Balls in the Air

Have you ever heard of Anthony Gatto? I hadn’t either. Gatto has been on the list of the world’s best jugglers every year since 2003 when the list was first compiled. He started juggling when he was almost four years old and is the only juggler ever featured on a Topps trading card. Among his amazing performances were juggling eight balls for one minute and 13 second; nine balls for 54 seconds; seven rings for 15 minutes and six seconds and 12 rings with 12 catches. All are world records. I’ve tried many times and can’t even master juggling two balls – much less eight. I did notice that Gatto doesn’t hold any records for juggling chainsaws – so he must be a pretty smart guy!

For entrepreneurs the obvious metaphor here involves the juggling act that we perform every day. But I want to talk about it in a bit of a different context. The question I want to pose is that of focus vs. diversification. What do I mean by this? I’ve said before that I don’t like to take risk, but I’ll manage risk all day long. This is a Grand Canyon-huge distinction. Taking risk for me is akin to gambling – and I’m not a gambler. Managing risk is a process and allows me to stack the odds in my favor. So what does focus vs. diversification have to do with managing risk?

There is a school of thought that says we should focus on what we do best. And we should hone our craft to the point that we then are the best at what we do. Several very successful companies are focused on a single product. Crocs, Spanx, Michelin, Roku and Gorilla Glue are all such companies. They have developed their product to the point that it’s in such high demand that there is no need to add to their product mix. Southwest Airlines has focused for decades on solely flying the Boeing 737 aircraft. The advantages for them are numerous including the manner in which they stock spare parts, train their mechanics and flight crews, route and position planes, etc.

I believe that there is an inherent risk to being so focused on a single product line. This risk includes business cycles where a particular product type might fall out of favor. Technological advances have been known to make many products/services obsolete. Remember Blockbuster Video? It was a high-flyer for a long time and was pretty much focused on a bricks and mortar delivery of videos. But it became so focused that it failed to realize that it needed to change its entire business model and product suite to adapt to rapidly changing consumer preferences. Now the company is out-of-business.

This brings me to the strategy of diversification. Our organization has always had multiple product lines. In the 1970s through the 1990s, we were primarily involved in the commercial real estate industry with leasing, brokerage and property management. And we handled office buildings, shopping centers, industrial facilities and apartment communities. In some years the leasing and brokerage business might be slow, but the property management business would be booming. Then there were times when the opposite occurred. Yet we were able to maintain fairly consistent revenues and margins throughout the various cycles we encountered.

Since 2000 we’ve diversified even more extensively including construction, maintenance service, building components distribution, tax credit syndication, apartment acquisitions, apartment development and venture capital investments (outside of the real estate world). We’ve organized into business units specializing in these areas with a managing director leading each. With this structure each leader is able to focus on being the best in class. The overall enterprise benefits from a highly diversified product/service offering balanced with a focus sufficient to excel. To accomplish this, a considerable investment was made in human resources to enable the focus and specialization. Our organization also wins with the vertical integration that has resulted. Multiple business units are able to participate in various internally generated projects as well as provide products and services to third parties.

Keeping a lot of balls in the air actually requires considerable focus. When we can do both successfully we are able to minimize the risks that we face as entrepreneurs.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

juggling

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