It should go without saying that you should know what you're doing in order to do it. But a surprising number of people and even companies don't seem to know what their main purpose is. There are two groups, however, that can always be counted on to understand this perfectly well: 1) customers and 2) competitors. One will leave you and one will devour you if you don't figure it out.
So what business are you in?
Have you clearly defined it?
Are you sure that's really it?
The answers to these questions are important because they dictate the strategies, decisions, and actions that lead to results, or lack thereof. These are not trite exercises - they are paramount.
Let's take Steve Jobs of Apple Computer fame, for example. He is a subject worthy of study, to be sure, having succeeded tremendously at an extreme young age, then floundered famously, only to rise from the ashes and soar to ever higher heights. I will, at some point in the future, do a more in depth write-up on this interesting man, but for now it will suffice to use him as what I hope will be a clear example of the main point of this article (aren't you glad there's a point?)
The very name of "Apple Computer Corporation" gives a hint to where I'm going with this. You see, I contend that part of what was amiss with Steve Jobs in his first run-up to success was that he didn't understand the nature of his own genius. He thought he was in the business of making and selling computers. Following this purpose sent him down many cul-de-sacs and eventually led to his ouster from the very company he helped launch.
He fared even worse at his "next" adventure, NeXT Computers, in which he focused again on building and selling computers, this time to a slightly different market. But along the way he did a few things correctly, which morphed into his eventual success and return to the top. Most importantly, he either discovered or just simply got aligned with his overall true ability: making technology incredibly, reliably, and stylishly useful to the average person.
You see, most of us aren't really interested in how a computer works, or the intricacies of programming, or the cleverness of a sub-routine. I have been alive for the entire computer revolution, my first exposure to it being at my friend Ramana's house in fourth grade where he showed me his P.E.T. computer.
"What's it for?" I asked.
"For computing stuff," he replied.
"Well, you can write lines of programming code and it will compile it," he answered.
"Can we play with your Star Wars action figures some more?" I asked.
Computer technology has always been interesting to the Ramana's of this world, but not to the rest of us mere mortals. (Ramana would go on to be one of our Valedictorians). For the most part, my experience with computers has been a forced, frustrated exercise in learning detailed gobblygook I didn't want to learn in the first place. I just wanted the end result of what the stupid thing was supposed to produce.
Enter Steve Jobs. With his sense of cool and his near maniacal insistence that things "just work," he stands like a knight in shining armor for all of us who desperately need technology but find it no more interesting than putting bamboo shoots under our own fingernails. The fact that he could bring us something that works, and even make us feel cool doing it, was his real genius. I contend, in fact, that it's the real business he's in. Once he discovered this fact he has been unstoppable. This realization broke him out of the box of "making and selling computers" and led him into the world of digitized music (iPODs and iTunes), computer-animated full-length feature movies (Pixar), and computing devices that serve our lives reliably (MacBooks and iPhones). Good job, Steve. Although you think Zen is cool and don't eat meat, I still can somehow relate to you.
So tear a page out of Steve Job's play book, or at least sing to one of his tunes on your iPod Shuffle, and get it clear in your head what your real business is. If you think it's as simple as providing a functional-based answer such as, "making and selling widgets that people want to buy," you deserve what's coming to you. But if you can truly discover your genius angle, that likely you and only you can provide, then you'd better prepare for a moonshot. There will always be a market when you get it right.