Ohandwe: The Entrepreneur’s Disease

Don’t use this to determine your company’s core competencies.

“I used to think I was indecisive, but now I’m not too sure.”

“The risk of a wrong decision is preferable to the terror of indecision.”

When we started out in the last company I co-founded, we had a slight identity crisis. The first few months, and sometimes years, of a startup’s existence is defined by one canard:

All money spends.

It means that unless your company starts out of the blocks with a bang and has revenues coming in from nearly day one, you’re not particularly picky in the work that you’re willing to take on.

We joked that whenever someone asked us “Do you…” we’d immediately cut them off with the reply “Why, yes! We do!” The off-the-cuff response to “What do you do?” was “What do you need?”

In a quest to ensure stability and a flow of revenues for the company, we often stepped into the trap of what I call the “Ohandwe” disease.

It would come up in the course of a conversation. The initial problem that a potential client would discuss fell into what we actually really did well for our day jobs. Then, in continuing the discussion, the client would unveil some other pain point that wasn’t really a fit for our skill set. We could do it, but we certainly weren’t the best in the world. Still, opportunity knocked, and we were confident that we could deliver. If we weren’t experts, we could become experts. We’d broaden the scope by telling the potential client “Oh, and we do [X]” with [X] being something that we might be familiar with, but were by no means experts in.

Early on, this was because we felt like we needed the revenues. As a services company, we were only as good as the contracts that we could keep bringing in and could do well on.

When we took this approach, unsurprisingly, there was a strong correlation between the “Ohandwe” discussion and the projects that we could never quite get to “done” status.

How the “ohandwe” disease is a cancer to your company

We were short-sighted in our quest for revenues. We took on work that we shouldn’t at the expense of the work that we could do well. We were fortunate in that the “ohandwes” didn’t cause our downfall and that their number decreased over time. But, they still had a negative impact.

  • It took us away from our core competencies. Each hour that we worked on an “ohandwe” project was an hour that we weren’t spending on work that improved us in our primary craft. Sure, there wasn’t always enough work to keep everyone gainfully occupied, but we were never in a position where the threat of shutdown was imminent.
  • It became a crutch to bring in revenues instead of encouraging us to hustle harder for better fitting work. The “ohandwe” work tended to be lower paying work that more people needed. I rationalized it as “listening to what the market was telling us,” but the truth was that it was, as a business development person, easier to say that we could do it and then tell the team to figure it out than to turn down the work and hustle that much more to find more fitting work.
  • It pulled us into the “everything to everyone” zone. The longer we failed to define ourselves by what we didn’t do, the longer it took for us to gain an identity on what we did do. We never committed to being anything because we were always afraid of missing out on revenues by saying “no” when there wasn’t a great fit.
  • We demoralized team members. Invariably, we didn’t deliver outstanding results when we took on “ohandwe” projects. Whoever was working on those projects had to deal with dissatisfied clients doing work that they weren’t particularly well-suited to do. They usually had to work longer and harder to figure out how to deliver, and didn’t really learn anything that was applicable in the long-term. They veered into jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none territory with their skills rather than developing deep skills in specialized areas.

Knowing the downsides of the “ohandwe” projects, are there times when taking them is acceptable?

When to take on “ohandwe” work

Yes, there are times when you can take on “ohandwe” work.

  • When you need the revenues. Beggars can’t be choosers. If you need the revenues to keep the doors open, then you take what you can get. Don’t be so stuck on your principles that you run out of money waiting for the perfect client and the perfect opportunity to come along.
  • When you are looking to expand your capabilities. There’s a difference between taking on work because you’re clawing for revenues and taking on work because it gives you an opportunity to grow your skill set in a strategic direction. When we narrowed down our niche to internal site search engines using the Solr open source platform, we also looked to bring in big data work. Big data was complementary to site search, as you have to organize the data to be able to search it, and we wanted to build up our resumé of the company. Why do it on our own dime when we could get others to pay us to build up those skills while delivering results?
  • When you are looking to build a relationship with a potentially strategic client. I admit, I waver on this one, because oftentimes, the promise of “more work to come” is just a siren song to get you to lower rates. Furthermore, large companies are often so siloed that good work in one department or division never reaches the ears (and budgets) of others. However, if you’re targeting a potential client and you know that they’re more streamlined and horizontal and that, if you do great work, you’ll become a preferred vendor, then taking on something you can deliver well on, even if it’s not in your wheelhouse, is worth doing. However, in your communications, find ways to reinforce that, while you’re doing a fine job delivering X, you’re exceptional at delivering Y, and, if you can, find ways where you can help them deliver Y once you’ve delivered X.

Do you find it hard to say no to potential opportunities? How have you found the courage to define who you aren’t as well as who you are? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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Jason Hull, CFP®, was the co-founder of Broadtree Partners, a firm that acquires $1-5MM EBITDA companies. He also was the co-founder of open source search consultancy OpenSource Connections, a premier Solr and ElasticSearch firm. He and his wife FIREd (financial independence retire early) at 46 and 45, respectively. He has a BS from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a MBA from the University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business. You can read more about him in the About Page. If you live in Johnson County, Texas or the surrounding areas, he and his wife are cash buyers of Johnson County, Texas houses.

2 thoughts on “Ohandwe: The Entrepreneur’s Disease

  1. I think the “ohandwe” disease also applies to those of us who are in debt, or else struggling toward financial independence. When we’re trying to work out of desperation we don’t make good, strategic choices with our time like we do when we’re working from a position of strength or security. We’re just trying to muddle through!

    1. Indeed. Back when I had consumer debt, I was much more susceptible to the pitches of high risk/high reward (which were mainly just high risk) “investing” opportunities. No money down real estate deals? I was all ears. There’s a line between wise entrepreneurial opportunities and jumping at anything that sounds good to try to pay off debt, as we want it to be gone as quickly as possible. However, most of us didn’t acquire the debt in a day, and it won’t be paid off in a day. It’s easier to get in debt than get out of debt, and paying it off requires intense focus – the exact opposite of the “ohandwe” disease. Excellent observation!

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