would do every single day, over and over.

Religion played a big role in his life as well. He likely believed that it was God’s will that he be selected to succeed in such a large way.

Whatever his routine, habits, or beliefs, Rockefeller was singularly focused on growing his company, Standard Oil, in to the behemoth it is now known for being.

He didn’t start multiple businesses, he didn’t chase down a thousand different ideas. Instead he took over the oil industry piece by piece over the course of decades, expanded and streamlined it.

So what the heck is my problem and all these other entrepreneur’s problems? Why aren’t we completely focused yet?

Let’s go back to the causes and try to make a concrete conclusion…

  • Fear -To give a personal example, I am afraid that the company would run out of money if I focused solely on Saber Blast and got out of the web design business. On the other hand, I believe we’re short changing a better vision of the future for our company if we focus only on the web design aspect. As I sit here and type though, the more I consider it, the more I realize this fear is largely unfounded because I know I have the skill and the confidence to be successful on either path.

    So perhaps the fear has more to do with making a committed decision and less to do with fear of loss: I don’t want to “get stuck” doing one thing and end up not enjoying it. This too, after considering it, is unfounded. A decision can be as permanent or as temporary as we want it to be. A rule and a wall, are similar, but only one represents an invisible boundary, make sense?
  • Lack of Self-Discipline – I’ve gotten better at this in recent months. People approach me or my colleagues quite often with business opportunities. In some cases people are audacious or confident enough to ask us to work for free. Unlike in the past, I don’t jump on most of these opportunities. I ask questions and I listen more often than I talk. I try to understand and learn about the way the other person thinks and how the business model that they are presenting is constructed.Many less experienced and wanna-be entrepreneurs (myself included up until a couple of years ago) will not react to presented opportunities the same way. They will let their enthusiasm and desire to “go big” and “get rich quick” distract them from their current businesses. Many will rationalize it and say that they are spreading out their risk.

    The main problem is what I call EADD (Entrepreneur Attention Deficit Disorder). This stems from the fact that entrepreneurs naturally see opportunity in just about anything.In addition, another natural reaction I’ve observed when looking back at Scrimple, my first business, was when I ran into a wall, I jumped ship instead of being disciplined enough to sit down and think the problem through.
  • Lack of Ability to Think Systematically – My Father is an engineer, so in part I am naturally blessed with enough of a “mechanical mindset” or technical talent that allows me to view the world and all of it’s problems as solvable through a series of steps. You’re looking for a job? There’s a process and solution for that. Too much demand for your services and not enough supply? There’s a process and a solution for that.

    Other newbies or wanna-be entrepreneurs, however, are either not born with this inclination or simply do not invest in themselves in order to develop this ability. Instead, they are driven by emotion, mainly the desire to pull a Facebook and cash out big, rather than build something sustainable.

It appears that in my case, irrational fear is what is currently holding me back and preventing me from focusing on just one idea. The other two factors I have largely overcome through reading, making mistakes, and self-development.

All considered, what’s the big idea here?

The big idea is that simplicity is a scary thing to most people, including most entrepreneurs like myself. It seems “too easy” of an answer to focus on only one business, only one idea, and develop it to it’s full potential.

And you want to know what? After as far get rich quick schemes run, the irony is that focusing hard on only one idea is the shortest road to financial success.

As so often is the case, the truth is counter-intuitive.

For me, after writing this article, I believe I can have my cake and eat it too. My solution to my dilemma about which path to take or whether to continue the balancing act is to focus on systematically developing and streamlining our web design business while treating Saber Blast like a client project.

This way, the better we get at improving our design process, the quicker Saber Blast will launch and grow. Also, to free up my time, I will find more technical talent to help with building out the website so that it doesn’t take up all of my time since I’m the one who has been programming it up until now.

Do you believe that focus is the best way to build a super-successful business?

6 Responses to How to Stop Failing at Business

  1. Dad says:

    Good article, you should write a book. It takes hard work and long hours to startup a business. Maybe you need to hire someone to manage the web design business if you can afford it.

    • Thanks Dad, working on it :) Yeah, that’s part of what I’m trying to do right now by hiring part-time help. Part of the solution is also a matter of automating the process with software (e.g. client’s get instant updates as a project moves forward).

  2. Good, interesting post. I personally believe that a lack of macro focus is okay, as long as you can be micro-focused. Obviously you can’t stretch that too far, but having a few things going at the same time is okay, as long as you can work on each one in a very focused manner for a period of time. Three hours on one project, on one task without checking Email, Twitter, FB, etc.

    By the way, have you read “Outliers”? There’s a very interesting section about entrepreneurs born in the 1830′s, Rockefeller being one of them, and how it was the perfect time to be born to be an entrepreneur.

    Jason

    • Thanks Jason, glad you enjoyed it.

      I used to think like that. When I did I eventually came to realized I was treading water if the tasks I worked on on a daily basis aren’t unified in some micro as well as macro way. My efforts would become diluted. Focus is even more critical if you’re bootstrapping.

      I have, great book. I like Gladwell’s idea about 10,000 hours to mastery. Situation can also determine how successful you will be (billions vs. millions).

  3. [...] since PetoVera is growing quickly right now. We’re getting by with a bit of hustle and focus, but we’re making mistakes on the customer service [...]

  4. Schwabe says:

    Excellent insights Matt. I really enjoyed this because I too have struggles with focus. Over the years I’ve learned some techniques to ‘sharpen’ focus – but am still guilty of ‘juggling’ multiple businesses.

    Bookmarked this one, looking forward to reading again.

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