The case for discovering what business you are really in

General Assembly 2013

General Assembly 2013 (Photo credit: Paradise Nazarene)

What business are you really in?

Most can’t answer this question. And if they do, it is a rather functional driven answer such as: we make vacuums.

How meaningful and memorable is that?

I was reading through a note about General Assembly, a co-working space, and how it is shutting down it’s co-working services for entrepreneurs and instead focus on education:

“When we founded General Assembly, our idea was simple: we wanted to build a new place to support the growing NYC startup community.

Nearly three years later, when I look back at our early goal, I am astonished – we have overshot that goal by a considerable margin. In a very short time, General Assembly has grown from a collaborative space that a small group within the NYC startup community could call home into a global educational institution that has helped empower nearly 70,000 individuals to pursue work they love.

Throughout this period of intense growth, the original idea has remained constant, even while the scope and scale have changed.

Over the past two and a half years, our community has grown much larger than our amazing co-working members. It now encompasses the tens of thousands of students who’ve come through our doors and the more than 3,000 alumni of our long-form courses, not to mention the hundreds of instructors and the 2,000 hiring partners who come to GA in search of top talent. Similarly, support once meant desks and space, but has come to also mean instruction, opportunity and talent for our students and hiring partners.

It is in this context that we have made the decision to stop offering our coworking services in 2014. It is not a decision we took lightly – but it is a necessary one as we work to expand our global network of students and alumni.

When looking at how to continue to serve our ever-growing student and alumni community in NYC, we had to look hard at the community’s needs and our use of our NYC real estate. Since our launch, we’ve seen an explosion in coworking options come available, with great companies dedicating focus and investment in that model. And while we’re making serious investments to grow our New York footprint, there is an almost impossible need for even more space to accommodate our classes, events, students, alumni and staff.

We have incredible appreciation and respect for our members and their involvement in our founding and continued growth. But for a long time now, coworking has been a small part of the “business” of GA, even as it has remained important as a reminder of community as a founding an ongoing value of our company.

For the NYC startup community, we will continue doing what we have been doing all along – hosting events, career fairs, hackathons, fireside chats, and panels. Over the next few weeks and months, we will be working with other great coworking spaces throughout the city to ensure a seamless transition for our existing members as we affect this change. We will have a team dedicated to making sure that our existing members are taken care of, and will continue to be among the most successful group of startups in NYC. Our members are still an important part of GA’s vision to build a global community of individuals empowered to pursue work they love – and they always will be.”

I added emphasis to the part where they mention “why” they are doing this, and it specifically says that co-working is a small part of their business, so they are going to focus on “the business they are really in”.

Similarly, Ev Williams, one of the co-founders of Twitter, had something very interesting to say about how they had to discover Twitter’s identity:

“There are certain businesses that you know what they are when they’re born. You don’t necessarily know how big they are or what’s going to make them successful, but Google, for example, was always a search engine.

With Twitter, it wasn’t clear what it was. They called it a social network, they called it microblogging, but it was hard to define, because it didn’t replace anything. There was this path of discovery with something like that, where over time you figure out what it is. Twitter actually changed from what we thought it was in the beginning, which we described as status updates and a social utility. It is that, in part, but the insight we eventually came to was Twitter was really more of an information network than it is a social network. That led to all kinds of design decisions, such as the inclusion of search and hashtags and the way retweets work. All this came because we were thinking deeply about the question: what is the essence of this product? It didn’t reveal itself immediately and would have been a lot harder to get to had we not been focused on that.”

Both of these stories touch on the point of understanding “what business you are really in“. As I mentioned above, this isn’t a clear answer for most. There is nothing wrong with wanting to make vacuums, but there are a world of possibilities that you are missing by only defining yourself like that.

For example, Starbucks could be defined as being in the business of coffee. But, according to Howard Schultz, they are in the business of human empowerment. This is an important distinction, because every initiative they green light must have an outcome that connects to that identity.

This is what strategy is about. Identity and aspirations matter for a lot of reasons, it says a lot of what you stand for. Like General Assembly, some businesses iterate and discover what business they really are in as they go. Others take it another step and define themselves not by what they do, but why they do it.

Walt Disney is a conglomerate, but I doubt they talk about being in the movie, merchandise and theme park business. If anything, they are in the business of entertaining and changing lives through stories. And, every single decision they make starts from that purpose.

Key takeaway

Don’t define yourself by what you do, but by why you do it and what you know. Because if you only define yourself by what you do, you are blinding yourself of opportunity to resonate and stand out.

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