If you’re a self-employed creative, maybe you recognise this experience.
You meet a business expert and get into conversation about your work. At a certain point they give you a sympathetic look, maybe put a hand on your shoulder, and tell you you’re doing it all wrong.
What you should really be doing, they explain, is designing your business so that other people do the work for you. That way you can scale it and earn a lot more money. If you do a really good job, you can sell it for even more money and retire early.
What you have now, they tell you, is just a ‘lifestyle business’. And in their world, a lifestyle business is a bad thing. It’s for amateurs and people who don’t understand the realities of business.
I’ve had this experience a few times. One of the most common has been the person who tells me that if I really want to succeed as a creative coach, I shouldn’t be doing all the coaching myself because it doesn’t scale.
Instead, I should hire other coaches to do the work, and license them to coach people according to the Mark McGuinness Branded Creative Coaching System™. Then I could take a percentage of everything they earn and serve more clients while making more money. At a certain point I’d have such a successful business that it could run it itself, and eventually I could sell it for a lot of money and retire early.
It makes perfect sense. And when I think of doing it I feel like I want to go and lie down and forget all about coaching.
Because I didn’t start coaching because I wanted to make a lot of money or grow a scalable business or sell it and do nothing for the rest of my life. I did it because I wanted to coach inspiring creative people.
If I hired other coaches, they would do most of the coaching, and I would spend most of my time managing them and finding them clients and I have no interest at all in doing that. Why go to all that trouble so that someone else gets to do all the coaching?
Yes, I could probably make more money like that, but if I just wanted to make money, I would go and work in a bank.
And if I had a business that involved managing a team I wouldn’t have enough time for writing. And writing is one thing I am not going to give up.
For a long time I found it hard to shake off the idea that I was somehow doing it all wrong. Then one day I read Derek Sivers’ book Anything You Want, based on his experience of founding CDBaby.com and ‘accidentally’ growing it into a company he sold for $22 million dollars.
“When you make a business, you get to make a little universe where you control all the laws. This is your utopia.”
This rang true for me in a way that the logical advice never did. And I realised I was living in utopia.
In my utopia, I get up every morning and walk my children to school. Then I spend the morning writing. In the afternoon, I coach inspiring creatives, or interview them for my podcast. Then I go downstairs and play games with the children before their bedtime. Then I enjoy a nice dinner with my wife and we watch a movie together.
Some days, I meet up with clients and we’ll spend the whole day together, working on the next phase of their amazing career. And that’s pretty utopian too.
I’m struggling to imagine a better way of spending my working days. It feels like a dream come true.
And it’s not just about me, it’s about helping my clients and readers and listeners. Because as Derek Sivers goes on to say:
When you make a dream come true for yourself, it’ll be a dream come true for someone else, too.
So that’s my utopia. But everyone’s utopia is different, which means everyone’s ideal business is also different.
A great example of this is Michael Bungay Stanier, who was a guest on The 21st Century Creative podcast back in Season 1.
Like me, Michael is a coach, but he said in that interview that fairly early on he realised he wasn’t so much fired up by coaching people himself as by unlocking the potential of coaching in organisations. He’s on a mission to help managers and leaders become better coaches for their teams.
So he has built a team who are coaching and training people in organisations all over the place and they are doing an absolutely terrific job of it. And this inspires Michael to give his best every day, and he’s having an outsized impact on the world.
So even though we’re both coaches, Michael’s utopia is very different to mine. Chances are your utopia is very different to either of ours.
And even if your business doesn’t grow or scale in the traditional ways, as a 21st Century Creative, you may find it does scale in unexpected ways.
In my case, there are other ways to scale than hiring a team of coaches. As a coach, I work exclusively with creative high achievers, so every person I coach has an outsize impact on the world, and I can make a big difference through my work with them.
And my books and this podcast allow me to reach many more people than I could reach through coaching, even if I hire a team of coaches. So I’m not at all sure that I’d make a bigger difference by hiring a team.
Another example is Laurie Millotte, who also appeared in Season 1 of the podcast. She took her knowledge and contacts as a designer specialising in branding for the wine industry, and created a whole new business, Outshinery. She uses a very small team and computer-aided design to send her winery clients photo-realistic publicity shots of their latest vintage before the wine has even been bottled! This way she can creative more images, at lower cost and more consistent quality than doing things the old way, by shipping bottles to be photographed.
Or Tina Roth Eisenberg from Season 2, who has created a series of unusual creative businesses and projects via collaboration and technology, including a series of Creative Mornings lectures in 204 cities worldwide every month.
Or Daniel Boettcher, also in Season 2, who creates, one-off, timeless pieces of exquisite jewellery?
Or CJ Lyons in Season 3, who self-published her thrillers and sold over 3 million books.
They are all creating their own utopia, and creating surprisingly scalable and successful businesses in the process.
So the next time someone offers you well-meaning advice about how to grow your business, listen with an open mind. It may be that they have thought of something you haven’t – and we should always be open to new ideas.
But don’t assume they know better than you, even if they have more experience or success than you do. They may know the traditional business world better than you do. But they don’t know you better than you do.
And only you know the kind of utopia you want to create.
You can hear an audio version of the article in this episode of The 21st Century Creative podcast, starting at 2’32”.
Illustration: Utopien 04 by Makis E. Warlamis