Last year was a year I'd love to forget but probably never will.
I committed to too much (anyone else?) and I got sick just before the first wave of obligations hit. I juggled big commitments and various illnesses, getting sick four times on three continents with debilitating but benign illnesses and ailments that were the result of running myself down. Finally, in the fall while bedridden with pneumonia for two weeks I decided it was time to reshape my business. Three realizations from different sources came together somewhat simultaneously to lead me to a dramatic transformation in my consulting practice and in my work-life balance.
This article is mostly about me, the lessons I learned last year and the changes I made to my business which in turn do affect how I deliver my services to you, but I'm telling you about it because there might be a lesson in my experience for you, too. We all get trapped in our mental models of how we view our businesses and how we think we should deliver our offerings.
Knock it Down
I once heard David C. Baker tell a room full of creative firm principals that they should reinvent their business every 18 months. I was shocked. I thought that had to be some of the most irresponsible advice to give to people who were already perilously close to ADD. Then it occurred to me that I did exactly that. I never changed the business I was in but I was always messing with the delivery and usually at a frequency of about every year and a half. I understood then that it’s part of the constant search for optimization and a way to stay interested in one’s business.
Confined to the bed and resolute on reinvention, I recalled David’s words and realized I hadn’t changed anything in four or five years. I had been too busy working to step back and think creatively. I was busier than I had ever been but I was terribly bored and unfulfilled, and my clients knew it.
Pneumonia was the best thing that could have happened to me.
Realization #1: No More Consulting
I used to refer to myself as a consultant. Now I don’t know what to call myself. (“Recovering consultant” is a working title.) You see, my first of three revelations was that I wanted to get out of the consulting business.
My friend Carl is also in the ideas and advice business, although his market is different than mine. Shortly before I was felled by pneumonia I asked him about his mix of products and services moving forward – “Where is your future money coming from?” was the simple question. He listed three things. I noted that consulting wasn’t in his mix. “Yeah…” he replied pensively, “consulting is messy.”
That statement was like someone ripping the top off a box of pent up emotions and hidden truths. The word “messy” needed no explanation. In a microsecond it perfectly captured all my failures and frustrations. I hadn’t set clear boundaries, the engagements had gone on too long, in some places I was too rigid and in others I was too loose. I quit being interested well before the engagement was over. I admitted all of these things at once and I understood that knowing my subject matter didn’t necessarily make me a good consultant. I saw clearly the services I was delivering that I wasn’t very good at or didn’t enjoy at all.
I knew the answer to my next question even as I was speaking it: “Do you think I could get out of the consulting business?”
Realization #2: Work Less – a Lot Less
A friend who owns a successful small agency had been politely chiding me for over a year that I should adopt the tools and benchmarks used in firms like his to track time, utilization and profit. His wager to me was, “I’ll bet you’ll make an extra hundred grand if you just track your time for one year.” Part of me suspected he was right but a larger part resisted. I didn’t build a lifestyle business so I could fill out time sheets. I was also skeptical. I already knew that I worked a lot and that in spite of this I wasn’t particularly effective. Wouldn’t tracking my time just validate this and send me into a deeper funk?
A year later he prodded me again and I finally agreed it was worth a try. Shortly after, near the end of my bedridden state of rethinking everything, I visited the website of Strategic Coach, a coaching program for entrepreneurs that I’d considered enrolling in years earlier. I was looking for guidance on what I should measure in my business to improve efficiencies.
I found an article from founder Dan Sullivan explaining that the first metric Strategic Coach had participants track was days off. It was simple. Entrepreneurs work too much, burn out, lose their perspective and sacrifice too much of their personal lives. (Anyone?) By working less they become far more productive and creative. At Strategic Coach, increasing the time you spend not working or thinking about work was goal number one.
These words stunned me. Like Carl’s statement about consulting, they immediately struck me as an unassailable truth, at least for me and my situation. In an instant I decided I wasn’t going to track my time, I was going to track negative time – time off. I knew that the key to productivity and engagement for me was to work less, and because I had already decided to extricate myself from long, messy consulting engagements I knew that with a new delivery model I could take more time off even if I didn’t exactly see how yet.
Realization #3: A Project-Based Business
Enter Seth Godin, to whom I owe an apology.
I once said (privately, not publicly) that it should be a fire-able offence to quote Seth Godin. I voiced this heresy not because I saw his advice as worthless, but because I saw it often quoted by people who didn’t get anything done. Before I had read anything of his I had written him off as a guru to navel gazers and social media meta bloggers (those who use social media to comment on social media and then point to it as validation of the greatness of social media.) I was wrong. Clearly, there are reasons Seth is so quoted and just as clearly his following spans a full spectrum of people, including many who are brilliant and successful. Once I began reading I found wisdom and bravery in his insights. With the hope that this apology suffices, I’ll proceed.
Shortly after my first two realizations I tripped over a video of an interview with Seth talking about some of the ideas behind his new book, The Icarus Deception. One in particular hit me with the same force as Carl’s words about consulting and Dan Sullivan’s on time off. Seth was inviting viewers to look at business as a series of art projects and to value the blank white page that presents itself after a project is completed and shipped. Stephen Spielberg, he pointed out, can make a Jaws-like movie and then make a movie about the holocaust. Tom Hanks made the movie Big but that didn’t condemn him to making Big 7. You do not have to be a slave to your last project. You are under no obligation to build something that requires your involvement long after your interest has waned.
This is a transformational idea. How many business owners love what they do but feel trapped, bored or angry by how they find themselves doing it? How many launch a business that allows them to do something that fascinates, inspires or rewards them but end up building a delivery mechanism that’s a little too much like a prison?
I am a sprinter. I’ve known that for years. I go hard then need a rest, but I ended up building a business for a marathoner because that is the model of consulting. Consulting engagements go on, they overlap with others and they leave few gaps to rest, rejuvenate and reimagine. The agency business can be the same, can’t it? That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just as the consulting model isn’t wrong. It’s just wrong for me at this point in my life. I had to be flat on my back, yet again, with a string of failures and frustrations behind me to see it.
Mapping Out Projects
A project-oriented business was the last piece of the puzzle for me. It was the answer to the question, “How, then?” begged by deciding to give up consulting and to work less. In a 30-minute brain dump I identified 13 projects that excited me and allowed me to leverage my expertise in different ways, some through new mediums and some with new, future content.
Each project required a creation/build period then it needed to be sold and delivered. Afterward I would be rewarded with time off to focus on things other than work, which would recharge my excitement for the next project.
I won’t tell you too much about my project list but I will say I'm talking about something bigger than simply productizing a service business. Some projects are products – books of various formats, videos, etc. Some would meet the definition of consulting or coaching services but they are all focused in time and content and will be packaged up neatly and delivered over timeframes that work for both parties. Then I’ll move on.
The project ideas came quickly and the excitement of them got me up in the middle of the night for more than a week. The details flooded in to fill the shells of what had been placeholders of ideas I would one day pursue when I somehow found the time. (Anyone?) Creatively I was reborn. That old wish list long buried at the back of my mind was on paper in front of me now, and the basis for my entire business moving forward.
Proof of Concept
Some of my projects looked to be six months in the making, maybe longer, some, a week but most somewhere in between. I needed immediate validation, however that these projects would sell and would work for both my audience and me. I needed to test.
I decided to put together a mastermind program on a topic I know well, enjoy and for which I had some new content I had never delivered. I considered the material I needed to cover, how to keep me engaged and how long before I would get bored. I thought I could sell it out quickly (I did, with a sizeable waiting list) but I was worried about delivering value through the format. Could I really make a difference in twelve firms at the same time over a short period? I found some successful examples of similar formats, borrowed from them, packaged up the program, sold and delivered it. I made mistakes and learned as I went but the net effect exceeded my expectations on all fronts. Clients were happy (and largely tolerant of me fumbling with a new format), businesses were transformed and I was interested and engaged throughout.
You might say, “well, that’s still consulting,” and it is but the packaging of content, structure and time made it a highly creative, enjoyable and contained exercise. When it was done I took more time off than I had in twelve years and the best part is I have no obligation to do it again. I could do it again, I get enquiries about doing it again, I might do it again, but only if I can get excited about it again, which for me would almost certainly mean changing it substantially because the creative exercise of conceiving and building the project delivers a big part of the total satisfaction. For now, there are other projects to launch, including a coaching-based one on improving sales behavior that opens for registration on April 15th. The others I’ll keep to myself until they’re ready to launch.
Halfway through the mastermind program near the end of last year I had enough validation to set my business goals for this year. There were three.
The first goal was ten weeks off, spread throughout the year. This was easy. I know I burn out in March, July and December. I also like to take time off when my kids are out of school. I marked ten weeks of vacations on my calendar, eight of which coincided with my kids’ school vacations and two of which were for my wife and me.
My second goal for the year was ten days off. I would take these spontaneously throughout the year and record them on my calendar as I did.
My third goal was a revenue target. To arrive at this I took the projects that I wanted to do and could comfortably commit to doing over the year ahead, I mapped them out on my calendar around my vacations then I made conservative financial projections for each project.
On paper at least, the formula for the year ahead gave me more time off and revenue than ever before all while doing work that was more creative and inspiring. I had the early validation, barely one project in, that I could pull this off, I just had to keep to the project and vacation schedule and keep saying no to things that didn’t fit.
There’s Little Growth Without Pruning
First I started saying no to opportunities even before my three realizations coalesced into a new vision for the business. I knew I had committed to too much travel last year so around September I decided that I would take 2013 off from overseas travel. Making that decision had lifted a surprising amount of weight from my shoulders. Immediately I was tested with invitations to speak in France, Austria and Saudi Arabia, all of which I declined. The invitations and enquiries keep coming and I keep saying no, perhaps in 2014.
By November I was turning down consulting engagements. I would still do them on occasion as long as I could do them in a day – get in, solve the problem or provide the training, then get out. That ruled out most of what clients were looking for.
I had made one exception to this no-more-consulting-engagements rule though. Earlier in 2012 I had agreed to work with a firm for all of 2013 on a broad, open engagement with a creative and mutually lucrative compensation structure. It was a first for me and at the time I agreed to it I was excited by it. The firm was smart, interesting and well positioned. I liked and trusted the principals and looked forward to the impact I could make over a year. As I got closer to January 1st though it started to feel like the only remaining shackle in an otherwise free year of possibilities. Two weeks in I called it off, to everyone’s relief. It’s hard to mask disinterest.
I’ve spent twelve years telling you to say no in the buying cycle as a tool of getting to yes. I'm pretty good at it myself but I have never really understood the regenerative power of no until recently. Saying no creates space. Space that you get to fill with new opportunity that you cannot predict or even imagine yet; opportunity that would not be there if you did not create room for it first. I reread these words and they sound so obvious. If you had said them to me a year ago I would have said, yes I know, but I wouldn’t really have known. Honestly, it felt like I had unlocked one of the laws of the universe. There is no growth without pruning first. Aggressive pruning.
Today I prune relentlessly to make room for my projects. I am more present to whatever I'm doing and whomever I'm with than I have been in years.
There have been many surprises along this road. One is the amount of personal projects that I’ve gladly taken on that are not work related. Some are family-based and some are creative or athletic pursuits; things I wanted to do one day when I somehow found the time. (Anyone?)
Another surprise is how less meaningful my inbox is. Some of you may have noticed. I rarely check email outside of the office anymore and I don’t attach the same emotional weight or sense of obligation to these things that come in at me from all angles and places like I used to. I don’t know when that changed, why, or even if it’s good.
Where To Now?
I'm not a pop culture junkie but I do have a pool of reference sources that I draw from for metaphors and amusement. (Bueller?) I keep thinking of the end of The Matrix where a finally understanding and fully confident Neo delivers his message via payphone directly to the matrix, the oppressive veil of innocuous existence from which he has extricated himself, “I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin…”
I hope you get pneumonia.
Mastering the Win Without Pitching Way is the coaching program that opens for registration on April 15th and runs from April 29th to June 28th.
Here is Dan Sullivan’s Strategic Coach. I can’t find the article I mentioned but I’ve emailed them and will update this link when I have it.
Watch Seth Godin's interview here. (The key insight for me starts just before the 17th minute but it’s all good.)
Finally, if you’re not already subscribed to my writing (and webcast and project notices) you can do so here.