“You should stick to your knitting” is a slightly odd phrase, particularly in an age when even the hipsters aren’t knitting (cue torrent of statistics proving that knitting has never been more popular). In a business sense, it usually means working out what you’re good at and sticking to it or in the business school parlance, defining your core competence.
It sounds like a great idea, but as with most things, the real world doesn’t work that way. Despite the common sense that you should stick to your knitting, there’s always pressure to move into fields that are ‘hot’ and generate investor interest.
Microsoft is a great example. Despite creating one of the greatest technology franchises in history with WINtel, they’ve always struggled with that whole internet thing. It never felt like their ‘knitting’. They just weren’t cool enough. Despite great effort, first with IE and then with Bing and a whole multitude of other products, they’ve always been on the back foot with the web, even though they’ve been quietly making piles of cash from SQL Server back ends, .NET web developments, Azure and the like.
Recent announcements show they they’re quietly withdrawing from businesses like programmatic display advertising and maps. Common sense suggests that Microsoft made a mistake in getting into these businesses (mainly through acquisition), but that overlooks the original clamour from investors to get into these areas when they were considered fast-growing and cool. Perhaps getting involved in these areas is a way of showing that you are willing to listen to investors, even if you think they’re a fad-driven bunch. Generating lots of cash from your core businesses and putting a slice of it into new areas isn’t exactly sticking to your knitting, but it does make for a quiet life.
Perhaps we should modify the saying, “stick to your knitting but don’t be afraid of a bit of embroidery on the side”. Or maybe not.