Specialise or Die!

July 5, 2011Vincent Byrne

I was at a networking event a couple of years ago and happened to meet a solicitor who had recently left a large firm to start his own practice. In the course of the conversation I asked him if he knew some people who had worked in his former firm in the Corporate and Insolvency Department, an area in which I had worked when I trained as an accountant many moons ago. He said he didn’t that he in fact had worked mainly in the Family Law Division.

With a certain curiosity, I asked him if he had liked the Family Law work. He answered enthusiastically that he loved it and said that when he got his new practice up and running that he hoped to go back and specialise in that area in the future. I asked him why he wasn’t specialising now? He told me he couldn’t because he needed to take on whatever business he could get in order to get the practice going – he said that he had bills to pay! We ended up chatting for quite a while (breaking all of the espoused speed networking rules!) and I shared with him some of my own experiences of when I started working for myself nearly 17 years ago by way of trying to convince him to rethink.

I, too, took on any type of accounting and financial systems work that was going and, it did keep things ticking over financially for a few years. However, at the end of it, all I had built was a history of varying project work but I had no sustainable or repeatable business to speak of.

This, I later realised, was a result of my lack of focus and the result of overlooking the need to specialise and build an expertise in a specific area. As a result, I had not been in a position to communicate my message of what I loved doing and the type of clients that I worked best with. I had effectively put myself in the position of being a contract accountant but with all of the headaches of running a business.

The contrast was brought home to me shortly after when we decided to take on the Irish Distributor rights for an accounting software package. As a result, and effectively by default, we became specialists by virtue of the fact that we had only one product to sell and, in order to convince the parent company to sign us up, we had to commit to dropping the ‘financial consultancy’ work.

Despite these ‘constraints’, within 18 months, we had become the best international distributor of the product, our company was bought out by the parent and we were ‘given’ the UK distribution rights.

At the time I had not appreciated the difference in my own performance in the two separate situations and it only occurred to me several years later when I reflected on the two scenarios.

The impact of specialisation and focus was immense because:

  • We had only one product to market and sell – no distractions.
  • It forced us to be innovative in finding several ways to generate income from that single product.
  • We knew the product ‘inside – out’ because we had to study it in depth to be able to demonstrate it, adapt it to different situations and fix it when it fell over.
  • We knew precisely who our customers and potential customers were and never tried to oversell.
  • In building the expertise, the selling and implementation of the product became easy and we were really good at it.

As a result of all of these factors, we became very successful in a short period of time, culminating in the buy-out.

When I began my own research into the success factors of excellent companies, I began to see the link between my own experience and the teachings of Tom Peters, Michael Gerber and Michael Port, to name but a few.

Their message was simple:

‘People and companies that specialise and build expertise in a specific area usually love their work, they are great at it, they can charge higher prices than the generalists and, as a result, they become very successful, very quickly’.

So, why not take a look at your own business and identify the specific areas that you are really good at and that you really enjoy. Then consider how you might build or move your business in the direction of that single product or service by imagining that you had to operate within the constraint of no other product or service option.

Try it and see what comes up and if you need any help or guidance with the process, drop me an email

PS: I occasionally wondered if that solicitor ever heeded my advice and in writing this piece I did think of checking him out but I couldn’t find his card …………..Oops! That’s another rule of the Speed Networking Bible broken!!

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