What's the "Big Idea" Really, What Is It?

Newson October 16th, 20091 Comment

Want to do your own thing? Start a new business? This is a loose transcription of talk I was asked to give to a group of aspiring new business owners. I never thought for a moment that it would ever go beyond the confines of the small group I was addressing but have had numerous requests over the past few years to provide a written account. Hope there’s something in here that will make you think or inspire you to try your own thing. I’ve updated a few of the time sensitive references to make things a bit more contemporary but, other than that, the transcript that follows is pretty much the way it was delivered.

A little bit about Small Planet – we’re a (almost) fifteen year-old advertising and design agency with clients both far away as Italy and as near as right here in town. Over the years we’ve grown from one employee (me) in a basement (my house) to as many as 22 people and owning our own building as well as a few sizes and locations in between. We’ve received numerous creative awards including a “Telly” – the advertising equivalent of an Emmy- for an original short (short film) we developed for one of our clients and have been cited as one of the “Ten-Best” design agencies in New England.

First, I have a confession to make; when I started out I had no idea where I would be today. I was just a guy and a computer with a few good contacts. I had a wife, two children, a mortgage and a car payment. Sound familiar? But I had an idea, I was deliberate, and I had a plan. I’m going to share with you a few of my experiences and how they helped shape my business as it is today…and will continue to shape it for the future. Maybe there will be something you hear that you can grab onto or that will help you figure out where (or if) you want to go.

So why, with so many creative agencies, did I think that this one would be different? I knew the world didn’t need just another design group and that, while I thought I was a pretty creative guy, there were thousands of creative folks in the world. What important difference could I bring to my business that would be meaningful to my clients?

For me it started with a general level of dissatisfaction with some of the standard industry practices and grew into a realization that not only wasn’t the way many things were being done a productive way to do business, it wasn’t very satisfying either. It took 23 years for me to get to that point. It was…the fabled death of a thousand cuts.

Remember when you were a kid? Growing up, how many of you told yourself, “When I have kids, I’m going to change how that works”, because of some perceived (or real) way your parents treated you? That’s how the idea of Small Plant developed. It began with questions about what I didn’t like or about things I would change if I had the power to change them. Here’s my short list:

  • I didn’t like the way clients were generally treated – as revenue streams rather than as people who had a problem that were looking to get solved
  • I didn’t like the “me first” attitude of most people in the agency environment
  • I didn’t like the financial disparity between the people who did the work and the people who found or managed the work
  • I really didn’t like the ‘burn out’ rate of those on the creative staff and account managers
  • I didn’t like the hierarchal way of thinking that kept collaboration out of the workplace
  • And I really didn’t like that most people in my business knew all of these things…and thought they were perfectly all right

For me, the joy had gone out of the work. It was hard to keep my head in the game and it showed. I was unhappy, out of shape, my work wasn’t as good as it could have been. I just wasn’t healthy…mentally or physically.

So what was the big idea? Really…what was it?

My ”big idea” was to provide opportunity for the personal and professional growth and learning that I didn’t get when I came up through the design ranks.

What you should notice about this “big idea” is that it doesn’t say anything about how profitable I wanted to be, or how fast I wanted to grow. It assumes if I can do what I set out to do, that profitability and growth will be natural outcomes of successfully executing on my “big idea”.

Here’s how that translates into a tactical reality. For Small Planet the client/job criteria are:

  • Can I really help this company?
  • Am I going to learn something with this assignment?
  • Am I going to have fun?

These are critical because they go to the heart of the creation of revenue.

  • If I genuinely feel I can help the client I’m going to be engaged in my work and bring my passion, my energy, and my enthusiasm to the assignment. I’m going to be their partner.
  • Learning something new excites me. So, if I know I’m going to get something out of the relationship I’m more committed to finding the right answer to the problem at hand.
  • Happy people make good work. Nothing new there.

What’s important to note here is the relationship of my revenue to my criteria. When I behaved consistent with my “big idea”, I made money. An interesting corollary: every job we’ve ever taken solely for the money has been an abysmal financial failure. Go figure.

So, you think, “this is all well and good but not really very practical.” ” How am I supposed to figure out how this is going to help me?” While I can’t answer those questions for you, I can share one of the ways these ideas manifested themselves in our business practice.

Partner or vendor?  I need to digress a bit here to lay the foundation for what I’m about to say. How many of you know the difference between a transactional employee and a committed follower? For those who aren’t familiar with the terminology, a transactional employee is someone who comes to work, does what you ask them, collects their check, and goes home. A committed follower brings their passion, their enthusiasm, and their energy to every thing they do. There’s a corollary in your relationships with your customers and other professional services you need to do your business. It’s called, “partner or vendor”?

A vendor:

  • Does what you asked them
  • Brings exactly what they need to do the work you’ve asked them to do
  • Gets paid and goes home

A partner:

  • Brings their enthusiasm and talent to the relationship
  • Will risk on your behalf
  • Brings their passion to each opportunity

Because I’m in a creative business, a business that revolves around the development of ideas and solutions, I need to people to be comfortable bringing everything they have to the table. People who feel valued and respected will do that. I simply can’t afford to find out the guy with the idea I need isn’t comfortable sharing because they’re not involved or not interested in my business.

The journey to today has not all been sweetness and light.  Among all of the “successes”, there were times (and there continue to be times) when I asked myself, “What I am doing?” – moments when I yearned for the simplicity of just going to work, doing my thing, and getting a check. Moments when I wondered if what I was doing was worth all the trouble. Trusting, believing in my “big idea” enabled me to overcome the self-doubt and the discouragement that are a natural part of growth and learning. In fact, those are the moments when real growth and learning take place. Those times when things aren’t going to plan are precisely the moments when believing in something unique, powerful, something greater than the simple motive of making a living is most critical…and most necessary.

One Response to “What's the "Big Idea" Really, What Is It?”

  1. dtownsend says:

    An update. I didn’t know how prophetic I would be when I said that things would change. When this was recorded, Small Planet was still a going concern but, alas, is no more. In its place is DCtownsendLLC. Things do, indeed, change.

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