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Stick With What You Know, Do it Better Than Anyone Else

When I started writing these newsletters, marketing gave me a list of things to think about. I tossed most of them away. As you may recall, I didn’t want this to be a marketing initiative. But one of the ideas they gave me, I loved. It was to talk about the single biggest mistake I made in ecommerce – not sticking to what I know. 

Just a quick refresher, I ran a retail business from 2005 until 2016 and successfully exited to a private equity group. While I was successful, I certainly made a lot of mistakes. To define the single biggest one is difficult, but one of the more costly mistakes we made was to expand our product set. Our main site was, and as the name suggests, we were in Austin and sold kayaks, pretty simple. We were the absolute authority when it came to anything kayak, especially fishing kayaks. We had the perfect category design in that we went very wide and very deep in one single category: fishing kayaks. Sure, we had some recreational kayaks but probably 80% of our sales were attributed to something to do with a fishing kayak. We dominated the market, owning one category and providing unparalleled customer support.

However, somewhere in 2011 or 2012, we decided that we were going to expand – first to camping and then to pets, mainly dogs. We observed that many people who fish also camp, and almost everyone who loves the outdoors has a dog. These two extensions seemed logical. After all, we had successfully expanded very deeply in car racks and everything related to them (bike racks, ski racks, etc.). 

These moves would prove costly and distracting. Camping at first seemed to be okay, we had some traction but nothing spectacular. But pets was just plain dumb. We invested around $400k into products that we had no business selling, they had absolutely nothing to do with our brand. The reason that racks worked was that you needed a rack to haul your kayak around. The reason camping wasn’t as bad was because we positioned ourselves to the die-hard, not the recreational. Even that success was mostly muted though, we had no business trying it.

The lesson to be had here is that you should really stay within your category that you know, own it and deliver on it. To think that owning one category means you can take over another is foolish. There was zero chance we were going to be better than REI or on camping, much like there was zero chance they were going to be better than us at selling kayaks. And the dog thing. Looking back on it, it is actually comical that we thought we could compete against PetSmart or Petco because we sold to outdoorsy people. 

Do yourself a favor. Pick a category, dominate it, and don’t pay attention to shiny objects that you think can be extensions. Stick with what you know and just do it better than anyone else.