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INNOVATE

Three Keys to Business Success: Focus, Focus, Focus
 

It's hard to resist new things, new ideas, new services. But taking your eye off your core is a surefire path to disaster

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Entrepreneurs can’t resist shiny new things. The allure is intoxicating.

As an entrepreneur, you’re built to dodge and weave. You’ll stop at nothing to make your vision work. Every opportunity looks easy. Every new idea could be Google.

Which brings me to the old movie, “Poltergeist?” Remember the part where the little stout lady said, “Caroline, do not go into the light. Stop where you are. Turn away from it. Don’t even look at it”? You too should heed her counsel. 

Focus on your core. Resist the light of the shiny new thing. Focus is severely underrated and incredibly hard for entrepreneurs to embrace.

Let me tell you a cautionary tale about being Hooked on Chinese.

Before starting my current company, I was the CEO of Hooked on Phonics. It was an incredible brand with a failing business model: old-school infomercials. I was brought in to remodel it into a consumer products and media business and take the product to retail. 

It was a great idea. It worked. We built Hooked on Math. We built Hooked on Kindergarten. Neither was a pivot. These were simple extensions within our wheelhouse.

Then we built Hooked on Baby, Hooked on the Bible, and Hooked on Chinese. We decided we could build our own stores. We even decided to get back into infomercials. Each shiny light looked better than the one before it.  

As a result, before we could really get our legs and prove the core business, we dove into entirely new markets and distribution systems. Chinese was the beginning of a slippery slope that decreased--rather than increased--shareholder value.

And so it was that I learned (the hard way) the importance of keeping your focus.

At 2U, we build online degree- and credit-bearing programs. Our programs are powered by a proprietary system that enables high-quality content delivery, live classes, white glove support, and high-touch training.

There’s no reason we shouldn’t try it elsewhere, right? It’s pretty clear K-12 could use our help. What about corporate training?

No way. Too many colleges need our help. There are too many great degree programs to offer. And, frankly, growth isn’t a problem.

Two years ago, the U.S. government said, “We’d like you to give us a bid for a 2U system for an agency of ours.” The size of the potential deal gave us pause. My CFO looked like Dr. Evil with his pinky to his mouth.

We said no. It was the right call. Since then, we’ve created a series of great new businesses within our core.

Focus on delivering innovation within your business every day. Sergey Brin can afford to work on a self-driving car and Elon Musk can focus on the hyperloop -- they built Google and PayPal. First, make your business sustainable; then you can wander.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Sep 11, 2013

CHIP PAUCEK is the CEO and co-founder of 2U, an online education provider based in Landover, Maryland.
@chippaucek




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