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Inspiration Startups

New CMO: You Grow What You Focus On

Back around 2007-2008, just before the great recession started, I was running CWNP, and we were loving life. We had found our focus – WiFi Certification & Training – and we had grown to over $1M in revenue. It was about that same time that we realized we had a captive audience, and that we could offer that audience things that were tangential to learning enterprise WiFi. We could offer them online training, instructor led training (competing with our channel); we could advertise other companies’ WiFi products to them. The possibilities were endless! Let’s grow the company with other products!

The Tangential Offering

So we did. And it worked. We ran training classes where our training channel didn’t. Then we sold email advertising to WiFi manufacturers, and sent dozens of promotional emails to our email list (which we had grown from zero to about 150k email addresses by offering valuable, technical WiFi information to help them learn). We also offered online classes before online training was cool.

Then we even started another company to do nothing but corporate WiFi training. It went gangbusters!

Keep Your Eye on THE Ball

And then January 2009 arrived. We had just celebrated the best year in the company’s history as we grew revenue more than 80% year over year. Now, keep in mind, that this was before Software-as-a-Service, so our revenue was not recurring. We tried to build recurring revenues by offering subsequent certifications, but that was unpredictable, and we had to re-earn our revenue every month and year. The year 2008 was fantastic for us!

In January 2009, our largest corporate training partner called us to say that they were cancelling our contract, which was worth $700k. That was a pretty dark day. We just lost about 35% of our annual revenue projection for 2009.

It was also about that time that I wanted out. I reached out to Charlie Paparelli, whom I knew, but he didn’t know me very well. He agreed to the meeting because he knew me from church, a previous venture, and several mutual friends. Charlie graciously listened to me whine about how awful our situation was, and how badly I just wanted to leave it. Leave the company I started.

Charlie was not so gracious in his reply, but it was what I needed to hear. In so many words, he said, “You made this mess. Fix it.”

When You Lose Focus, RE-FOCUS!

So, we thought, “it’s ok! We still have the certification business, which is our core, right?” It was at that point that we realized that we had severely neglected the certification business as we sold training classes, advertising, and other non-core stuff.

Easy to say, right? Well, the first step was our own realization that we had, indeed, taken our focus off of the core business. Then we had to reclaim that focus, and execute at a ridiculous level.

I created a hand written, 5-point plan for 2010. It had very simply 5 very clear goals, two of which were to create and publish two brand new certifications out of thin air. What we said, over and over and over again was, “forget all that other stuff we did before, let’s focus on the core business: certification exams and materials for network engineers to use to prepare for those exams.”

OK, some parts of this “focus” effort were easier than others. What I haven’t said up to now is that we went from 13 employees down to 4. That’s right: four. So, we had no other option. It was focus or die. And that was a good thing, given our circumstances.

We did it. We focused and focused and focused, and at the end of that year, we accomplished 4 out of 5 of those points, returned to profitability (we had always been profitable until 2009), and grew the business more than 20% over the horrible year that was 2009.

The Lesson

When you take your eye and your focus off of what got you where you are, that thing will evaporate like ice on a summer day in Atlanta. We almost let it go completely. So, I’ve been that leader who saw lots of bright shiny objects (we literally created and used an acronym for that) and chased after every one of them, only to realize that the dull, boring cash cow was starving.

It’s easy to make this mistake. It’s easy to take your core offering for granted, and chase those BSOs. Don’t. Focus on the core, and grow it relentlessly.

What do you think about that?

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