Whenever someone asks me to name the biggest problem for small-business owners, my answer is a surprise. I don't recite the expected litany of typical responses: paperwork, taxes, finding good employees. No, I reply with one word, "focus."

In a small business, there are so many different things to do, and so few people to do them, that an entrepreneur has to continually juggle priorities. It's very different than working in a big company, where there are specialists for every product line, market segment, and area of operation.

At one of my workshops, one small-business owner told me that throughout her work day, she thought of herself as having different job titles: Marketing Director, Chief Financial Officer, Director of Operations, shipping clerk, and so on. And she was an artist!

Handling so many tasks at once is exhausting. You're constantly pulled in different directions. You've got a "To-Do" list for each area of your business that could take up all your time. It's very easy to end up feeling that you're not succeeding very well in any of them.

Compounding the problem is that many of us are, in essence, running more than one business at once. Not out of choice, but of necessity.

For instance, a landscape designer might prefer to spend most of his time just designing new gardens, which is business number one. But serving an entirely "one-time" clientele can mean expensive marketing (continually having to acquire new clients) and might not provide sufficient stable income. So, he might wisely decide to also offer ongoing garden maintenance -- business number two. Since he doesn't live in a Sunbelt state, his business is seasonal. So he also offers snow removal -- business number three. Eventually, some of his customers ask him to install and remove their outside Christmas decorations. Since that's more predictable than snow removal, he adds and starts marketing that service -- business number four.

Adding each of these "businesses" makes sense, but it can make an entrepreneur awfully schizophrenic. After all, our hypothetical landscape designer really wants to be creating inviting gardens, yet he spends part of his time fixing electric lights on reindeer on rooftops.

While I'm not dealing with twinkling Santa Clauses, I face the same dilemma. I own and run a publishing company. That's my primary source of income, and business number one. But I'm also a speaker for conventions and conferences -- business number. Taking up a lot of my time is writing books -- business number three. And you thought all I did was lie in a lounge chair by a pool, sipping a tropical drink, effortlessly typing out 700-words of expertly crafted business insight once a week.

Regular readers of this column know that I'm a big believer in finding a niche and sticking to it. As a business strategy, being highly focused makes it far easier to succeed.

But, you don't want to have ALL of your eggs in one business basket. If you're too dependent on one client, or even one product line, you're very vulnerable if there's a change in that market.

Last year, in my publishing company, we decided to narrow our focus. Reflecting our commitment to developing products for business planning, next month we're officially changing the name of our imprint from Running 'R' Media to The Planning Shop.

But that doesn't mean we can afford to be entirely single-minded. In fact, we recognized we receive a disproportionately high percentage of our income through just one distribution channel. So we decided to diversify our product line (staying within business planning products) and distribution model to make us less dependent on that one channel. Even while narrowing one aspect of our business, we were broadening another.

What's an entrepreneur to do?

  • Make certain you have an overall concept of your business that logically covers the different aspects. For instance, the landscaper actually runs a company designing and maintaining outside spaces of clients' buildings.
  • Develop separate business and marketing plans for each "business line."
  • Create separate "To-Do" lists for each line, so you can see where each of them stands.
  • Don't be too hard on yourself. Remember, it really is hard to run so many businesses at once.

Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams is the author of The Successful Business Organizer and The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies. Register for Rhonda's free business tips newsletter at www.RhondaOnline.com.