Everywhere I look, I see business owners talking about focus.
At its simplest, focus implies that it’s just not possible to do two things at once. Or at least, to do them simultaneously well.
There’s always some energy lost when switching tasks. For me, that’s the big reason why I chose to work by myself.
In a busy office, I’d face interruptions all day—phone calls, impromptu desk meetings, task requests—each requiring me to context switch and lose the momentum of whatever I was working on.
Even outside of an office, there are still plenty of interruptions I haven’t learned to control perfectly.
Having a computer is both a blessing and curse. I can access almost any type of information instantly, but if I’m sitting down to write, do I really want such an easily accessible exit?
Distraction is so tempting (and the task of writing so painful), sometimes, the only way I’m able to focus is to unplug the router and eliminate my ability to contact the outside world.
Distractions are easy to identify and thus, they can be eliminated. In business, though, the loss of focus is usually far more insidious.
Lately, I’ve read a lot of writing promoting the idea of positioning.
To position your business, you choose either: a) A very specific group of people to work with, or b) A very specific discipline to offer. In the tightest positioning, you’d pick both options.
That’s not what I’ve done, though. Instead, I’ve done what most creatives do: I’ve said “yes” to everything—every project and every client that came my way.
- A technology I never used? “Yes, I can do that!”
- An industry I knew nothing about? “Yes, I’m in!”
- A client with no revenue and no business model? “Sure, let’s do this!”
There was no rhyme or reason to any of the projects I accepted. Then, when the flood of web design clients began to dry up, I couldn’t figure out what went wrong.
Five and a half years later, I now know that:
- Lots of people lost their jobs from the recession.
- Hundreds of thousands of these people discovered web design was easy (mostly through other web designers promoting their expertise).
- Of those, maybe half of these new designers hung up a shingle and became independent.
- Rising to meet the demand of so many new novices, the tools that web designers used became much easier and cheaper to acquire.
With the market saturated and web design costs being almost zero, I lost my leverage. And projects (lucrative or otherwise) completely stopped falling into my lap.
I’ve made significant changes to my business over the last three years.
In my gut, I knew just building websites wasn’t sustainable. To expand my offerings, I began teaching myself copywriting and advertising.
That same year, I also started seeing a big push towards conversion optimization. I then begun learning everything I could about improving individual web pages to improve their effectiveness in converting my clients’ visitors to customers.
Both of those skills helped me begin selling results to clients, rather than just websites.
The following year, I joined a freelancers group that planted the seed in my head that if I was able to improve my clients’ businesses, why wouldn’t I be able to improve my own?
I’ve spent two years in this group, and through the forums and messages, here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned:
Even just responding to forum posts on a regular basis made me more comfortable with giving and receiving expertise. Information is no good if it exists only in your head.
To be a real expert, though, means writing for an audience regularly. Mostly, this means newsletters and blog posts.
Diligence is key.
Out of the hundreds of members in the group, approximately 10% replied regularly. These members chronicled both their successes and setbacks, and after two years, a lot of them are finally putting all the pieces together.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that the members who kept posting in the forums are now doing well. Success is built one change at a time, and those who constructed positive habits in the forum are now seeing the results.
You’re only as good as the company you keep.
This ties into the last point: If you something doing good work, tell them. And if similarly, if someone needs your help, be there to provide it.
By encouraging and helping other productive members, I find I’m being pulled up with them. I’m learning through their efforts and sometimes, their work is such that they need an extra hand. When that happens, they often call on me.
That happened recently when the creator of the freelancers group, Brennan Dunn, asked a four other members and me to help mentor students when he relaunched his Double Your Freelancing Clients program.
What does positioning have to do with this?
Once you’re aware of something, you start seeing it everywhere. Here’s the story of how I first ran into positioning:
I’ve barely kept up with the successful members of the group, because as they’ve gotten more specific with their offerings and customers, I hadn’t.
I couldn’t figure out what they were doing differently until one member finally published a book on positioning.
Actually, that’s not completely true. Even after reading the book, I didn’t understand the value of it until the author and I were in Double Your Freelancing Clients together.
I asked for all the students who built websites for a living—just like me.
As soon as I began looking at their profiles, I noticed that they were all selling themselves based on their skills—web design. They never mentioned their clients needs and in doing so, they targeted nobody.
In turn, they were competing with:
- Marketplaces like Themeforest;
- DIY tools like Wix and Squarespace;
- Every other web designer on the planet.
At first, I was giving them advice to at least turn their copywriting towards their clients.
I also tried to help them understand that web design was simply a commodity that by itself, was quickly fading in value. I even suggested they read the new book Web Design is Dead by Ben Hunt.
These two new ideas were a good foundation, but they weren’t going to bring in more clients for my students, though.
Luckily, because I had read (and loved) Web Design is Dead, I was piqued when I saw Blair Enn’s article Digital Disruption Disrupted.
Following the same path, Digital Disruption Disrupted spelled out a future (actually, a present) where not just independent web designers suffer, but entire web design firms are going belly up because they failed to adapt to cheap and easy alternatives.
What really hit home, though, was how some firms are weathering this sea change:
Choose one of these paths and ignore the barriers that separate design from marketing and even marketing from selling. Do this within a specialized market such as a vertical and learn to solve the real problems specific to that market. Don’t worry so much about the tools that you use or where it takes you, just stay focused on solving the problem.
There was positioning again! The answer was choosing a specialized market—a vertical. Quickly, I adjusted my mentee assignments to include selecting a specific industry.
In less than a month, the students who are receiving calls for perspective clients were the ones who got hyper-specific to whom they were selling.
On top of that, positioning made difficult business development tasks like blog writing and sales emails much more tolerable, since it set the target audience so much clearer.
Time to Eat my Own Dog Food
Being a mentor is great. You get to experiment with your students. Since they’re just getting started, there is no where to go but up.
Now that I’ve seen their success in positioning their businesses, it’s time for me to do the same.
Choosing one industry to focus on is necessarily difficult because it eliminates all others. Truthfully, you can still work with other industries; you’re just giving yourself more right to say no when a business doesn’t fall in your wheelhouse.
You’re also allowed to evolve or switch your positioning over time—especially if you see a new market new.
Starting today, I promise that I’m going to focus. Here’s my new elevator pitch (using a formula I also picked up from Blair Enns):
Item-9 is the web marketing analysis firm for software developers. We analyze SaaS marketing efforts, and improve product websites and lifecycle email campaigns. Unlike other firms, we’re focused squarely on helping product creators increase their conversion rates, reduce churn and increase their customer lifetime value.
And here’s my mission statement:
Item-9 is on a mission to help amazing products be found and bought. We know that software engineers are geniuses, but even geniuses need an outside perspective. That’s what we provide. Our efforts aren’t always dramatic, but our consumer-first perspective often brings huge results.
This is literally the first time I’ve tried to nail down who I work with (and who I don’t). Now that I’ve claimed my expertise, I now have to demonstrate I’m not full of shit.
The easiest way to do that is to write. This email is an example of that. The next blog posts I publish need to do the same.
Going forward, I need to always frame my writing so that software developers are intrigued and interested. It won’t be easy, but I hope you’ll be a part of that journey.