Taking the Narrow Path...Learning to Say No

What category are you focusing on, what specifically in that category are you targeting, and then be patient so you can position yourself in that category and reap the rewards.

Taking the Narrow Path...Learning to Say No
Photo by Liam Simpson / Unsplash

Recently, I have been meeting with a mentor to talk about my career goals and to process what my unique skill sets are. I found his process quite interesting and helpful. In fact, it was very similar to answering the question, "What does your business do?"

Some of the processes have involved answering and defining what industry I serve, what I am good at, and what differentiates me. The idea is to narrow down the options so I can be more specific in my search. I think treating your career as a business is a good idea, but I am testing this hypothesis. I am on the path of selecting, at least for the near to mid-future, a career trajectory working for a company, something a little bit foreign to me as I have been on the journey of building my own company for as long as I can remember.

Some years ago, our business mentor did a similar thing when he first tried to get some insight into where we were standing. It went as follows:

  • What industry are you in?
  • What differentiates you in that industry?
  • Are you getting clients and how are your sales? (let's see numbers)

One business expert I admire is David C. Baker. To be honest, I started listening to him just because I saw an interview with Chris Do, and he had a really cool workshop and talked a bit about his woodworking (I was living and breathing woodworking at the time).

In one of his latest blog posts, Baker talks about this exact thing. He points out two defining questions and the reward of going through the pain of focusing, saying no, and positioning your brand. The idea behind it all is to prevent you from having an answer for your clients along the lines of... "I do this, but I can also do anything you ask for."

Backer's expertise in business and also his passion for craftsmanship strung a chord in me.

One of the reasons businesses that start in a garage with a craftsmanship and passion focus, end up failing is because they neglect the business of learning about business. We ourselves almost fell into that death trap, we corrected that course of action and put some work into defining these questions.

During my years of entrepreneurship, I have called this process, in vulgar terms, learning to say NO so I can focus on the things I really do well. The category: We were a furniture business; that meant not doing architectural woodworking, for example.

The distinction was that we were a custom tropical hardwood furniture business. We were not in the business of plywood, cabinets, outfitting, remodeling, etc. We made wooden furniture, not metal, not marble, etc. It was pretty clear that if we stayed on that path, we were more efficient and profitable. I am sure we still could have worked more on how to really differentiate ourselves, but that's as far as we got.

We got our final break when we landed four contracts in one week, which would have made us as much money in three months as we had made in the last three years. Sadly, that very week the Government of Panama declared quarantine because of COVID; three of those contracts disappeared and one remained, which was still pretty good. That was an externality no one was really preventing.

We pivoted, managed the quarantine, and decided to exit the best way we could. What we learned is that, externalities aside, all those four contracts were exactly the kind of work and client we were waiting to focus on; that was, my friend, the reward of saying no to other things that were not in our distinctive category.

On the flip side, because our regular clients (restaurants) went out of business almost overnight for the next two years, we ended up saying 'Yes' to many jobs we would not have regularly taken just to keep cash flow positive and buy us time to plan an exit strategy. However, there are things in life for which we cannot be prepared.

You have to be flexible and open to change when it's needed. If you are not, the breaking will be harder and more painful than the flexing.

What category are you focusing on, what specifically in that category are you targeting, and are you patient enough so you can position yourself in that category and reap the rewards? That's of course, assuming you choose a profitable niche.

Until the next one,