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How I Grew My Business By Eliminating One Thing

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“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” – Zen Buddhism Learning

In 2004, I founded my second company. It was an online management toolkit for bar and restaurant owners called Barkeeper. I already had a consulting practice where I worked one on one with hospitality business owners helping them with inventory analysis, vendor selection and cost control advice. As part of my practice, I developed training manuals for staff, cost control worksheets, checklists and standard operating procedures for my clients. It quickly became apparent that these templates and tools had a value that I wasn’t fully capitalizing on so I decided to create a subscription based website where other bar and restaurant owners in Ireland could access my strategies and tools without me needing to be present.

This was 2004 in Ireland. Most of the country still had dial up internet (or none at all) and I knew nothing about web development. Less than nothing in fact. Still, with my youthful exuberance, my partner and I borrowed the most money we had ever seen and hired a firm to build out the “vision”. When they were done, they handed us the keys to a Ferrari and we weren’t capable of riding a bicycle.

We were beginners in every sense of the word and just like the opening quote tells us, there are many possibilities for beginners. Too many. Too many to know what to do with. What do you pursue? What do you ignore? Should I pay for this print ad? Should we take a trade show booth? We made all the mistakes you could make. We started with a management toolkit for business owners and in the blink of an eye we had added a careers/recruitment section, a supplier directory, advertising space, and on and on and on. The business had no Unified Vision, no course to keep the ship on and we spent a lot of money learning how to simplify and specialize around our core competency. The one thing that saved us was the removal of “possibilities”.

When we did that, we grew. We were able to launch a version for the UK market and eventually the US market. Once we removed the “possibilities”, we were able to grow organically and pursue initiatives and opportunities which led to bigger revenues while making everything easier to manage. Possibilities kill businesses. When you’re as green as we were starting our business, everything is a possibility. You think you can achieve everything. The true success comes from eliminating possibilities and focusing on opportunities aligned with your brand vision and core competencies and values.

If you haven’t these written down, there’s never been a better time to create the framework and foundation that will help simplify your business. Sir Jony Ive, Head of Design at Apple has helped change our lives with a focus on simplicity and opportunity:

“I think there is a profound and enduring beauty in simplicity; in clarity, in efficiency. True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation. It’s about bringing order to complexity.”

10 years ago, L Brands (formerly Limited Brands) based in Columbus Ohio and responsible for changing the way Americans shop, had 16 brands under it’s umbrella and had a market valuation of $9.6 billion. Today, the company operates just 5 brands including Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works and La Senza and is worth $27 billion. Les Wexner, founder and CEO (the longest serving CEO of a public company) recognized that his skills and those of his executives were diluted and distributed across too wide a playing field. Instead, they offloaded businesses that didn’t have the potential to be super-brands and focused on those that could. It’s a strategy that has paid off tremendously for shareholders.

Simplicity and alignment are essential to the scaling of a business. I once ran into a CMO of a large technology company at a trade show and I was curious as to what her day entailed. How did she manage her time and still direct the brand strategy. Her answer was astonishingly simple: “I spend my day saying no”. You’ll only know when to say “No” when you know where you’re going and how you’re getting there. Is it time to re-evaluate what you say “Yes” to?

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