Closing The Gap

“I trust that no one will tell me that men such as I write about don’t exist. That this book has been written–and published–is my proof that they do.

-Ayn Rand

Closing The Gap: The Critical Problem Every Business Faces

We don’t go through what it takes to build a business just to be ordinary.

We don’t take on the pain, the sweat and the tears that entrepreneurship requires just to have another generic business doing businessy things. Or at least we shouldn’t.  There is – for all of us – some reason that we went through the struggle to stick out a shingle.  Some vision of we really wanted our businesses to be. About how we wanted the world to be.  Something between a hope, a dream and a fantasy.

We create it in our heads, we nurture it and then we try to express it in our communities.

Sometimes we even admit our hopes to ourselves. The way that we want to change the world through our businesses.

Sometimes we can’t bear to admit this. Because it’s too scary and it’s too painful.  We sound unhinged. Our parents reflect our doubts back to us. The VHS tape in our brain plays our failures back.  Who are we to change the world?

We’re doing this  because we want to make the world different. Better.  We see inefficiency and we want to close it. So we make something. We make a business.

…. there is this gap. For the first couple years, you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer.

-Ira Glass

That gap always exists. Between what you want to make, and what you’re actually doing. The way you want your business to be and the way it is right now.

Between the clients you want, and the clients you have.

Between the way you want your business – your department to be – and the way that it is.

That gap will kill you if you don’t get ahead of it.

Magic Is Hard To Measure

“…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

Marianne Williamson

The vision that fueled the start of our business with is precious, fragile and sacred.  There are always temptations to betray our vision and to turn away from it. To settle in and accept the golden handcuffs of corporate life. To escape our own judgment. Because – truly – who are we to build the extraordinary lives and the extraordinary business that we want?

We all always possess a litany of justifications which allow us to pause, and to escape the reckoning with our taste. To let ourselves off the hook for being truly great.

It often starts by changing the tools that we measure our businesses. We use the tools of the bean counter instead of the tools of the artist. We put work into the world, and we count subscribers, page views, shares, likes and even Monthly Recurring Revenue.

MRR is nice. But it is limited. It can’t measure the gasps you create. Page views don’t indicate good taste. Yes, of course, our vanity metrics tell some story about our business. The story is the one our ego needs. It’s often not the one that honors the reason we’re doing this.

Magic is hard to measure.

Capitulation Is Sneaky

So, if wonder escapes quantification, then capitulation is usually disguised as success. What initially like a big opportunity comes our way.  Our reward. A big payday for doing this work.

Maybe we work with a client who isn’t part of our long-term vision because of their money. They pay on time, so it doesn’t feel like a detour.  It’s not so bad.  In fact, it feels like we’re doing better than ever. So what if our values aren’t congruent? We’ll do it right next time, right?

The big mindfuck  is that sometimes a piece of business truly is an opportunity. A profitable piece of revenue, a new joint venture infuses us with the resources to level up. And the sacrifices that we make are incremental. They don’t feel like they are that large.

In creative services, it’s lamented with a shrug. “It’s what the client wants, what can I do?”

My friend Jeff Goins says that real artists harness their stubbornness. Sometimes being stubborn and being true to our visions costs a lot in the short term. But if we’re here to create, to remake the world in our image, shouldn’t it come with a price? Shouldn’t we bear up and do it?

It’s always hard to see in the moment that you are capitulating – that you are betraying your values. Sometimes our client requires that we staff up, right now. Sometimes we’ve gotta move at a pace that doesn’t allow for great work. And then what happens is that you get used to accepting inferior work. You have a business to run, and you know, the client is happy with you.

Ask me what happens when you make a slew of decisions. Ask me how it feels. Ask me about the revenue it builds. Go on, ask. I’ll tell you.

A sort of Gresham’s Law of client projects takes over: bad projects drive out good projects. We spend our time, energy and effort making things that don’t matter. We smother the fragile spark and join the creative underclass and post on sites like Clients From Hell.

It feels terrible. Ask me how I know.

The Reward Of Standards

“When you hold yourself to a higher standard than anyone else can imagine, you always soar above the mark others set for you.”

-Anthony Iannarino

But on the other side of that gap is a reward. You can’t have it on every project. But you can have it for a long time. That reward sustains us when we don’t feel like moving forward. That reward is evidence that we’re not fakes. That we’re not delusional. That we can get in the fight/

We built some videos years ago that I am still very proud to have written, produced and built. I’m not a graphic artist, but without me these videos never would have been made or made as well as they were.

One of the first videos we made, this helped Headway express what they do. This was part of a campaign that helped them double their sales.

On Ryan’s Holiday’s first book, we built a trailer and made a market for business book trailers. There are mistakes in this, but it felt true to the vision of our company, and the scale that we wanted to be at.

We got to work with Seth flippin’ Godin on a book project which – incidentally – talks about the gap we’re talking about now. About the stuff we’re dealing with. We got to work with him.

These projects were as different as night and day, they helped our clients. And they also launched our business. And our reward still pays dividends. We remember these stories fondly. The memories fuel us as we cross the desert.

As Seth said in his 2007 book The Dip: “Being the best in the world is highly underrated.” That feeling is good.

The Dark Side Of The Five People You Hang Out With

Our clients were largely in tech. I had some envy. Silicon valley types obsessed with raising funds, scaling, growing. Finding my hockey-stick. Getting to critical mass so you’d have that inflection point, raise a round of funding then buy a house in the mission district or wherever.

But if we’re being honest: none of these things really mattered to me. I just wanted to fit in. It was the dark side of the famous rule that you’re the average of the five people you hang around with.

To grow like that, we had to grow headcount, we tried to fit in with all the other homogeneous (and horrifying) hipster agencies in Portland. Do what they do, rent some cool space, hire some vapid 26 year olds. That all required that we put cash first. That required that we brought in people who weren’t aligned with our vision. We had to hire fast to get jobs out the door. Sell jobs to pay payroll.

All of our time was spent feeding the monster.  The work was a necessary afterthought.

Those people mostly hated me. And I hated myself for having to hire them. They were talented, hard working and wrong.

In the book HOW THE MIGHTY FALL by James Collins, he calls the first stage of decline Hubris Born Of Success, and the second Undisciplined Pursuit of More. My goal to hockey stick my business instead of just doing great work and letting it continue to happen clouded the vision I had for what my company was supposed to be. The financial needs of payroll, overhead and rent meant that I had to take on clients that I didn’t love, do work I didn’t love with people who didn’t really care.

Most of the work was mostly defensible, but it was always very hard. And there were failed projects and refunds. It was a case study in how we get boring. I always thought I’d return to my values in due time.

After the next crisis. And if not after this one, for sure after that.

Because my revenues were at all time highs, I couldn’t be failing, right?

How To Know When You’re Moving In The Right Direction

The difficult problem in business is knowing when you’re pursuing a real opportunity, and when you’re selling out – or widening your gap. How do you tell when you’re taking on too much risk for not-enough reward?

  1. Get clear on what your values are. Write them down. Live them.
  2. Understand the resources needed to express your values in your business. Understand the business model around it, and what clients or customers will need to pay to support (and benefit from) your vision. This may mean math.
  3. Grade your output. Was this deliverable (or week’s work) moving closer to what you envision? Have a real way of grading things.
  4. Understand that there are “levels” to achieve in your business. Nobody wants to be delusional, and Picasso didn’t start out as Picasso.
  5. Know where you’ll compromise and where your non-negotiable are.

Always overestimate the resources and time it will take to grow.

The Reward For High Standards

The reason we make our businesses is to make magic. To recreate reality in the image we want it to be. That’s it. That’s the big why. There’s a terrifying and wonderful and sweet reward we get when we are aligned and executing. The projects that we want, executed the way that we want is a sweet reward.

When we do this right, even maximum effort is sustainable over a long haul.

The rewards will be sweeter and the deserts will be more bearable.

That’s the goal. That’s the hope.  And that’s why I’ve put this 2k word post up.

Because I don’t want to forget again. I crossed a desert and got beat up because I didn’t have a compass.

And if we are to do any work, we’re going to make the work great. That means less work, but it means doing what we came here to do.