You’re a specialist marketing consultancy focused in the accountancy sector. An opportunity comes up to market a local restaurant. It’s a different audience, requires completely different marketing strategy and tactics, but all business is good business, right? Or perhaps you’re known in your sector for offering a premium service but you’re not the cheapest, so you decide to compete on both price and service. Good decision?

For a small business, the desire to try and be good at everything can be a fast route to what Harvard Business School calls “heartbreaking mediocrity”. How can you expect to master every skill you need to meet the disparate needs of a wide and varying client base without compromising what you’re really good at? Or deliver premium service for the cheapest cost?

The bad news is you can’t. And if you try, you’ll never reach your goals and only end up delivering a service to your best clients that is well short of what you could deliver. Often the only way you’ll learn this is the hard way.

The good news is if you change that mindset and recognise that you cannot be great at everything, it will free you to excel at what you’re really good at.

Great business is a trade-off

Not trying to be good at everything is contrary to human nature. How many of us have sat in an appraisal meeting with a manager and, having been told what our strengths and weaknesses are, resolved to improve those weaknesses with extra training perhaps or more focus? We’re hard-wired that way.

The trouble is there’s only a finite resource to draw on – spend more time trying to improve what you’re not good at and what you excel at will inevitably suffer.

It’s the same for any business, whether you’re a multi-national with thousands of employees or a freelancer operating in a local market – the risks of trying to do everything well will only end in heartbreaking mediocrity. The best businesses out there know this.

Take online shoe seller Zappos, for example. They don’t claim to be the cheapest but they do aim to deliver the best customer service. They know what they can do better than everyone else but also what they can’t.

Where’s your customer sweet spot?

At the heart of all this is the need to know where your customer sweet spot is. Which customers can you serve brilliantly? And, knowing what you do well for them, how can you make it even better by spending less time doing those things that you know those customers don’t value, or trying to serve other customers that you know don’t value what you do well?

For a small business this can be a very powerful differentiator. Your sweet spot clients will see a supplier who can make a very real difference to their own business, and can bring a level of flexibility and knowledge that perhaps a bigger organisation that tries to be good at everything cannot do.

Lessons in avoiding mediocrity

Avoiding the temptation of doing stuff you’re not good at can be difficult. I’d call it the school of hard choices. It is not easy to resist the lure of a new customer’s cash, even if that customer might have different needs or requirements from those clients who sit in your sweet spot.

At start-up, it may be part of the learning process to work with a wider selection of clients (or a pragmatic step to simply earn some money), but that shouldn’t detract from a longer term strategy which should focus on excelling at what you’re really good at.

There’s nothing wrong with not being good at everything. In fact you should celebrate the fact that you’re bad at something and concentrate on what you’re good at. It’s not easy but it’s critical those choices are made if you really want to excel.

Learn more from The School of Hard Knocks: