When I did the AMA a couple of weeks ago, I was hoping a couple of questions would come through which would make for good posts. Some people asked me how I manage to keep churning these things out week after week, and as I told them, dredging up inspiration from sources like this is a key part of the process!
Nevertheless there was one topic I didn’t expect to be writing about here, and that is how I grew Basic Arts.
There’s nothing particularly secret or sensitive about the topic, I just figured it’s a little too niche, and not of interest to most people. However, whilst that may be true, it was still the most asked question I received – so I figured I may as well get self-indulgent for a moment and tell you.
For my readers who run a consultancy, agency, or some vaguely similar operation, you may find some of the specifics I get into below helpful. For readers who don’t, well, maybe you want to skip this one.
Either way, I have tried to extract some broad insights so this remains as strategic a post as possible — not just a boring narrative of what I did and when.
Hopefully this makes it somewhat interesting, and as applicable as possible.
So let’s get cracking. Rather than a narrative I’ve picked out certain key themes, starting with…
At the heart of Basic Arts sits a theory. It’s what made me want to start the business in the first place. I didn’t think “I’d like to start a business, what should I do”; instead I developed the theory, and then thought it would make a good business.
The theory was and still is the strategic heart of the business, from which all other decisions flowed, as you shall see. It represents the value I bring to the market; my version of the strategic leverage I always go on about here.
For whatever reason, it seems to me most consultants, agencies and the like don’t really have a central guiding theory like this. They are more just “good at what they do”. This can work, clearly, but it’s basically the equivalent launching a chocolate bar with the proposition of being “really tasty”. It may be true, but it offers little strategic advantage – and consequently leads to a somewhat embattled existence.
Some try to differentiate by targeting a particular market, which is better I suppose, but still needs to be backed up with a body of thought which uniquely serves that market. Simply saying you do website design for florists isn’t, I suggest, much better than just doing website design. You need some intellectual meat to support the positioning.
Therefore, just as I would encourage any business to offer some form of contrarian value to their market, I would equally encourage any knowledge-based service provider to have a theory. A point of view which is rich, true, and above all theirs.
Having a theory (or more prosaically, an offering) is one thing – but framing it right is another.
Without going into detail, the two ways I’ve framed my own theory were first “make interesting companies, not interesting advertising”, and latterly “make companies without competitors”. Although the difference may seem to be semantic, it actually turned out to be extremely important.
You see in order to do what I do – set and deliver strategies which guide an entire organisation – you need a client who has the remit to operate at a company-wide level. Ultimately there’s only one person who can do this, and that’s the founder or CEO, and therefore they needed to be my point of contact.
The problem was, with my first framing, my service took on more the appearance of an “advertising alternative” – which naturally landed it on the desk not of founders, but of marketing directors. It wasn’t simply an advertising alternative of course (although there’s an application there). Creating a company so strategically well set that it doesn’t “need” advertising isn’t the same thing as advertising. But my rhetorical device made it sound like it was. And so that created a sticking-point.
It was only when I moved the emphasis away from the executional output (“interesting companies”), and more towards the strategic underpinning (“companies without competitors”) that I was able to start having the right conversations – as I was then speaking the language of my prospective clients.
The underlying theory never changed. But the articulation did – and believe me that’s just as important.
One of the main differences I have with most other consultancies and agencies, which makes it hard to draw parallels between us, is that unlike them I don’t operate in an established market.
Whilst I’m sure there are others out there who do what I do (or close enough), I’ve never come across them, and as a result have never really been in a competitive “pitch” situation. At least not to my knowledge – pretty fortunate, given my whole “no competitors” schtick.
(To be honest it blows my mind that there aren’t more people out there treating brands as holistic entities, where you need to make changes to brand, product, etc. simultaneously under a single strategic direction, but that’s by the by).
Anyway, although this anti-competitive scenario sounds great, it isn’t quite as comfortable as you might think.
You see when you aren’t operating in an established market, that means there isn’t an active pool of business for you to tap into. There aren’t people issuing briefs which you can respond to. At least if you do branding, advertising, web design, IT systems, or whatever, people are shopping for what you’re selling. But in my case nobody’s really shopping. “Pure strategy” isn’t really a thing, so I have to educate from scratch every single time (more on that below).
Naturally there are tangential markets from where I can potentially draw business – e.g. brand strategy – but it’s not straight forward.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the ideal blend is typically to have a highly unique offering which exists within a well established market. This is the situation we try to create with most of most of my clients. And therefore, even for other businesses of a similar shape to mine, this is probably what I’d recommend, rather than being too unique and totally untethered – floating about in the wind.
Here’s a big one for anyone who is just starting something like this:
Are you going to be a brand-led business, with lots of employees?
Or a personality-led business, where you are the product?
There are advantages and disadvantages with both approaches. The main advantage of the former is that it’s scalable. The downside is that it’s less profitable, you don’t have much freedom, and it’s harder to do thought leadership. Being personality-led on the other hand clearly is challenging to scale – but you’re free, you make a lot of profit, and thought leadership is easy.
I originally intended Basic Arts to be a “proper company”, with lots of employees doing the work. I think everyone probably begins with that assumption. However when a pal of mine who runs a business of about 25 said to me “I look out in those chairs, and all I see in each one is a pile of burning money”, I started to think a bit differently…
In addition to that, I realised that because my business relies on education, it needed a human face. People don’t want to read articles, books, and the like written by a brand. They want to hear from a person. This is a tried and tested model (think Simon Sinek and the like), and is quite different to that of the big faceless company.
Thus I had to conclude that the brand led approach may not be best for my offering.
Of course, to be personality-driven generally requires the business having quite a unitary product, not requiring lots of different skillsets. But there are probably exceptions even to that. So I’d think very carefully about which of these paths you want to take, because my sense is that most people default to the brand led when often the personality led would be more appropriate – and frankly more enjoyable too.
As you can see from all the above, I put a huge amount of emphasis on getting the strategic fundamentals of the business set up right – much more so than the actual tactical “growth activities” themselves.
I mean what do you expect – this is my whole spiel right? Get things set up correctly and the actual performance side of things should pretty much flow of its own accord.
Still, when all’s said and done you do still need to get out there and make a noise. And in my case, as you can imagine this is focused almost exclusively on education.
The big benefit of having a theory-led business is that you have something to go and educate people about, without having to “sell”. My ebooks, my webinars, my TEDx talk, this newsletter. All this stuff is education – something I’m able to do because I have a body of thought to call upon which people want to understand better.
I think it’s really important to emphasise the second half of that sentence: “which people want to understand better”. Strategy is unusual like that, in that it’s something lots of people want to learn about.
Not all topics are like that. In fact most aren’t. What this means, unfortunately, is that I can’t simply recommend the same “content led” approach for other service- and advice-style businesses. Not only do they typically lack a theory – as I said before – but they probably specialise in an area which clients don’t really want to dwell on.
For example if you’re offering, say, legal counsel, that’s clearly a very important service. But it’s also the sort of service a typical client would like to outsource in its entirety. They don’t want to know how the sausage is made, they don’t want to spend their days reading about legal theory.
You could certainly build your brand within your industry via content and education – but doing it amongst prospective clients may be a touch more challenging.
As a result I don’t think there will be that many people reading this who would be well advised to take this approach. In fact the advice I would give to most people is explicitly not to do it. It takes a hell of a lot of time – time that is often wasted.
Finally, on the subject of time, there is one last comment I’d make:
If I’d known how long things would take, I probably wouldn’t have done it.
I’m sure lots of founders have made comments like this before. Apparently this is what Jarvis Cocker said of Pulp when interviewed in 1995 – by which point he’d been at it for about 20 years. I went into this assuming I’d be flying after about a year – when in fact year one was basically nothing but learning, with very little earning.
I would almost go so far as to say that the business wasn’t really launched in a true sense until year three or four. Everything before that point – although things were ticking along – was effectively a prototype.
In hindsight, I don’t think this is because I did anything wrong. I think it’s just how these things are. The effects of your actions are cumulative; you expect one of them to magically blow up and propel you to stardom, but in reality each one is more like laying another brick in a wall. Taken in isolation, it does nothing, and looks like a waste of time. But after a few years of accumulating those wastes of time, you can suddenly step back and see the house in front of you.
That’s how it was for me. No single action was a game changer, or even particularly useful in itself. It’s only the sum which has value.
Speaking of good old Sinek, I heard once that he’d been peddling that “why” speech for 10 years before he had the big breakthrough TED talk. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I can well believe it. What looked like a “bang” to the rest of the world was simply the latest brick he laid – which as it happened was on top of enough other bricks as to be seen far and wide. For someone in my position that’s not disheartening – it’s actually super-encouraging. It removes “chance” from the equation; the reliance on finding a winning lottery ticket many of us harbour.
So although there are no doubt exceptions to this, I’ve come to realise that you can’t shortcut something of substance – particularly not in a game like this, where trust is so fundamental.
So there you go. A bit of navel-gazing for you. If any of this resonates for you, and you have follow up questions then do let me know. But otherwise we return to our normal programming next week.