Diversifying business creates sturdy foundation for economy ups, downs

“Stick to your knitting” is a business adage dating to at least the mid-1800s. It means, “Continue focusing on what you do best.” Dozens of business books have been written on the subject, one of the most recent being “Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You.” In it, author John Warrilow argues for converting your most profitable service into a product that you systematize and sell exclusively. In other words, to reference another maxim, put all your eggs in one basket.

Although these strategies may have made sense prerecession, I can assure you that, had we followed them, our company would no longer exist. Instead, like most organizations, we were forced to scrutinize every aspect of our business model and develop creative solutions (often on the fly) to stay one step ahead of the turbulent economy. The answer for us came down to one word: Diversification.

Specifically, we diversified in the following areas:

▶ Clientele. Before the crash, our client portfolio was heavily weighted toward the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) industry. Bad idea. As this market sector got hammered particularly hard, especially here in Las Vegas, many of these businesses circled the wagons, downsized or closed. No matter which route they took, they cut back or eliminated marketing communications altogether. Our company felt the negative effect almost overnight. We scrambled to reach out to other disciplines, notably professional service firms in law, finance, medical, high tech. Although these weren’t necessarily available in abundance, we acquired just enough to keep our team intact and our business afloat.

▶ Geography. I think many of us underestimated the downturn’s depth and duration. But even during the darkest stretches, pockets of relative prosperity endured throughout the United States. One of our consultants pulled up stakes and moved to Houston where, he reported back, the recession was little more than a hiccup. (This may have had something to do with diversification on a much larger scale. Are you paying attention, Las Vegas?) We weren’t willing to move out of state, but did go outside the market (sometimes way outside) to pick up new clients in Virginia, Oregon, Utah and the Midwest. With today’s communications technology and a willingness to travel (as one of our team members says, “My bags are always packed”), location is less relevant than ever. Sure, some of us need to be at our desks at 5:30 a.m. to accommodate our East Coast clients. But it’s a price we willingly pay.

▶ Offerings. Back in the good ol’ days (circa mid-2000s), much of the revenue in our field came from media commissions and markups on printed materials. That income dried up in a hurry as marketing budgets shrank and clients demanded faster results coupled with more accountability. Enter services such as social media management, blogging, e-newsletters and search engine optimization, where the rules of engagement were different from anything we thought we knew previously. Now that the “mass” had been taken out of mass media, companies could no longer be all things to all people. Instead, the goal was about creating conversations, establishing trust and building a loyal following (a “tribe” in the words of marketing guru Seth Godin). Happily, this philosophy shifted over to face-to-fact client interactions, too, where old school posturing was replaced by empathy and sharing. Only halfway jokingly did we discuss adding “business therapy” to our list of services. I’m pleased to say that, while the economy continues to recover, those authentic connections remain in full force, a positive unintended consequence no one could have predicted.

In subsequent years, we have continued to expand our services to include animation, story boards for Hollywood movie studios, even book production (fiction and nonfiction) from ghostwriting, to final printing, and everything in between. Regardless of the delivery vehicle and how often we choose to diversify, one constant stays the same: content is still king and queen. That’s a comforting realization in a world where change is the only certainty.

Brian Rouff is managing partner for Imagine Communications, a full-service public relations, marketing and communications firm in Las Vegas. He has more than 35 years of marketing experience. The UCLA graduate is also a bestselling novelist.

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