We’ve all heard phrases like, “If you try to be special to everyone, you’re special to no one,” or “trying to please everybody is a recipe for disaster.”

In theory (and to some extent in practice) the idea illustrated here is correct. We now know that as something achieves critical mass, it divides. Department stores have been replaced by specialty stores. Hamburger restaurant chains have been replaced by niche eateries.

In light of this, somebody please explain Amazon. What started out in the 1990s as simply an online bookseller (much to the chagrin of Borders and Barnes & Noble) has morphed over two decades into a broad-based retailer that sells everything from electronic gadgets to food to streaming video and even Cloud digital storage. Look, as well, at Google. It was a search engine site that became so comprehensive that now everyone in the world uses it. But Google, too, couldn’t leave well enough alone. Hence, we now have Gmail, Google+ social media, Google news and, of course, Google Glass.

To what do the marketing pundits attribute these notable exceptions to the general rule of specialization over generalization? Sheer size. When organizations become massive enough, they can weather the storms created when they stray from their core missions. However, that doesn’t mean that they’ll succeed.

We know that many of Google’s numerous businesses are marginally successful or not successful at all (e.g., Google Glass), and the same is true for many of Amazon’s businesses. Nonetheless, it’s just too tempting when your business is big to try to build an empire.

Now, CVS, the ubiquitous national drugstore chain, is doing the same thing. Like its online peers, CVS has decided that it will be all things healthcare to all people. It started with their “Minute Clinics” and is rapidly expanding into other areas of healthcare delivery, most recently into optical in seven East Coast locations. And word is that Walgreens is right behind them.

Once again, giant companies presume that the best recipe for growth is to get into someone else’s business. Will they be successful? Maybe, but this isn’t the first time drugstores flirted with optical. And that go-round turned out to be a failure for those who tried it.

There are two pieces of advice to be gleaned from these anecdotes: size does not necessarily guarantee success; and straying from one’s core competency, regardless of how big one’s organization is, typically leads to failure.

This is to say that the best game plan for running a successful optical business is not to play by someone else’s.


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