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Do fewer things, but do the right things better

By Fred Perrotta · March 23, 2020
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It's tempting to be everywhere and do everything. We read articles (like this one, hi!) telling us what will make our business successful. We see what our competitors are doing and we must do that thing too. We apply for every award, go to every conference, explore every opportunity.

Here at Tortuga, we make travel backpacks. And we're proud that, despite the fact that we're bootstrapped, we often rank in the #1 spot on best travel gear lists. Still, we have a lot of competitors, many of whom are heavily funded, who want to enter our space; it can feel tempting to compare ourselves.

But if we tried to do everything our competitors do, we would spread ourselves thin and lose what makes us unique. Instead, we focus on our positions of greatest strength—like the passionate base of people who obsess over our products and publicly sing our praises. At Tortuga, we have a strong preference for doing fewer things, but doing the right things and doing them better.

This belief doesn't preclude us from growing, or even growing quickly. In fact, this preference makes growth easier. We're able to get more out of what we already have.

Think of the analogy from Stephen R. Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: You have a jar. You need to first fill it with your rocks (the things that matter most), then the pebbles (things that matter but less so), and then the sand (the nice-to-haves). If you fill it in reverse, you have a jar full of sand that makes your business look successful from the outside—the jar is full!—but there's no room for the rocks that really matter.

Find the low-impact work

A couple years ago, one of our marketers was dedicating all of her efforts to social media. She spent her time analyzing data and coming up with engaging posts. But with every effort, our social channels combined still only accounted for 3.5 percent of our profits.

Instead of staying stuck in the hamster wheel of trying to make social work for us, we took a step back to see what other areas of the business were doing. Was there anywhere else we could put that same time and energy, but really make an impact on our business?

Our affiliate program was showing promise. At that point, nobody was leading it—we just accepted inbound leads that seemed like good fits. Still, it was accounting for 15 percent of our revenue. If the affiliate program could do that passively, what could it do if we nurtured it?

Our social media manager switched focuses and developed our affiliate program as an effective arm of our marketing machine. A year later, the affiliate program saw an increase in revenue of 300 percent. Affiliate marketing became one of our biggest strengths, accounting for 40 percent of all revenue.

That's the difference you want to shoot for when you focus on the right things.

It was hard to kick social to the curb. We read articles about how social can grow your business, saw our competitors creating mindblowing Instagram campaigns, and oh also literally everyone in the world is on social media. But—it just wasn't doing anything for us. It was better to double down on what was working.

One other thing to note here: this change was based on one employee's experience. Even in a small business, the CEO or other management can't identify every problem—let alone solve it. Frontline employees often have more visibility of issues (in this case: low-impact efforts) and are better equipped to solve them. In our case, this employee was the one looking at social media every day, and so she was the one to redirect our efforts toward affiliate glory.

Trim the fat

Our company theme for this year is travel light to travel fast—which essentially means we're pruning the business in certain ways so that other parts of the business can flourish. This theme aligns (intentionally, of course) with our desire to help people travel lighter. But it also shapes our decision-making and brings focus to our work.

As CEO, I'm encouraging our employees to stop doing low-impact work, so they can put more effort into things that have high potential. I'm also asking them to scale themselves by delegating or outsourcing what they can (sometimes to a computer via automation). With the time they gain, they can work more on that meaningful work.

One suggestion I give my employees is to start with the Ivy Lee Method: schedule six tasks for yourself per day. This requires you to seek out low-impact work to eliminate. What's left is likely what's most important. Over time, you'll start to see trends in what you think is high-impact, and you just might realize there's a big area that you're supposed to be working on that really isn't doing much for the business.

However you do it, be sure that you prioritize solving problems and avoid chasing new, shiny objects. If you succumb to shiny object syndrome, your business will fall victim to entropy. Instead, test and validate every task, and only work on the things that get you to your goals.

Double down on what matters

It kind of all boils down to the 80/20 rule: the idea that 20 percent of our tasks are responsible for 80 percent of our outcomes. Once you identify the 20 percent that will make the biggest impact, amplify your efforts there, and reduce the time you spend on the other 80 percent. There are a number of ways you can do that:

  • Set OKRs (objectives and key results). We do this every quarter, and it helps us keep our eyes on the prize. We don't only work on our OKRs, but they help us prioritize so we don't spread ourselves thin.

  • Think about a north star. What's the one metric that matters most to your company? Keep that top of mind and be sure that everything you're working on is in support of that metric.

  • Gut check shiny objects. Some shiny objects are actually valuable—but not all. Make sure that any new endeavor is worth your time.

The reality is, you can't take on every task effectively. Just because one of your competitors (or even non-competitors) is doing something, doesn't mean you should follow in their footsteps. Remember, there are likely a ton of things you're doing well that they aren't. By trying to copy someone else's tactics, you're weakening what you're doing well. Resist the temptation, and focus on what will have the greatest impact for your business.

This was a guest post from Fred Perrotta, co-founder and CEO of Tortuga. Want to see your work on the Zapier Blog? Check out our guidelines and get in touch.

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