How to Avoid Common Business Growth Problems: A Cautionary Tale from the Winchester Mystery House

Have you ever seen a real life haunted house?English: Front view of the Winchester Mystery ...

If you’ve been to the Winchester Mystery house, then you know what I mean.

Located in San Jose, California, the Winchester Mystery House is a sprawling vortex of a mansion with 160 rooms, 47 fireplaces, 17 chimneys, and 13 bathrooms.

What’s gives the Winchester Mystery House its name, however, isn’t the size — it’s the home’s numerous bizarre architectural features, such as secret passageways, hallways that lead to nowhere, and staircases that end in the ceiling.

It’s a home that appears to have been built with no cohesive plan, design, or purpose. It’s as if workers started out at one end of the house with no set of blueprints, building whatever suited their fancy each particular morning.

Or as if a Victorian era architect went on an acid trip with an unlimited spending budget.

The truth is somewhere inbetween.

The Winchester Mystery House was built between approximately 1880 and 1922 at the direction of Sarah Winchester, the widow of William Winchester and the heir of the Winchester rifle fortune. According to Wikipedia:

convinced spirits would kill her if she completed construction of her California home, Sarah used her fortune to continue uninterrupted, round-the-clock construction on it for 38 consecutive years.

The end product is a cool place to visit, especially for kids. It’s the kind of place that never would have been built if Prozac had been invented.

But I’m more interested in the home as a metaphor and a lesson for modern day businesses. Or more importantly, what not to do when it comes to your business so you can avoid common business growth problems.

How to Beat Back the Winchester Mystery House Demons

You don’t need to be possessed by spirits for your business to end up looking like the Winchester Mystery House.

Without a clear sense of focus, a well thought-out plan, and constant recalibration, any business can become a whirling dervish of projects, plans, features and services with no center and no cohesion.

You’ve probably seen this in certain types of family-run businesses, such as restaurants or cafes.

Sure, they may cook up a mean burger or omelette, but it’s as if the rest of the restaurant is trying its hardest to keep the customers away.

Years ago, they may have started off with one kind of decor on the walls. But over the years, they’ve added all kinds of trinkets, trophies and artwork to the walls. Eventually the dining room starts looking like a teenager’s bedroom.

The menu may have started off Italian, before chefs bored with cooking the same thing over and over again added French crepes, Greek souvlaki, and English split pea soup to the offerings.

The result is confusing and disorienting – not a good message for your customers.

Avoid Project Creep

In real estate remodeling, there is a saying: “avoid project creep.”

Project creep is where you start working on one project like a bathroom remodel, and then you add more and more details and features to the project until pretty soon you are remodeling an entire house.

That happens with businesses too. You start out aiming to accomplish one task, then you add more and more until you have lost all focus.

Pretty soon a niche business aimed at eco-conscious pet owners has morphed into Petmart by selling more and more products. A cute and quaint general store which started out selling only gourmet food and a small selection of household goods has morphed into Costco by selling more and more non-gourmet products.

The problem is your competition. A small corner pet foods store simply can’t compete with Petmart in terms of price or selection. People will go to Petmart instead.

A quaint general store can’t compete with Costco’s prices or range of products either. Again, people will go in search of the real thing.

Fortunately, it is not difficult to stop any business from becoming a hot mess like Sarah Winchester’s little house of horrors.

3 Key Steps to Keep Your Business on the Straight and Narrow

First, you must make a conscious decision to decide what your core value or benefit is for your customer. If you don’t know who your core customer is, you will send confusing and conflicting messages out as a business.

Second, you must make any growth a regular, measured and deliberate strategy to develop and grow consciously, not extra-consciously.

I say “extra-consciously” because there is a deliberate means by which many businesses develop which is not conscious, and not subconscious and not unconscious.

It is “extra” conscious because the growth occurs willfully, but it is tangential to your core purpose and value.

There is a fine line between taking advantage of new opportunities which are in line with your core business and adding new products or services which really don’t belong.

Third, you must decide what you want your business to look like in 5-10 years. Then you should break the 5-10 year growth into annual growth, and break it down further.

It’s not a question of whether growth will occur, it’s a question of what kind.

Businesses that do not make these conscious decisions risk becoming the Mystery House of the business world.

Unless your core customer is a tourist interested in glimpsing what a crazy lady with a lot of money could build around the turn of the 20th century, then I suggest you put together a plan for your growth.


Interested in learning more about how to build a solid foundation for your business? You can learn about building a solid core business at Business Profit Academy, the 8-week video training program I developed with business coach Kevin Waldron.