The importance of focus

Paul Boag

Whether running a website or an entire business, it is easy for things to get out of control. That is what happened at Headscape and we learnt valuable lessons because of those mistakes.

If you follow me on Twitter you will no that in the last few weeks we moved out of the Barn into a new office in the centre of Winchester. On the same day Headscape was joined by a new member of staff – Andy Westley.

Headscapes office in Winchester
Headscape recently moved to new offices in Winchester.

Both events were more than what they appeared on face value. Neither an office move or the hiring of an employ is a game changer for most businesses, but they represented a new beginning for us. It has felt as if we have rebooted the business.

Finding your focus

At Headscape we have always wanted to build a “lifestyle” business. In other words, our aim is not to become the biggest or most successful web design agency in the world. Instead it is to build up a solid reputation for delivering quality web solutions and this will bring in enough work to support the life that we want to live. Our aim is not to sell the business or become world changing. We just want to create a business that will allow us to enjoy life.

When focus fades

The problem is that as time goes on it is easy to allow that vision to slip away. For us that happened in three ways:

Distracted by the clients we won

It is easy to let the clients you win determine the type of work you get in the future. For example in Headscape’s case we started to win increasingly complex pieces of technical work, until that made up a significant part of our revenue. This despite the fact that none of the founders were particularly interested in software development or knowledgable enough to effectively sell it.

We also ended up with one or two clients who brought in a large proportion of our revenue. We became distracted by keeping these clients happy for fear of losing them.

I have seen digital leads making similar mistakes on their website. They become so fixated on meeting users needs that they build functionality that is not consistent with their vision for the site. They allow their entire site to go off on a tangent that might not actually benefit to their business.

I have seen others fixate on one user group at the cost of all else. They are so busy trying to keep that user group happy that they alienate others and damage their business.

Distracted by the latest trend

Another distraction we have experienced ourselves, and have seen among website owners, is being distracted by the latest trend.

In our case it was an attempt to keep pace with the latest innovations and not become obsolete. A few clients would come to us asking for marketing services or content strategy and we began to think we should expand into these areas. When we did, it almost always ended badly because these areas were not our passion. We were simply trying to move with the times, when our hearts weren’t really in it.

The same was true for developing a web app. There was a time when it seemed like every web designer was launching a web app. It sounded like a nice idea because it would bring in ongoing regular income. However, again our hearts weren’t in it. We enjoyed working with clients. That was what we were good at and this was just another distraction that damaged our business.

You see the same mistake being made all the time by senior managers. They hear about the latest trend (whether that is web 2.0. or Facebook) and start demanding that their website has it, without really understanding what benefit it would bring them.

Distracted by the demands of the company

Finally, we found ourselves distracted by the demands of the company itself. As anybody who runs a business will tell you, that business can feel like a monster that has to be constantly fed. It can easily feel like you are no longer in control and that it is setting the agenda.

You get too busy and so take on more people. But that means you have to bring in more work, which creates more pressure. As the new work comes in you get busy again and so hire yet more people. That brings with it management headaches and before you know it you are managing a team and selling, rather than doing what you actually enjoy – building websites.

This happens all the time among web teams too. As the web grows in importance there are ever more demands from internal stakeholders to improve the website. The team eventually expands to meet the demand, but that just allows them to expand the site making it ever more complex. Before long any central vision is lost among the daily grind of making endless amendments and supposed improvements to the site.

Regaining focus

For a long time we felt a growing sense of unease. The company had grown too big. We were spending too much time managing people and not enough time ensuring the quality of what was going out of the door. Our overheads had grown too big and the pressure of bring in enough work was making Headscape anything but a lifestyle business.

I would like to claim we had a moment of realisation that something had to change. That we took control of the company and established a new, clear direction. In fact we did not. We were so bogged down in the day-to-day management of the company that we didn’t have the chance to think, let alone plan strategically.

What happened instead is that we lost one of our biggest clients. It was a huge blow and yet was exactly the wake up call we needed.

Although terrifying to lose such a big client it was also a huge relief. The work was mostly technical and so not the kind of work we as founders particularly enjoyed. We had also been expending so much energy servicing that client that it ended up damaging the business. With them gone we felt the freedom to step back and look at the bigger picture.

We took this opportunity to ask ourselves what we wanted. Again, we returned to this idea of a lifestyle business. That meant less pressure and more of the kind of work we enjoyed.

To translate this into real terms that meant shrinking the company, moving away from hardcore software development, while focusing on design and consultancy instead.

It was such a shame it took us so long to come to this realisation and that it took a major issue to wake us up. Whether you are a website or business owner, don’t make the same mistake. Make sure you regularly set aside time to look at the bigger picture, rather than spending all of your time in the trenches.

Implementing a new focus

We had no intention of laying people off, but neither were we going to be distracted from our vision. As it turned out we didn’t need to lay anybody off to shrink the company down to a more manageable size. Some moved on naturally, while others who enjoyed the software development work found better opportunities at companies who specialised in that.

We shrank from 18 down to 11 in a few months and our overheads went down accordingly. The people who moved on were the software development specialists, leaving us with a team of implementors and consultants.

Consultancy was a relatively new area for us, but it turned out that there was an enormous demand and we found ourselves helping with digital strategy, governance and research. Today it makes up a substantial part of the business and best of all nicely leads on to implementation work.

Such is the demand for our consultancy services that we have taken on Andy. However, we will not make the mistakes of the past and grow too big. We have set ourselves a ceiling beyond which we will not grow.

With a smaller team it felt right that we got a new office. The barn was too big and we rattled around in it. Further more, the barn felt like part of the old company and we wanted a fresh beginning.

We now find ourselves in Winchester, which is much more suited to our lifestyle business. It is a lot cheaper than the barn which keeps our overheads low, but also has all of the amenities we missed out in the country. It is easier for us to socialise together and also enables us to fit in some lunchtime shopping. Admittedly this not good for our wallets or waistline, but at least its good for our lifestyle!

So why have I shared all of this? What is the moral of the story? I guess it is to say that whether you run a website or a business, you need to ask yourself who is really in control. Don’t make the mistakes we did. Take control of the direction in which you are going. Step back once in a while and find your focus again. I promise you will end up happier if you do. We certainly have.