There's an old joke about school reports when a teacher writes 'could do better' the retort is 'how do they possibly know if I've never done it?'
As I've got older, I've realised something I wish I’d known sooner. It has been the difference between me doing OK, or running my creative business so it does well.
It's not a hack, a tip or a trick. It's not easy or quick and is certainly not a shortcut. It's a life lesson which for some sadly never seems to happen, so they spend their working life being a shadow of what they could have been. In other words, they could have done better.
I recall when I was younger that the road behind me was littered with half-finished songs, albums, projects, ideas and things that I just never completed. I remember someone once told me that my personality type indicated that I wasn't a 'Completer-Finisher', a type from one of the many personality tests that organisations use when constructing teams. I was even told that I was the kind of person who made things happen, I had ideas and got things started, but someone else would be the person to help get it over the line. I believed it, after all, it explained why my road to hell was paved with good intentions - it wasn't my fault, it was the way I was made.
This kind of deficit is often dealt with by having those around us who can help to make up the difference. It's part of what makes successful teams, the Ying and Yang, the right brain left brain stuff, and there is some truth in this. If you are building a team, then it is wise to consider a mix of personality types, some who accelerate and some who brake on the corners. Or some people who are big picture and some who love detail.
But here's a problem - what if you have no team, what if it's just you?
While I have teams of people I work with in certain parts of my working life a great deal of my work is me flying solo; there's no one to check the details or get my 'amazing ideas' completed. A lot of the time it's all down to me!
The answer is simple if you work alone - You have to stop making excuses based on what your personality type is or in truth what your preferences are and work hard on making up the deficit. Unless you do, then you'll spend your entire career missing the mark.
A few years ago a boss of mine gave me some advice - which is if someone thinks something about you then do the opposite. If people think you are too talkative, then make an effort to talk less, or if you have a reputation to not complete things, then make sure you do and with time to spare. He smiled and winked and said 'keep people guessing!' I suppose you could call this growing up!
I happen to think that a lot of people, but in my experience creatives in particular, end up being what I call 'accidental business owners.' What I mean by this is that they started playing guitar or drums for money, or recording bands, and before they know it five years have passed, and they are running a business. They have no formal (or informal) training in keeping books, managing time, preparing quotes and proposal. It can be as basic as they have no training in composing emails and letters. This is one of those situations where the mantra 'don't blame them, train them' applies. These shortcomings can be remedied with training; however, there is one mighty BUT! They have got to want to change, and as I said at the start, often creatives will dismiss attending to these fundamental yet essential business skills as something they are not naturally good at.
It is at this point you have two choices; you fix stuff, or you stay where you are, it's as simple as that.
There are things I wish I didn't have to do, they include;
Taking care of invoices, chasing payments and reconciling the bank.
Doing my taxes and VAT returns
Sitting in meetings
Reading and researching
Writing long emails
Finding new work
Do some of these sound familiar? I know, I've just listed your pet hates too. I'd much rather spend time songwriting, trying out new gear, watching YouTube videos and postings on social media - but I have to attend to my list of hate above. I have to make an intentional effort to ensure the things that turn my creative efforts into money get the same attention as the things I love doing, and that come naturally to me.
I've been learning over the last few years that there are few life-changing, lightning bolt epiphanies. Real change is lots of tiny changes done again and again, and many of those things are the stuff that doesn't come naturally, it takes effort.
I am convinced that it is often the smallest things that make the biggest difference, in other words, this is about sweating the small stuff - I've touched on this in other recent articles. On my desk, I have a list of those small things that I'm reminded to do each day it is titled 'Things I Can Do To Improve In My Business By 1%.' I wrote it six months ago and although I've had several challenging life events and also some business challenges these small things are helping my business to grow, and I'm going to share that list with you.
Things I Can Do To Improve In My Business By 1%
Make emails a little more detailed
Create a list of priorities for each day at the end of the day and then make sure I deal with those things first the next day. I will do this at 5pm each day in my office.
Check and sort emails each day.
Aim to respond to all emails within 24 hours.
Learn new software shortcuts each day, when I find a shortcut I don't know then learn it.
Use post-it notes as reminders.
Check bank accounts first thing each day and log payments.
As you read the list above, you could be forgiven for thinking that it doesn't look very much like a creative business, everything seems so corporate. This list doesn't represent the creative stuff because that comes easy. That's why it doesn't say pick up guitar and jam around for an hour, spend time watching videos on YouTube, or explore a new plugin for the rest of the day. No one needs to remind me to do that stuff, it's my natural inclination, what I need to learn is the things that don't come naturally but are critical at taking me from good to great.
'It's not how I'm wired' or 'It's not my thing' are often a cop-out for those needing to do the hard work to improve their studio, songwriting career or post-house. Some of you have done these things and know that a lot of the time you are having to do things that don't come naturally.
A few years ago I was helping to run a post house in Soho in London and one day we got a visit from two men wanting to talk to us about work. My boss and I took them into one of our meeting rooms and as we sat down one of them took out something that seemed the thickness of a phone directory and said that before we talked we needed to sign their NDA... it was Apple. As the meeting proceeded we were invited to pitch for creative video work for Apple, as you can imagine we were excited at the potential to have such a blue-chip client onboard.
The weeks that followed were, for a creative person, the definition of hell as we worked on the pitch. We had to complete a contract submission that included complex maths and what felt like endless detail-oriented documents. We also had to prepare a 15-minute presentation to give at Apple HQ just off Regent Street in London. I was given the job to make that presentation, which felt like the longest 15 minutes of my life. The good news is we won the contract, but it took every ounce of us doing things we didn't find we were either naturally gifted at or enjoyed, it was stressful and hard work, but ultimately it meant we were working with one of the most iconic brands in the world.
As we worked with Apple we realised that the pitch had been easy compared to the actual work. It required attention to detail and precision as if we were surgeons performing heart surgery, nothing was 'just good enough' and perfection was expected on everything we did. I recall that for those of us working on projects it felt like bomb-disposal as we carefully went through each project making sure we made no mistakes.
The Apple contract has so given so many benefits long after it ended. We worked with Apple and of course, made money from it but some of the unintended benefits were how we improved as a business. We learnt new skills about pitching and presentations, skills that we knew could win us work with the best brands in the world. We now knew how to submit complex tender documents which are mind-numbingly dull. Best of all, we got better at being creatives, at coming up with impressive ideas and executing them to exacting detail. What we had to do to win and keep Apple took us far outside our comfort zones and meant we had to do things we hate, but we had a stronger more successful business because of it.
I've taken many of the lessons I learnt from the Apple experience and continued to apply them in my own creative business, not a single one had been wasted.
So in closing, I want to ask you a number of questions. Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone, the things you like doing and work hard on the things you hate? Or are you going to keep making the same excuses I made for years of 'It's not me' or I'm not wired that way' or 'I don't feel inspired!'
If you work alone and have no teammates to help make up the deficit then how you answer those questions will determine how much your business grows, after all, inspiration and natural talent are not enough.