Optimizing the Walk, not the Plan

Summary: I’ve been preparing the relaunch of my design business, and have realized that the way I’m doing it may not be suited to my “natural strengths” (now that I have an inkling of what they are).

If this is the case, I need to think of optimal action as applying the skills I have WITHOUT planning, trusting that I have the training to do it right. If firefighters act this way, perhaps I can learn from their example. And this suggests a radical plan of action.

I’ve been quiet lately, and that’s because I’ve been getting my ducks in a row to restart some kind of “design business”, though it might be more accurate to say that I’m just getting serious about doing it right.

To recap: Freelancing was never really the means to an end for me, but it has afforded me the chance to figure out what’s important to me. In hindsight, this freedom was also a tremendous luxury that I paid for with credit cards, missed career opportunities, isolation, and an uncertain future. However, I’ve also accumulated a giant pile of software, gear, and skills that will come in handy for this next phase of development. The recent diagram of my master vantage point is the culmination of this thinking, itemizing my so-called Five Destinations that are likely engines for future growth:

  • The Niche Design Business
  • Physical Goods (Books and Published Works)
  • Electronic Media, Software, and Online Tools
  • Community, Local Arts and Crafts, Blogs, and Guilds
  • “Professional Sounding Board”

Last week I started to lay out what the Niche Design Business might look like. I ended up drawing a kind of small store, which for me is imbued with the notion of tangible goods in a community context:

Design Niche What’s interesting about this diagram is that I seem to be honing in on something smaller scale. Up to this point, my past “business” could be characterized as a collection of odd jobs that happened to fall into my lap. Most went well, some did not. I’m thinking that now it’s time to apply the lessons I’ve learned in the construction of a compact, man-portable design business that converts “what I like” into sustainable benefit for me and the people I’m working with. But I don’t want to pursue a typical service model with the eventual goal of becoming a large agency. The feeling I want to create is more like that of having a a fantastic lawnmower, one with a tidy engine layout, great ergonomics, and an eagerness to cut grass extremely well, in ways I never imagined possible. In other words, I think I’m gravitating toward a limited application of my skills to create a design business that suits me. I’m not trying to be a “full-service agency” that does it all; rather, I’d like to make very simple focused applications in my little shop. That’s the niche.

Still, this is not the plan. This is another visualization, and I am finding myself spinning my wheels regarding the DETAILED BUSINESS PLAN. Any business plan worth its salt covers just a few basics:

  • The Money-Making Proposition – So, how do you think you will convince people to give you money? What do they get for your money?
  • The Estimated Revenue Stream – So you think you have a way to part people from their money. How much money, over what length of time, from whom? Make your best guess, and show your work.
  • The Costs of Building the Proposition – What’s it going to cost to build the engine, infrastructure, support team, and whatever else you need to make that money-making idea work.
  • Managing the Cash Flow – How are you going to ensure you survive the startup phase?
  • Hedging your Bets, Changing the Odds, Secret Weapons – What else are you going to do to manage your risk? Who do you have on the team that makes success more likely than not?

And this is where I’ve been stuck, at the money-making proposition. Just what AM I selling? What is it WORTH? And WHO is going to BUY it?

I am making this much harder for myself because I’m trying to identify just what kind of design I do, and what kind of work I want to do. By extension, I am trying to define WHO I AM so I can create a design business that fits me; this is much more likely to be a suitable (and therefore sustainable) niche design busines where I can be competitive. To borrow an idea from the recent Marty Neumeier DVD The Innovation Workshop, I want to make a statement like, “David Seah is the only designer that does XXXXXXX”. Because that’s who I am, and I don’t feel good about doing it any other way. There is, surprisingly, a market for that. Whether it is large or small, whether there are compromises I have to make, whether I can make a living doing whatever it is I think I want to do is, frustratingly, a completely open question.

And there’s where I left off three days ago, as I pondered my “only designer that does XXXXXXX” statement. Originally, I was planning to plod ahead and write a series of articles about each of the Five Destinations, this being the one about “The Niche Design Business”, but since then I’ve had several realizations:

  1. In yesterday’s Recycled Content Saturday post, I mentioned this ability I have to create stories out of very thin air by drawing upon my own associations and memories; this actually might be an unusual skill. And as I pondered this, a scene from the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came to mind. It’s the one when Sundance is called on to show that he can competently shoot a gun. Sundance, who we all know by now is an amazing gunslinger, takes careful aim at a soup can a few paces away and completely misses. He tries again, with the same result. But Sundance says that this is not the way he shoots; he needs to “move a little”. And with that, he draws with blazing speed, peppering the with shot after shot using his intuitive method. He’s just not the “stand, aim, and fire” kind of shooter, and Sundance knew it. I could make the analogy that my story-writing process is similar, and it’s this kind of thinking that enables me to quickly outline project plans and write proposals. However, I’ve always assumed that after the plan is written, the methodical process should follow: pick the next step, establish a time frame, aim, execute, and measure. But you know what? Maybe that’s not my execution style at all. For the past 20 years I’ve tried to train myself into that mode of thinking, with some success, but every single time I’ve done something interesting it’s been from the hip or from the heart. I’ve got to move a little.

  2. I think it was in Dan Gilbert’s Stumbling On Happiness that I read how firefighters rapidly make decisions in critical situations. There was a study on decision-making going on, and the researchers were investigating the hypothesis that firefighters perhaps made two choices very quickly, compared them, and then picked the best one. As it turns out, firefighters didn’t choose at all; they went with the first plan that came to mind after running it through a simple checklist of known dangers. This is possible, I conjecture, because they have the training, conditioning, and physical ability to execute such plans; there’s no need to question what is “the best option” in that scenario, so long as the checklist ensures that the firefighters are not pushing past the limits of their ability envelope.


p>Now, I find myself in the position of choosing what I need to do to ensure that I am making money and making progress toward some kind of satisfying life goal. I have been assuming that I need to make the optimal choice, and my past activity for the past few weeks has been almost entirely oriented toward choosing the best elements of my past life experience to recombine into a new vehicle for my next leap. I don’t want to waste my time, so I’ve tried to be methodical and smart about it, but maybe I’m being too smart about it. That is, I’m designing a plan that on paper is very rational and personally insightful, but it’s a plan that I am not going to naturally follow. I need that room to move, perhaps, so I can practice the kind of furious creativity that I sense is achievable. And THAT kind of plan is more situational and reactionary, requiring that I trust my training to steer me away from fiery deathtraps. My experience with blogging has also taught me that almost everything I’ve done has merely opened more doors to opportunity. I don’t need an optimal plan after all. I need to just keep going.

Breaking this down simply, the action plan becomes merely this:

  • Choose the first plan that comes to mind
  • Check to make sure I won’t be worse off than I am now
  • Check to make sure that the plan is within my ability to execute
  • Run the plan, and trust that everything I’ve learned so far will steer me well

And perhaps I’m the only designer that blogs his plans like this. One of a very few, anyway. I don’t know why I do it, but I like sharing what I know with people who are engaged by the material. What would happen if I shared the entire design business process? That would be highly intriguing because it fulfills a number of past wishes I’ve had:

  • I’ve thought it would be neat to found my own new media school, once I found some other people to work with it.
  • In the past, I’ve always appreciated it when people shared their processes with me. A lot of process just isn’t in books.
  • In my recent experiences getting up to speed with Actionscript 3, C#, and XNA, I’ve been struck by how little intermediate-level material there is. There’s plenty of simple tutorial material, much of it seemingly written by people who don’t actually do the stuff for a living. What I’d like to see more of is WORKING CODE written by people who are trying to solve larger problems that go beyond gluing one software component to another. This requires some architectural thinking.
  • I’ve wished for a body of best practices that I could refer to, absolutely trustworthy and meticulously documented.

I am, essentially, starting over with the design business. If I were to take that very literally, it means I’d be starting from scratch, like I was in my 20s. And I think it might be very refreshing to actually adopt that mindset of being an utter noob again, except this time I actually have my current body of experience to guide me. Starting over isn’t so bad when you’ve got a guide that tells you it’s OK to not know everything, but you’ve got to master a number of specific abilities before you are allowed to leave the temple.

More thoughts to come.