History is laden with examples of businesses that have broadened their repertoire of products and services, yielding both remarkable successes and monumental failures. On the other hand, there is really no such thing as “playing it safe.” Just as many companies have foundered by deviating too far, too fast from their traditional business model, others have lost their edge by hewing too closely to convention, like old dogs that failed to learn new tricks. A famous example of the latter is Smith-Corona, which by the 1980s had firmly established itself as the world’s premier manufacturer of typewriters, only to watch its signal technology fade into obsolescence due to the advancement of the personal computer.
Of course, the prospect of expanding a business model is daunting, and the temptation of risk-aversion is strong. But the choice to “stick with the core” entails its own risks. There are no guarantees. But there are strategies companies can employ that will enhance the probability of a successful transition or expansion.
Assess your current capabilities. Where does your business excel? What can you do better?
If you’re running a profitable business already, it’s a sign that your clientele values what you have to offer. Take the time to realistically determine your strengths and weaknesses as an organization, and where they stack up against your major competitors. Equally important, stay abreast of any new techniques, technologies, and business opportunities that your competitors may be exploring.
In his influential book Understanding Media, cultural analyst Marshall McLuhan advanced the thesis that technology—including tools, vehicles, and furniture (which he broadly defines as “media”)—are effective extensions of the human body and mind, geared toward a particular purpose. Using this concept as a framework for analysis, we can infer that a successful transition from one medium to another requires organizations to first recognize a distinction between what they provide, and the means (media) by which they provide it.
For example, the best restaurants are not exclusively in the business of serving food; they afford customers a social, environmental, and gastronomic experience. The technology corporation IBM is not merely a manufacturer of computers and software; its primary purpose is to facilitate the storage and transfer of vast amounts of information. Computers are a medium which serves that end.
Think about the primary purpose of your business, and the experience you would like your customers to have. Are there easier, more efficient, or more cost-effective ways to achieve that goal? What are the tools, or media, at your disposal?
Seek out windows of opportunity.
Once you have a clear idea of the raison d’être of your business, you can think about broadening the range of products and services on offer. Amazon, which began as an online book retailer, now distributes DVDs, music, and even fashion accessories. Netflix, once a mail-order DVD rental service that came close to bankruptcy, is now a highly profitable video-on-demand website with an increasingly global customer base. Both companies recognized that they were in the business not only of moving product, but of catering to the lifestyles of busy professionals by providing easy, convenient gateways for shopping and entertainment.
Do your research first.
Occasionally, the opportunity to open up a niche or neglected market presents itself, if you are fortunate or imaginative enough to find prospective customers who are underserved, or to devise a technique that hasn’t been tried yet. But in most transitions or expansions to new markets, you’ll find an established group of firms with a strong foothold. Invariably, those competitors will tenaciously resist your attempts to siphon away their clientele, and will have the advantages of experience, skill, infrastructure, existing relationships, and inside knowledge on their side.
This is why advance research is so important. Before you embark upon a new endeavour, survey the terrain. Get to know your prospective customers and their needs and habits. Identify and examine the most prominent incumbents in the industry, and understand why they are successful.
If you’ve done your homework, feel confident that you can offer a better deal than what’s already on the table in your target market, have a viable business plan, and have secured the capital and cash flow you need, then you’re ready to make a move.