A long while ago, I did a consulting gig for a mid-sized company. This company had spent thousands of dollars on a revamp for one of its sections on its website. It was pretty slick: filterable navigation, lazy-loading, compressed assets, blazing load times. It used all the modern design principles and standards. It was mobile friendly (a big deal for the time). The design was slick, informed and easy on the eyes.

The problem: Barely anyone viewed it.

That company, I discovered later, went out of business. I was not surprised at all.

Working Smart

When a company starts, it’s usually with a few highly dedicated, passionate individuals who can churn out amazing quantities of code/materials/leads/etc in stunningly short amounts of time. These people are crazy about their idea, and dedicate their lives to seeing it come to life. They are some of the best things about engineering/startup culture.

Once a company gains traction, though, decisions have to be made. You’ve got a product people are buying, but now what? If you’ve got a sales team, they probably want to go after competitors. Marketing probably wants tons and tons of landing pages. Engineering probably just wants to be able to make the site load faster, or easier to test against. So what do you focus on? I’d argue this is the place where so many companies utterly fail.

And the amazing thing? They shouldn’t, at all.

Back to the original company I mentioned. They spent thousands of dollars on this one section of the site that was going to “generate so many leads and increase the amount of customers significantly”. Did it? No. The section barely got any views, even with solid SEO quality and search rankings. Why did no one visit it?

Simple answer: they went to the home page of the company, and the company products (features) page. Then they went to pricing. And then they left the site.

After we finished consulting the company, the final question we asked was, why was that section even made in the first place? This question was the important one, as it seemed the other company hadn’t asked it. We had taken a look at the Google Analytics report of the site, and over 95% of the traffic to the site was on four specific pages: home, products, pricing, and another feature page. Those pages were decent at best, and had lots of room for improvement. The company — mistakenly — thought that by adding another section, they’d add to the overall value and appeal of the site, and generate more leads. This was woefully wrong.

The company should have spent time focusing on increasing the quality and performance of the main four pages. But they didn’t. Why not?

Focusing on your Strengths

So many companies, once they reach a certain point, believe the way to growth is to do more. “We must do X! And Y! And Z! And all in Q2 so we can do H, I and J in Q3!” While some of this can be true, a vast majority of the time it’s unnecessary. What the company should be asking is, “How do we improve our A, B and C, which we have proven to generate money already?”

The company was sitting on a gold mine, but instead decided to focus efforts on the rock quarry down the hill. The temptation for adding new functionality, feature sets, or pages is pretty large in a growing company. The problem is is that adding them without strategic purpose behind them doesn’t add up to eventual gains—can you name the number of deep-dive Apple pages (minus the KB or store) that you’ve visited? Instead, Apple has decided to focus heavily on its main few pages, optimizing the heck out of those pages.

Now, I’d like to counter that it is important to expand. It’s important to add new features and test out new ideas. If you don’t do this, you will die of stagnation as a company. But it’s also important to not invest tons of effort/time/money into unproven projects.

Fishing is a great analogy here. You don’t go take your best boat, most expensive lures, and nicest gear to the pond with only a few fish in it. You do that in the main lake where there is the most fish. Sure, there might be some incredibly large bass fish in that pond, but that’s not where you want to put 75% of your investment into. You put a little until you get a good bite, and then jump in.

So how does this relate to software engineering? Well, in todays age of Google Analytics, Mixpanel, heatmaps, robust customer service KBs and more, there’s absolutely no reason why you couldn’t instrument your website or application to figure out where the most need or demand is. And with that data, you should be able to have a fairly good idea where you can invest time in and get a lot more back.

I’d argue the reason the company I first mentioned died is not because they had bad ideas. They had great ones. They just made decisions based on subjective, emotional decisions — “trust your experts/I have years of experience/this is where the ‘market’ or our competitor is going”, rather than hard, quantifiable data. Tech is smart. The way we make decisions on what to do should be, too.