Embracing Constraints

When my business partner and I began Ox Consulting, we made a list of services we could potentially offer our customers. I was surprised at how many type of projects we could bid on. When starting out, it’s natural to cast your net far and wide. The market appears large and the more diverse projects we could take on, the more money we’d earn.

But this is not the correct approach. At least it wasn’t for us.

When it came time to list our services on our website, we decided to scale back our offerings and revisit our list. After a number of conversations, we crossed off every service except three. Those remaining had three things in common:

1. We loved to do them

2. We knew we could do our best work on them

3. We could complete them quickly

As a start-up, it initially seemed counter-intuitive to limit the number of service we offered. But we both felt strongly that this was the best approach. No need to bite off more than we could chew. Plus, we could always expand our services, but we knew scaling back and leaving money on the table would be difficult. So why not start by only accepting those projects we really enjoyed doing? Isn’t this at least one of the reasons we decided to branch off on our own? Of course it was.

So what what began sounding counter-intuitive become anything but.

Instead of taking on on projects outside of our self-imposed constraints, we focused on what we did well which, in turn, improved those skills even more so. It also makes saying, “No thank you” that much easier.

A week doesn’t go by where I field a call from someone asking us to bid on a large project that doesn’t fit any of the three characteristics I listed.  If we didn’t have these constraints in place, we’d eventually accept a project that’s outside of our skillset, would take six months to complete, and wouldn’t be worth the larger check.

The customer also wins, because I’m able to refer them to someone who is a much better fit than Ox is. I haven’t had a single person unhappy with me when I tell them their project sounds interesting, but falls outside the size or type of project we do best. What I’ve found is that I earn their trust by sending them to someone who is a better fit. And if they have a project that does fit Ox, they usually return knowing that we’ll knock it out of the park for them.

It has taken a few years working together to determine our sweet spot in terms of type and size of projects. But we both agreed on those topics before we began working together, and I’m convinced it’s saved us from accepting at least three poison projects. That may not sound like much, but even a single project that drags on for months can extinguish every ounce of excitement and momentum small businesses thrive on.

Do you impose constraints on the service and products you offer? Or do you feel that limits your ability to respond to market conditions and ever changing customer needs?

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