Shiny Object Syndrome Will Derail Your Business

secret of nimh

One of my favorite movies as a kid

“Why did you pick up the string?”
“Because it was shiny.”
–Mrs. Frisby and Jeremy, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH

“Don’t roll a million marbles up the mountain an inch at a time. Roll one up to the top. Then go get another.”
–James Kresge

In business, you tend to meet two different types of people: the idea generators and the executors. If you can find someone who is both in one, then you’ve found the unicorn swimming in the bacon fountain, and don’t let that person get away!

I am the former. I am an idea person. I came up with ideas for businesses and products and platforms all of the time. Since I came up with them, my Monkey Brain thought that they were the best ideas on the planet, and any one of them could lead us to zillions of dollars.

When I co-founded a software development company, I put gunpowder in my hands. I had tons of ideas, and we had software developers who could make my ideas into reality! I quickly discovered that Monkey Brain could make a great evil scientist laugh.

We decided early on to dedicate Friday afternoons to projects that had nothing to do with client work, but, rather with expanding the team’s base of core knowledge. I viewed that time as my personal playground to try to get projects launched which were related to the ideas I had spilling out of my ears.

Not only did I have ideas, but our team had ideas, too. Since the company focused on, at the time, open source software development – it wasn’t until later that we narrowed down the focus to internal site search with Solr and big data management related to findability – the team constantly came across new platforms or programs, all of which promised to be the next Java or Apache. We wanted to be on the bleeding edge of rising technology so that when it moved from bleeding edge to cutting edge, we could claim experience in it.

You’d think that a bubbling cauldron of ideas would percolate something great, especially since we had, in my extremely biased opinion, a team of rock star programmers who were adept at making magic happen for clients.

Instead, what happened is that we had lots and lots and lots of false starts on projects. The Friday afternoon sessions, while fun, weren’t really leading to any usable intellectual property that we could turn into sustainable revenues.

Why?

It’s because we were always chasing shiny objects. Cool ideas and new platforms came up, and people wanted to try them.

The problem was that all we ever did was try things. We’d get the barest of a shell together and then we’d move onto the next shiny object.

While we met the agenda to learn new things, all we were doing was becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none.

As a business, that moniker is not one that you want tied around you. You don’t want to be a generalist. You want to be a specialist. You want to have a niche, and you want to be the master of that niche.

Chasing shiny objects won’t get you to that mastery.

How can you avoid shiny object syndrome in your business?


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If you aren’t known as the leader in a given niche, then you’re going to be competing on either price or on convenience. Those are much more competitive than having a defined value proposition (e.g., “24,000 remissions prove that we’re the best lung cancer specialists in Texas”). Therefore, the biggest key to defeating shiny object syndrome is to pick something and focus your and your team’s energies into mastering that area.

How do you pick an area?

  • One that you can make a credible claim to expertise in. In the company I co-founded, we started out with open source software because we had committers to different projects and it seemed like everyone else used Microsoft products. After a while, open source was no longer a differentiator, so we shifted to focusing on the Solr search engine because we had the co-author of the only published book on the topic, and he was being asked to speak at conference after conference. It doesn’t matter how you arrive at that expertise, but you need to have a defensible and credible claim to it.
  • Target a narrow niche. If you’re a CPA, it’s not enough to say that you do taxes. While being a CPA is a differentiator in itself, it’s not enough given that there are probably 25 CPAs within a given area. Instead, pick something more narrow and dive deeply into it. Can you be the CPA who specializes in divorce estate separation issues? Or in solo entrepreneur tax accounting? You’d rather be top of mind for 100 potential customers than in a muddled mass for 1,000 potential customers.
  • Focus on pain and solve it. No matter how much economists like to portray us as rational beings, we’re not. Everyone has a Monkey Brain, including those people who are going to write checks for you to provide services or products. Therefore, focus on the pain reduction or elimination as the solution that you provide. Hit the emotions. Remind your potential clients’ and customers’ Monkey Brains of the pain and misery and show them how you can relieve that suffering.

You can’t just say that you’re an expert, rest on your laurels, and let the competition pass you by. You need to continuously improve, which can sometimes mean chasing a shiny object. If you’re going to chase a shiny object – like developing a new product or service offering or branching out into a new area – then you need to set both clear objectives and milestones to determine if and when you’ll stop chasing that shiny object.

If you’re going to branch out into something new, make it time-bounded and with goals that improve the financials of the company over the long term, such as “we will sell the new product to at least 3 beta customers for no less than 60% of retail price within six months, or we will stop development on the new product.”

Because I didn’t set forth those types of guidelines for our new projects, we wound up with a lot of half-baked ideas and offerings:

  • Airport website in a box
  • High end developer training at a resort
  • Continuous integration certified stack
  • and many more

Ironically, a couple of the ideas that we came up with actually made it on the market as offerings from other companies. Those companies focused on execution. We did not. Therein was the difference.

If you’re going to pursue an innovation agenda within your company, that’s fine. However, make sure that you pursue it with intention, with a plan, and with a process so that you can both create value from your intellectual capital and capture that value. No point in growing the pie if you don’t get a bite of it, and no point in baking a pie that nobody wants to eat.

Keep your shiny object chasing focused and linked to company progress and financials. Don’t do like we did and flap around from shiny object to shiny object, lest you get caught up in string like Jeremy from Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH did.

Are you an entrepreneur who is pursuing an innovation agenda? How are you managing the desire to chase shiny objects? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

About Jason Hull, CFP®

Jason Hull, CFP®, is the Chief Technology officer of myFinancialAnswers, an online comprehensive financial planning service.

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