80/20 isn’t just about dropping the 80%

Bar chart of Pareto principle or eighty-twenty rule on white textured background


There are a lot of entrepreneur and startup help articles and books which regurgitate the 80/20. Which is great – it’s a fantastic principle, and very powerful when applied to a business.

But what really riles me is how much they focus on the easy part (dropping the 80% of your clients / processes / tasks / team), and how little on the message that once you’ve done that, you then need to do whatever it takes to make the remaining 20% count.

Typical advice includes:

  • Get an assistant (use the gig economy if you can’t afford a full time one);
  • Get someone else to do your website / accounts / contracts / HR etc if those aren’t your sweet spot;
  • Sack the 80% of your clients who are causing you the most headache, least profit, etc.;
  • Drop the 80% of your tasks that aren’t adding the biggest value to your business.

That is all worthwhile advice, and I’m a big fan of Pareto and the 80/20 principle. But to just give this side of the equation in isolation, as so many writers do is to miss the big point.

Which is that once you’ve dropped the 80% hassle, you then need to get on and do the ******** work with the remaining 20%.


So if you’re going to sack 80% of your clients, then make sure you spend the time figuring out how you can create unfeasible value for the remaining 20% so that they stay with you, pay you more, and you’re both genuinely winning out of the relationship.

And if you’re going to stop building your own website, which you’ve been spending half your days on, then make sure you spend that time you’ve liberated on improving your proposition or on actually going out and winning clients. Meaning the harder, deeper, and more focussed work.

Because the reality that those writers rarely discuss is this – for so many consultancy leaders, especially those leading consultancies that have hit a plateau, those 80% tasks are a comfortable procrastination space. Those 80% tasks, tasks that create less incremental value or are better delegated or outsourced, provide a space that protects the founders or owners from doing the real work and finding out that it’s hard, or that their proposition sucks and needs redoing, or that no one wants to buy what they have and there’s no business. Or, heaven forbid, that one partner has been using the 80% as a hidey-hole while another has been doing the real graft of making the business better.

So if you happen to be one of those business writers who plans to regurgitate another one of those business-help articles telling business owners to hand off work to PAs, VAs, web developers or accountants, don’t paint the picture that the job’s done once they’ve done that. Have the intellectual honesty to tell them that doing that is the easy part. Tell them that once they’ve done that, they then have to start doing the really hard work of building their business.

And that once they’ve removed those procrastination crutches, they will face a harder task than creating their website or doing their accounts. The task of actually creating more value to build their business on.

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