(last updated on September 23, 2018)
So I’m at Barnes and Noble Cafe catching up with Scott, and I’m telling him about The Printable CEO. He laughs at the name, commenting on how it has an interesting “accessible to the people” quality to it.
“So how did you come up with the idea anyway, Dave?”
I paused in mid slurp. It had taken just a few hours to put together, but what had triggered the act of creation?
“Hmm. I guess it started about two years ago…”
The Printable CEO was born out of a very specific strategic need: I needed to create more tangible assets–that is, stuff that you could actually see with your eyes. And that was driven by a single horrible truth: I am a terrible networker. I went to one or two networking events when I was getting started, and tended to have conversations like this:
“So, Dave is it? Your name tag says you’re a New Muddy Designer?” “No, New MEDIA…it’s designing the graphics and interactivity for computer screens–” “Oh, how rustic! My son–he’s 6 and extremely computer savvy for his age–likes to do that too with ‘KiddyPaint’…have you seen this program? It’s AMAZING. I am the distract sales manager for BigCom, specializing in ERP and CRM solutions for the Fortune 100. Oh look, there’s Matherson from the Chicago office!” “ERP-?” “Excuse me, my drink has become warm…Matherson, wait up you old dog!”
I’d rather avoid this kind of superficial interaction; with tangible assets, I can “show” rather than “explain”. Looking at it another way, attracting people to me rather than me approaching them is an easier sell.
Whipping Up Some Goals
I should step back and describe the general goals I’ve cobbled together over the past several years, because that’s the primordial context in which The Printable CEO sprang.
- I want to do projects that I find personally interesting and relevant, with people who I respect. I’m willing to choose the less lucrative interesting project, believing if I do the kind of work I enjoy, success will come.
- I want to be recognized for the work I do as an individual. It’s just the way I’m wired…I don’t feel any accomplishment when I’m a small part of a large successful team. For a long time I mistook this feeling to mean I didn’t want to work in teams ever again. THAT was a huge mistake, because it turns out working with the right people is a lot of fun. It just took a while for me to experience it.
- I want to collaborate with other passionate, conscientious, creative, competent people. When you find the right people to work with, it’s incredibly energizing and fun. Great things start to happen! And it feels great.
- I want to create great products that also work for me. A lot of what a freelancer does is services, not product development. Services can be cool when you’re collaborating with awesome people, but career-wise you’re still in the rat race, always looking for that next job. Wouldn’t it be great if you could build something that made money for you as you slept? So really, I want to transition from freelance to becoming an independent practitioner. To me, that means having a real product instead of a menu of services.
- Overall, I want to be happy, and feel a sense of creative kinship with people. This is a lot more personal, and it means I’ve finally come to recognize that without this, everything else means nothing. Freelance is the vehicle I’ve chosen to get me there, so I have to make that work.
These goals are pretty ambiguous, but they describe a state of existence that I want to achieve. A real business person would go further and define the genetics of a successful business organism that, as a byproduct of being alive, meets those goals naturally: that’s what a business plan is! At this point in the game, I’m not ready to do that, so I am just sticking with “follow my bliss” as the direction. I figure that this is at least is getting me in the vicinity of future opportunities. If I have enough to eat and a place to sleep, and I’m getting closer, then life is good. Is it any wonder that I like freelancing? Careerwise, I’m doing On the Road-Lite .
Strategy and Tactics
The Printable CEO is not so much about strategy as it is tactics. In other words, the PCEO is a tool to help implement the plan that will bring about my goals. I picture three elements of any successful multi-step action: Goals (which I outlined in the previous section), Strategy, and Tactics.
GOALS are what I want to BECOME, where I want to BE, what I want to HAVE. Because I ain’t there now and that sucks.
STRATEGY is the plan that gets me from where I am now (you know, in sucksville) to the place/condition/state of grace visualized in my GOALS. A good strategic plan is one that is designed to succeed given the prevailing situation and favorable conditions. Here’s an example of a good strategic plan tied to a specific goal:
GOAL: I want to be outside tomorrow, because being outside feels good. STRATEGY: The door leads outside. By opening the door and passing through it, our goal will be achieved.
I didn’t say it was a sophisticated plan…just one that isn’t likely to fail barring some kind of catastrophe. It’s even a great plan if the weather has been good and you’re in good physical condition. There’s still plenty that can go wrong, but let’s not dwell on that. That’s where tactics comes in.
TACTICS is the art of getting things done: execution! I have the tools, the skills, and the ability, so I should just do it. The “art” is getting past the obstacles with style: through creative thinking, reframing of the problem, goal substitution, whatever…what Bobby Shaftoe (from Neil Stephenson’s Cryptonomicron) calls adaptability.
The Tactics of Following Your Bliss
So what is the Printable CEO? It’s kind of a tactical trick in two parts: a carefully-defined list of tasks that carry out my strategy without having to think about them too hard, and a positive motivation reward system that’s easy to read.
Here’s the strategy:
Success, defined by maximally achieving the state of existence as defined in my general goals, will come from having tangible work to share and to show. A tangible work in my context is (1) a screen design (2) an interactive (3) a piece of writing (4) a piece of working software. By having more tangible work, I then have more ways to appeal to the pool of interesting people who are hiring or are looking for collaborators. This is why I emphasize showing…you can’t attract people if there’s nothing to see. To maximize exposure, I will share broadly. My web site is up 24 hours a day, sharing while I sleep. Sharing helps establish a connection through a proxy object, which for my personality is a lot easier than trying to work a cold room full of suits. Maximized exposure of showable artifacts and ideas increase the chance, again, of landing interesting work with interesting people who are on my wavelength.
The items in the list are picked to be as concrete as possible, either as an action or as a deliverable. They all feed into that strategy on some level.
I think the more quanty MBA types would chastise me, saying “HOPE is not a PLAN”. However, I think this is a pretty good LIFE PLAN that happens to have financial residuals. When I come across an opportunity to define a real business plan, that’s when I’ll do it. That’s the way my priorities are set up at the moment.
The second part of the trick is the motivational psychology behind the bubble chart. Repeat after me:
The Printable CEO is not a To-Do list. It’s an I-Did list.
A To-Do list implicitly says, “You need to do ALL these things, otherwise you are failing.” It is a completionist, perfectionist-feeding tool. Personally, I think that creates an environment with more opportunity for failure, especially if you are a procrastinator/perfectionist like me. Why feed that? I believe that there is a certain amount of self-disciplining you need to do, but sometimes it’s easier to just remove the temptation.
Here’s an example of To-Do list thinking. Imagine that the To-Do list is talking to you:
There are 4 ounces of chocolate divided into 18 discrete pieces. Each discrete piece will be accounted for and checked off.
Here’s how I imagine the Printable CEO talking:
Hey, you have 18 M&Ms! That’s AWESOME! Rock on!
Do you see the difference? It’s just a reframing of the task, an adaptation to my particular set of personality quirks. I’ve spent years trying to use the To Do list as a motivational device, but for me they work far better in the “TO DO RIGHT NOW or DIE” context. I am not disciplined enough to use them as an actual motivational device for business development. Because I tend to see work and life as the same thing, I need to have the business development activity be fun and rewarding. The To-Do list just turns into a To-Didn’t list, which encourages a “slip instead of ship” mentality, and that is totally lame. Why bring myself down? That’s a strategy that, in my case, is not designed to succeed.
So when you’re putting together your own list of tasks, think of the following:
- Have a task list that’s tied to the strategic goals, and trust that great things are built from many small steps. Make the steps small, doable, and supportive of your strategy.
- Frame measurement of progress in a way that doesn’t encourage perfectionism and completionist thinking. Equate filling out a bubble with found money. We like found money!
- If you’ve picked the right tasks, the completion of every one them should be a positive step toward achieving your goals. In my case, most of those tasks contributes to managing relationships that lead to new contracts, or tangible assets that attract new relationships. You may have different priorities, such as research or gaining experience. Just make sure that you can show or share what you’ve done. I find mere description and exposition is far less compelling.
You Still Here?
You may have noticed that what I’ve discussed to now doesn’t cover all 10 criteria on the list:
- The 5-pointers were the original items on my list, before I even thought of the bubble chart. The odd-man out is the “accounting and planning” item…this is something I should be doing more rigorously.
- The two 10-pointers came next, because without revenue you DIE. That’s the MOST important thing to think about: survival. If you’re going into debt, you’re not helping yourself. Make the money you need FIRST, build a buffer, then you have the luxury of picking projects toward a better future.
- The 2-pointers are related to activities that lead up to signing new business. If you’ve ever worked on closing a deal, you know it can take months of small interactions that finally lead up to big handshake. As it is, I have already gotten the ball moving here and am doing it daily, so I don’t need to emphasize it as much. Remember, the point values are not a reflection of how important it is; it’s how much motivation you need. Assign the higher points to the tasks that you know you should be doing more. If you’re already doing them, you can assign lower point values to them.
- The original list didn’t have 1-pointers…it had 0 pointers. It used to say, “If it’s not on the list, it doesn’t count! Do something that does!”, and I had a bunch of 0-point bubbles to fill out to see how much time I was wasting. I nuked that because I actually then thought about how important maintaining and making relationships were, and didn’t want to just add another group of bubbles–4 groups of anything is about the maximum “this is not scary” size, from a visual design perspective. As a bonus, I realized that this made the form more positive overall. Because I have an engineering background I have the tendency to think that everything must have a “worst case scenario” aspect, which leads to a lot of needless caveating and disclaiming up.It just sucks the momentum out of things, which is counter to the mission of the Printable CEO. When it’s time, I’ll create “The Printable COO” to handle that part of the business :-)
From a graphic design perspective, there are also a lot of interesting little touches. Not amazing, just interesting: the psychology behind the specific point values, point spread, and colors, the number of groups, the challenge of grouping, the repetition of shape and form and proportion, relative sizes of elements. Nothing that a graphic designer doesn’t already know, but it might be interesting to write about that next; after all, blog articles are worth 2 points in my system! :-)