Consider the components to a creative business (or any business, really), and here’s what you get:
Who, What, Why, How, and How Much.
- Who is your (ideal) customer or client.
- What is the product or service you’re creating or providing.
- How is a combination of your resources as well as your business plan (as in: how are you going to do the work, and how are you going to connect your product with your customer).
- How Much relates to the value you’re providing to your customer as well as the price you’re charging them.
- Why relates to the motivation, vision, and values of the work you do.
Two sidebars before we get started:
- This doesn’t just have to relate to indie entrepreneurs and start-up CEOs. It can relate to in-house designers, freelance developers, and more. Say you work for a design firm or a recording studio. Your “who” is your boss — your company. Your “How Much” is your salary.
- I used to think you had to start with why. But as I’ve been reading through Cal Newport’s book, I’m realizing that most of us start with what. In fact, Newport argues that you starting with why is actually bad advice. In short, it’s in the process of doing the work that we get much-needed experience and clarity about the sort of work we want to keep on doing, and in that process we are able to build up the relationships and resources we need in order to do the work that matters most to us.
That said, let’s break down the Who, What, Why, and How Much a bit more. I’m going to use The Focus Course as my example.
Who: My ideal customer for the Focus Course is someone who is eager to learn, do their best creative work, and has energy to move the needle forward in their life. Though I created the course so just about anyone can work through the 40 days of assignments, the person I most have in mind is someone who already has an internal drive to make changes in their life.
What: A self-guided, 40-day course that gives you insight and clarity into your values, goals, stress points, and distractions and then gives you an action plan for doing something about it all.
How: I built the course itself by writing every day, working with a pilot group to test and review the contents, and then working with a designer and developer to create the website that hosts the content.
How much: The price of the Focus Course is $249; the value, though it varies from person to person, is (I hope) much, much more than that.
Why: I’m someone who is naturally spontaneous, distracted, and seems to always have more ideas than time. In my early 20s I realized that I needed to get a grip on how I spent my time and energy or else I’d never make meaningful progress on the things that were most important to me. The ideas and tactics of The Focus Course are things that I myself have used and taught for more than a decade and I wanted to create a fun and even better way way to clearly teach these things to others.
Here’s a sketch I made (don’t laugh) to show how these elements interrelate with one another to form the components of a sustainable business.
As you can see in the chart above, when your product and your customer connect, then value is created and exchanged. It’s at this intersection that your business model exists. You have something of value to offer, and others are willing to pay for it.
Additionally, if your product or service is something that aligns with your own personal values and goals, then when you sell to your customer you’re also giving expression to your vision.
There is immense satisfaction in providing something of value to someone else in such a manner that also sustains the ongoing providing of more value. Consider the converse: when our work and actions don’t align with our vision and values, it can be a huge drain on our morale and motivation.
This is what a sustainable business model is all about: doing work you’re proud of, providing value to others, and having a means to continue doing that work. It’s what Walt Disney meant when he famously said, “We don’t make movies so we can make money; we make money so we can make more movies.”
The money serves a two-fold purpose. For one, it gives some measure of validation to our work because money is a neutral indicator of value. If nobody (as in, literally not one person) is willing to pay for what it is you’re offering, then it’s probably not valuable enough (at least not yet). When that’s the case, simply go back to the drawing board to find a different expression of your creative idea or find a different market (or maybe both).
For his book, So Good They Can’t ignore You, Cal Newport interviewed successful entrepreneur, Derek Sivers. Newport asked Sivers about what it was that led to his entrepreneurial success. Derek replied that he has a principle about money that overrides his other rules: ”Do what people are willing to pay for,” he said. “Money is a neutral indicator of value. By aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.”
Secondly, money allows us to buy food, pay the bills, and acquire the tools and resources we need in order to keep making art and doing work.
The whole goal of Walt Disney’s movie making business model was to sustain their creative outlet of animating and producing films. It wasn’t about the money for money’s sake — it was about doing work they loved and enriching the lives of their audience. And by selling their work they could keep on making more movies.
For most makers, it’s not about the money. It’s about the creative work. There is (most days) joy in the journey and satisfaction in being part of a creative community. And there is the dream of adding value and enriching other people’s lives.
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Again, from So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Newport writes that “people who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.”
While there are many dynamics which contribute to the feeling of a career that matters, one of them is the realization that the work you do is valuable to others. As Sivers said, by aiming to make money, you’re aiming to be valuable.
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On celebrating progress and why the recognition of making meaningful progress on a regular basis is also critical to the feeling that your career matters.
If you’re waiting for finances before moving forward with an idea, the real issue may be Fear, Not Money.
Balancing the margins between cost, price, and value is an art. How do you increase value to the customer without dramatically increasing your cost nor decreasing your price?
Scott Belsky wrote an article a while back about how to find your Work Sweet Spot.
Your Work Sweet Spot is where you will have the greatest job fulfillment and satisfaction as well where you will give the greatest contribution to the field and provide the most value.
This sweet spot is found at the intersection of (1) your natural interests and preferences, (2) your skills and expertise, and (3) your opportunity stream.
Over the years, I have met many creative leaders and entrepreneurs that have made an impact in their respective industries. No surprise, they love what they do. But when I ask probing questions about their career paths, it becomes clear that their good fortunes were not predestined. Aside from lots of hard work, great creative careers are powered by an intersection of three factors: Genuine Interest, Skills, and Opportunity.
The same thinking applies to successful creative projects. The magic happens when you find the sweet spot where your genuine interests, skills, and opportunity intersect.
Your interest and preferences are the things you are naturally drawn toward. How are you wired, what fascinates you, what do you daydream about?
Your skills are the things you’re talented at. For some it’s math, for others it’s art, or project planning, or counseling, or playing sports.
Ned Herrmann, author of The Creative Brain, and the man behind the Whole Brain model writes that: “To prefer something is to be drawn to it, to have a taste for it. Competency has to o with acquired knowledge and professional experience.”
Herrmann also writes that “true mastery in a specific domain can only be achieved in those areas that converge with our preferences.”
But mastery alone is not enough to have successful impact in that area. Now, of course, not everyone wants to have successful impact. But if you do, then you need opportunities to contribute to something bigger.
Which is why I want to unpack a bit more about what Scott Belsky calls the Opportunity Stream:
The third factor that plays into every successful career is opportunity. Unfortunately, this is often where we get stuck, discounting the potential opportunities that surround us as inadequate. There is no such thing as equal access to opportunity. Old boy networks and nepotism run rampant in all industries. And most opportunities are entirely circumstantial. As such, you must simply define “opportunity” as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest. Opportunity is less about leaps forward and more about the slow advance. Most folks I meet recall their greatest opportunities as chance conversations. This is why personal introductions, conferences, and other networking efforts really pay off. Just surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your “opportunity stream” – the chance happenings that lead to actions and experiences relevant to your genuine interests.
What does opportunity look like?
Belsky defines opportunity as an action or experience that brings you a step closer to your genuine interest.
As Belsky also says, these opportunities are usually slow advances. They are the little things that, in the moment, may seem inconsequential, but in hindsight prove to have been kairos moments.
Benjamin Franklin said that, “Human felicity is produced not as much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen as by little advantages that occur every day.”
Here are a few examples of actions or experiences that can bring you a step closer to your genuine interest, and ideas for how to find and create more actions and experiences.
Build and Foster Relationships: By far and away, the best “stream” for opportunity is with the people you know. They say if you’re out of sight you’re out of mind; and the opposite is true as well.
Do you know what your most important relationships are right now? What are you doing to foster genuine relationships with people who are in the same area you are interested in?
Meet New People:Go to conferences. Go to local meet-ups. Introduce yourself to someone. Send encouraging emails to people that also offer a nugget of value to that person. And repeat. Keep fostering, maintaining, and building relationships.
As I wrote a while back when I attended my first Macworld conference:
I’m not here as a journalist with the goal of covering this Apple-centric event so much as I am here to meet the Mac nerds I am privileged to work alongside all year long.
A handshake and a “nice to meet you” is worth so much more than an @reply. A conversation over a cup of coffee is better than two dozen emails.
Encourage the People You Already Know: In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor says that social support is our single greatest asset when it comes to success in “nearly every domain of our lives, including marriage, health, friendship, community involvement, creativity, and in particular, our jobs, careers, and business,” and that random acts of kindness (such as encouraging others) are one of the most significant ways we can boost social support and, in turn, increase our own happiness.
When we have a community of people we can count on — spouses, family, friends, colleagues — we multiply our emotional, intellectual, and physical resources. We bounce back from setbacks faster, accomplish more, and feel a greater sense of purpose. Furthermore, the effect on our happiness, and therefore on our ability to profit from the Happiness Advantage, is both immediate and long-lasting.
Achor has conducted many studies and tests at different companies where employees were tasked with writing a 2-minute email to someone in their social support network (a friend or family member) as the first thing before they began their work day. They did this every day for 21 days, the result was a noticeable increase in employee happiness which, in turn, increased productivity, creativity, resiliency, confidence, learning skills, energy, and motivation.
And in an article entitled “Pay It Forward“, Karen McGrane wrote:
Not everything in our professional lives is a transaction, scrutinized and evaluated against how much it costs us, how much someone should pay. Not every teaching relationship must be formalized—a mentoring opportunity, a coach, an internship. Not every investment of time has to be “worth it.” Sometimes you just have a brief conversation with someone because—why not? You never know what will come of it.
Practice and Improving at Your Skill: They say opportunity finds you working. And while there is (obviously) a lot of value in the opportunity stream itself, you also need to be prepared. And so, yes, do something every day that will bring you a step closer to your genuine interest. But also do something every day that will help you improve your skills, competency, or knowledge in that area.
Show Up Every Day: Another way to increase your stream of opportunity is to do your best creative work every day and share it with others. If your genuine interest is technology, then what is one thing you can do every day that will increase the activity happening around that topic for you?
Create Opportunities for Others: Become awesome at word of mouth marketing for the people, products, and services you find great value in.
For example: I often get emails from readers who are wanting to build a website and are in need of a designer / developer. They ask me if I have a recommendation, and naturally I tell them about the people I know and have worked with in the past.
Don’t shy back from introducing people to one another, or from introducing your friends and social network to great products or services.
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Again, as Belsky wrote, simply surrounding yourself with more activity will inherently increase your Opportunity Stream. Get around other people; go to more events; encourage people more frequently; provide value to others.
When I wrote about building better defaults, this is exactly the sort of application I had in mind.
What is one action or experience you can do today that will move you one step closer to your genuine interest?
Yesterday I wrote about how easy it is to over-think and over-edit the things I write about and link to on the site. This is also something Ben and I talked about in the latter half of last week’s episode of The B&B Podcast.
It’s a topic spanning much more than just link blogging. I think it goes so far as to encompasses leadership, creativity, and entrepreneurialism as a whole. The concept is to find the balance between think and feel. On one hand you have logic and reason, and on the other hand you have passion and zeal.
There is a way to do things where, if you find something you’re passionate about, you jump right in. And then analyze and gauge each step along the way.
But what if we flipped that approach from time to time?
When you find something you’re passionate or excited about, then think about it for a long time. Make boundaries. And then? Go for it. Let passion and zeal drive us through each step as we keep within our pre-determined boundaries.
The idea is that sometimes, instead of working with restraint inside of passion, try to put passion inside of restraint.
Last week Austin Kleon posted an article titled, “How to Steal Like an Artist (An 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)”. There are things you read where you learn something new, and there are the things you read which shed a new light on what you already know and believe in. For me Austin’s article is the latter. And it is one of the best things I have read all week.
However, keeping with the Wil Shipley analogy of farming vs. mining, a better title for Austin’s article would be something along the lines of “How to Be a Farmer.” Because Austin primarily discusses getting off your butt, ignoring your doubts and insecurities, and doing the work you love to do.
As I was reading it I was getting all sorts of little lightbulbs and connections going off in my mind. Here are a few of those items:
One of my Shawn Today episodes called “Aren’t we all just 8th graders” on the topic that many of us feel like we’re just faking it and that’s okay because we’re all just folk.
Wil Shipley’s article on Farming vs. Mining and the difficulty of plowing a plot of land and slowly developing a strong and profitable foundation rather than trying to make a quick buck and then moving on to the next thing before what you made falls apart.
Merlin Mann and John Gruber’s SXSW session: “HOWTO: 149 Surprising Ways to Turbocharge Your Blog With Credibility!”
John Gruber’s corresponding article to the above SXSW session: “Obsession Times Voice“
You see, there are those who look at a building a website (or a software program, or a business, or fill in the blank) as a way to make money. The project is simply a means to an end, and that end goal is bucketloads of money.
And then there are those who look at building something because they want to do what they love. And for them money is a tool. Instead of money being the end goal, money becomes the means to a goal — and that goal is doing things they love and creating something they’re proud of.