Herbert Bayard Swope once said “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” This rule holds especially true for small businesses. As small business owners, we’re constantly confronted with ideas for how to “improve” our business, but often those improvements don’t gain us much at all and cost us a lot.

I’m reminded of one of my business associates, who started an online business several years ago. His business was centered around building an online community focused on a particular tabletop game (I’m being careful here in order to not embarrass anyone).

At the peak, the business was thriving. It had seven part-time employees and was perhaps three months away from repaying his entire investment in the business – and seemed primed to turn a big profit for many years to come. The community was involved, happily clicking on ads and buying products, and the employees were passionate and driven.

Then it all fell apart.

The owner of the business kept hearing from others who thought he should duplicate that success for similar games, so he asked his employees to do just that – replicate the entire site several times, modifying it so that it fit other communities.

On the surface, this seems like a great strategy for rapidly expanding the business. In reality, the employees became dissatisfied because they were pulled off of tasks they were passionate about and put on tasks they were much less passionate about. The user community of the original site became unhappy because there was much less focus on them – promised upgrades never happened and so on – and eventually they moved on to another site. The new sites never took off because there was no passion behind the work.

The end result? His business was in ruins. He ignored his core competency – the passion of his employees and the response that engendered in the community – and instead pushed tons of money and effort into areas outside their competency.

What’s the core competency of your business? What do you do that sets you apart from your competitors? Perhaps it’s customer service. Maybe it’s an excellent product. It might be your personal involvement in the community.

Whatever it is, don’t sacrifice that competency in order to grow. Instead, focus on how you can make more money from that core competency. If you’re great at customer service, it’s probably driven by passionate people – reward them and listen to their suggestions about where your business can go. If you’ve got an excellent product, invest on ensuring that your product will always be excellent.

At the same time, don’t toss tons of money into areas that you’re not known for. Maximize your strengths instead of turning your weaknesses into mere mediocrity. If you’re tempted to throw money into the weakest part of your business, don’t. Instead, consider cutting it and saving your money for the areas where you’re strong.

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