This past week I was on a chartered fishing trip with a father and son from Texas. The dad (let’s call him Dad) was concerned about his son’s future. The son (let’s call him Sam) was happy go-lucky while simultaneously burned out after graduating high school, “…all those hard classes like Chemistry, Biology…”. It took me 2 minutes to realize Sam had a severe passion for videography — including choreographing sword fights, with extensive knowledge of swordplay, and shooting video with a Phantom 4. There was a lot of strain between Dad and Sam and it all centered on the father’s defensive mindset for Sam’s future, and Sam’s desire to feed his passions.
Most small businesses fail, it’s a fact. It takes very little money up front to start a business in digital design and associated creative arts, but it does take courage. That courage often comes at two time’s in a highly talented individual’s life: when they’re budding with skill and low on experience, or when they’re high on skill and high on experience. Most people in between are stuck in the safe zone. Being employed is perceived as low risk with moderate rewards. It takes surprisingly little to keep a talented individual snug in a job. The benefits, the incremental title steps, the window desk, the number of reporting people, the salary that’s satisficing. Risk tends to kill ambition and replace it with avoidance. Staying off the street while earning an occassional FWA or Awwward feels just good enough.
Here’s the thing: that safety comes at a cost, and we rarely measure it. Employment means making money for someone else. Very few thriving businesses are set up to pay you the real market rate for your work because they need to use your work for marginal growth. Instead, they’ll pay you an average of the salary that others are willing to accept for similar work and the dollar value they can peg to your work within their organization. This means you always make less than they do — and that’s ok. It’s safe for everyone. You keep them profitable and you get to make a reasonable living. It’s a trade. If you put out above average work, it spurs your own security, but keeps you comfortably within the realm of what can be reasonably earned in profit from a client. As workers get more and more talented, they start to see this disparity. When a highly talented individual watches his or her increasingly valuable work bankroll a company, the nagging underpayment starts to eat away at satisfaction. Soon, good enough isn’t good enough anymore. That same creativity he or she applies to work product starts being applied to valuing, positioning, and selling that work — the exodus from the safe life begins. A freelancer is born, a small businessman or businesswoman takes the place of a salaried employee, and that individual strikes out on their own.
Almost immediately, that highly talented individual is met with a brand new set of incentives:
- Earn at least enough to keep up the current standard of living.
- Avoid getting taken advantage of by the companies you just departed.
- Don’t get sued. Figure out an airtight-enough contract.
- Figure out what it means to run a business and mitigate cost and taxes while maximizing profit.
- Find clients and individuals willing to pay close enough to market rate, then keep them happy.
- Figure out how to do what you said you’d do even when it seems like everyone else isn’t.
Being an independent professional is a game of negotiation, but your livelihood and career are on the line. Like all negotiations, this life isn’t linear and full of right and wrong decisions. It’s remarkably gray and almost all of your decisions are made with imperfect and sometimes wrong information. This forces a negative, protective perspective: How can I make enough money doing good enough work while maintaining a semblance of that safety I once knew? It’s inherently defensive because your life and work quality which used to be assumed is now on the bargaining table. Focusing on these negotiations and defending the ability to do good work feels right, and when it’s going well it feels like succeeding. However, the opposite is frequently true. Focusing on how to win this negotiation often makes very talented individuals lose perspective on what made them so good at what they do:
A top-tier director will hire a small team to meet a project’s demands but then not direct his/her team because they’re busy fulfilling business owner responsibilities like selling more work and maintaining professional relationships.
A talented individual will agree to a project because it’s a perfect fit, but then fail to do excellent work because there are 6 other projects to attend to and burnout is creeping in.
Defensive business leads to bad creativity because it forces attention away from generating new and best ways to meet needs. Instead it focuses us on solving for the immediate danger at hand and avoiding actions that could cause painful consequences.
So, back to sword-wielding Sam who has no sense of safety in the idea of employment. Sam and Dad illustrate the two extremes when approaching creativity in business. Dad was looking for income and career path safety and relying on his extensive experience to support his plan that involved mitigating risk. Sam was focused on finding the best way to keep doing what he loved, regardless of the risks. The gulf between the two of them was huge, so I tossed an idea right in-between the two of them: What if they both worked to find the most valuable thing Sam does, then find people who need that thing and assess whether Sam needed new/additional skills or could start selling his value as-is? Immediately, both of them were on the same page. Sam told me a story of being flown to Alaska to choreograph and film a short video for a client, and Dad started calculating the value of that work against what he though Sam would need in income and clients to make a venture worth putting off college or getting a job — he also started considering whether Sam had a realistic view of his own skills as compared to what other people like him could offer. Defensiveness was necessary for making a wise decision, but it needed to be in support of the best option possible instead of playing gatekeeper before the wild ideas made it to the table.
Defensiveness has it’s place in business, right underneath the functions of dreaming big and digging into work with real market value.
That means we draft contracts that leave the door open for doing something nobody else but you could do — let your cancellation clause be copied and pasted from one contract to another.
Convince clients that it’s in their best interest to turn you loose on their work, then suggest to them the best way to keep both of you accountable.
Concentrating on doing the best work together with clients and employers lets us champion problem-solving instead of drafting future battle lines.