Losing Focus

When I was young, my favorite stores to go to were gaming stores. Wall-to-wall racks of D&D manuals, Warhammer 40k miniatures, and puzzles of every shape and size.

But as the stores would get bigger and business would get better, they would start to expand their offerings in order to attract a broader customer base. Shelves that once held puzzles were now full of novelty items and Simpsons toys. Gaming books made way for black lights and posters. Miniatures were displaced by the “adult section” of card games and gag gifts.

After a while, the gamers stopped coming. There wasn’t anything there for us anymore. And within months to a year, the store would close down altogether. This wasn’t just one store or two. This happened to at least six stores I shopped at over a decade’s time. As soon as a Simpsons keychain showed up next to some fake dog poop or a marked deck of cards, I started the countdown clock to the store’s doom.

Why? Because they lost focus. They were making money with their original target market, but they (probably) wanted more. But to do that they had to compromise their original mission.

Recently RadioShack announced they were declaring bankruptcy and closing all corporate-owned stores. Part of me was sad, but mostly I was relieved. The RadioShack that I loved had died in the late ’80s/early ’90s. Drawers full of electronics components were reduced to half of the original floorspace. Where once there were shelves of “300-in-1 Electronics Kits” and similar products, now there are remote controlled cars. And the original supplies of hobbyist radio parts have been displaced by every make, model, and carrier of cell phone you can imagine.

I still have my collection of “Engineers Mini Notebooks” by Forrest M Mims. As a pre-teen, I would go into my local store at least once a month to see if a new one had been released. I burned out half the components in my spring-terminal filled electronics kits trying things that weren’t in the book.

RadioShack used to be a place that drove inspiration and learning. Now it pushes batteries and cell phones. A few years ago when I tried to pick up a set of resistors, they required my phone number and street address in order check out. That’s when I stopped going unless I needed something right now.

Now there are web sites like Adafruit and SparkFun and others to get components and kits to fuel the mind. They also have pages and pages of videos and instructions on how to make stuff.

Another company that recently lost its focus is ThinkGeek. My order history goes back to December 10, 2001 though I know I had orders back before that because I have pictures of me in ThinkGeek shirts to prove it.

When I first found ThinkGeek it was because of their wide assortment of IT/Science themed T-shirts. Last year I finally had to throw out 14 shirts that were showing their decade-plus age. Last week I tried to replace them.

But they were gone.

In fact, the entire collection of math/computer/science themed shirts has given way to pop-culture wear. Granted it’s the nerdy side of pop-culture like Doctor Who, Game of Thrones, Portal, Star Trek, etc.; but pop-culture nonetheless.

At first I thought it was just me. I thought that maybe the news of RadioShack was tainting my view of another company. But the next day I found a series of tweets from @Snipeyhead expressing what I had been thinking.

I doubt ThinkGeek is going out of business anytime soon, but I’m pretty sure it’s done getting my business.

As a technology professional it can get pretty easy to lose focus and stray from the path. As a consultant, I might start putting billable hours over relationships with clients. Or, I might get wrapped up in rolling out a new system or supporting the old instead of asking if I am supporting the company’s mission.

That’s why it is so important – no matter what industry you work in – to step back once in a while and take a snapshot of what you are doing and ask, “is this in focus? Does this align with my customer’s expectations?” If not, then it’s time to evaluate why and what path you really want to take.

Chad Lawson is a professional speaker and tech professional who works with your User Friendly Customer Service team members to help them become more self-sufficient and Tech Savvy. In a world where technology is essential to providing stellar service. Chad places the power of technology where it’s needed most – in the hands of your employees. Contact him today to inspire your team.

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