An increasingly popular business philosophy is gaining hold: less is more. Or as the Wall Street Journal put it the other day, if you want to succeed, “do less.”
In campaigns we too often ignore this sage advice in hopes that the more services we offer, the more clients we’ll serve.
What’s in the water that makes us think we can buck proven trends that work for the rest of the business world?
My firm, Cygnal, was no different. In addition to our core offerings of polling and communications, we were available for a plethora of other services. But we recently made the difficult decision to hone our product focus. Here’s why:
Just over ten years ago, I started Cygnal’s predecessor firm as a general consultancy. We handled mostly local and state legislative campaigns for Republicans. Our win ratio was nearly perfect.
Business came to us and we had the luxury of choosing who we would take on as clients. Sometimes I wonder what things would look like today had we simply kept it simple and stuck to our “GC” guns. (Not in a regretful way, just pure curiosity.)
All the while, the Siren’s song called, “Do you do mail?” Our response: “Why yes we do …”
All the while thinking to ourselves: “Guess we need to figure out how to execute direct mail.”
Through sheer tenacity, we figured it out, built out a team of freelance designers, negotiated printing and mailing costs with vendors, figured out the postal system (as much as that’s possible) and made good friends in the process.
Client requests – and a strong desire to eat in both even and odd years – led us to also get into television production, media placement, digital advertising, corporate marketing, lobbying, grassroots, public affairs, event planning, polling, and the list goes on.
We were pretty good at all of it, and while we’re throwing out tons of cliches, we ended up being a “jack of all trades, master of none.”
The more business books I read, the clearer it became that we could not “do it all” while doing it at the highest level. For several years, I struggled with the choice to be a full-service campaign firm or do one thing exceedingly well – something that solves a significant market problem.
We took baby steps and slowly shed one service after the other. Each inch of progress was painful. If you were to look at the iterations of our website over this period, you’d think we were schizophrenic, because we were trying to offer so many different services.
It took much longer than I expected for others in the political industry to take note of our transformation. We didn’t let that stop us, because we knew it was the right decision.
Slowly folks at events started to refer to us as “that polling firm” and we wore “that” as a badge of honor.
People who previously viewed us as a competitor because we provided the same service as them — even if it wasn’t a core part of our business — started sending us business instead.
And the proof is in the polling (we love a good “dad joke” here).
Last year, we conducted nearly 100 accurate and affordable polls in two dozen states, giving us experience in 34 states thus far. This election year, we are ramping up and building out internal systems, software, and staff to give us capacity to field more than 500 polls and surveys.
I am beyond thankful to be part of an amazing team who displays flexibility, openness to change, and willingness to go on this journey of specialization. They are what makes our firm tick. And it’s because of this team that the transformation has been possible.
At the same time, don’t read this raw, honest article and think the experience has been easy. But was the effort worth it? The experiment that’s led us to becoming a more successful business has absolutely been worth the cost.
I challenge you to look at your business and ask yourself, what are we the absolute best at, and what else are we doing that’s keeping us from excelling at that singular focus?
You may not want to acknowledge the answer, but I promise you already know what it is. Now gather up the courage to make the tough decisions, like we did, and you will be better for it in the end.
Brent Buchanan is a managing partner at Cygnal, a GOP communication, digital, and data/research firm.