How Do You Grow a Creative Business?
So you've started a creative business... now, how do you grow and sustain it while keeping your team (and yourself) happy? In his third instalment, Koto's creative director and co-founder, James Greenfield, shares some sage advice on how to grow with grace.
After putting your plans into action and starting a business, the day will soon come when you stop worrying about surviving and focus more on what you want it to be like. It can be a Herculean effort to get something off the ground. To win customers, keep them happy, and deliver great creativity is no small feat, but once you’re through that ‘making it real’ stage then you should move on and think about some important questions to keep you and your team motivated and happy.
How big will your business be? How will you do the right work for you? What’s the right environment? None of these things is fully answered forever, but they need constant tending to like any growing organism.
There will be good days and bad days, but nothing is fixed and you can make it however you want – after all, it is your business.
Here I have outlined four key areas that I think about on a regular basis. They aren’t all about growth in the economic sense, but more a broader, more positive idea of the word.
The power of starting small; how to grow with grace
The American author Edward Abbey said “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” If you’re starting a creative business, it's quite probable you are ambitious for it. In their first years, companies can often grow and shrink while people try to find the right balance that works for them. I have known people to get a lot of work and then hire people to do that in a hurry, and then later down the track things can implode because the structure wasn’t given the same attention as the work at that moment. Controlled growth is good, so it’s about being aware and careful of its impact. To do this, keep an eye on your team and the effect your growth has on them.
In my experience of working in and managing teams, there are natural break points in any group of people. The first stage in which things change is when you can no longer all sit around a large dining table and have one conversation. At that size, about 6-8 people, everyone can hear what is happening in the ebb and flow of a business, and so there is a natural cadence to the work. Some things can go unsaid and people will feel included as they have heard it being talked about, even if it wasn’t addressed to them. The next break point is 12 – beyond this it’s hard to know what everyone did at the weekend, remember their birthdays and know what they are doing, so the natural social fabric stretches too far and bonds can begin to break. Companies of around 30 people start to form into cliques and far more communication is needed to keep everyone happy. A lot of founders learn this the hard way when things that were previously working start to go wrong without anything noticeably changing. I’ve no experience of running a fully remote company, but I can imagine this is even more felt if the team isn't building social bonds by just being together all day. There’s a lot to be said for non-intentional communication to really know how someone is feeling.
So how do you monitor your growth? The first thing is learning the power of no.
At first, founders understandably say yes to everything that comes their way. This is a good strategy for getting some all important operating capital in the bank and is all part of the journey, but before long you’ll need to start saying no. Over time you’ll work out who you work best with and what kind of work suits you and the team. This will help you move out of that phase of taking everything that comes along.
It took me a long while to do this and we had some terrible experiences in the first few years because I was always too worried about where the next work was coming from. In life you don't like everyone, so don't expect everyone to like you and your company. Sometimes you’ll get a feeling from an opportunity that it might be more trouble than it’s worth – it’s a good idea to adhere to those feelings and be confident in what you have built by saying no.
Of course things can also start well and go wrong and however much you look back it can be really hard to spot. We’ve had people who started off perfectly well and then one day a sinking feeling comes along and you know it’s going sour. However much foresight you possess, some of these moments will come through the net. At first it’s about saying no to the people who are obviously not going to connect with you.
The value in values; be clear about who you are
Doing great work, though the ultimate aim, is not enough on its own to run a successful creative business. People buy people. Being open about your values will engage your team internally, build a happy place to work, and show that culture externally to your customers and prospective team members. To do this you need to codify that internal culture in a compelling way. For some people they can start to write this down very early, for others it might take a little longer while they observe their own company and what makes it tick.
We wrote our values down relatively early on, when the team was still small. By doing them at this point we had created a culture that could be captured, so it wasn’t just about the founders’ ideas, but it wasn’t too late to harness the energy. Fast forward six years and I don’t think everyone that now works for us could recite them by heart, but I am sure they would recognize them in our daily actions and I often have prospective clients asking me about them.
As with naming, codifying your strategy can be a daunting task. Try to be original and don’t end up with generic words you might see in any half-baked exercise. You’ll have something unique about your company and its culture so this is the time to capture that. GV, Google’s venture arm, have handily built out a three-hour Brand Sprint exercise which helps companies get down the basics of their long-term vision, audience segmentation, and values. A good thought starter and well worth three hours of your time, even if you veer off the course.
Once you have this in place, don't see it as a fixed thing. People come and go and as your company diversifies and grows so too should your strategy. Make sure it doesn’t sit in an unloved file. Instead, use it in customer facing situations and, like all things about your company, allow it the space to change and grow with you.
Most importantly, live by it yourself. As the stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it”.
Create a great place to work; that is for everyone
2021 has seen a lot of change in the world of work, particularly how and where we do it. Working from home has been forced upon many and it has accelerated the discussion about remote work and people’s expectations. This isn’t about to change and I feel like it’s going to be a long while until the dust settles and people get their confidence back about the decisions they make relating to the ever-changing world of work.
You’re lucky in that you’re starting with a blank slate and, at least at first, you should really try and set it up to work for you. Most businesses start in a low cost space, whether that’s subletting some desks or working in homes. Over time this might change with more needs to accommodate and once you work out what works for your team dynamic.
If you choose to have an office, always try and push for a little more space than you need – even if you have no plans to grow you’re future proofing yourself. If you don’t use it then you’ll have more space for plants, bikes and other things that fill creative spaces.
If you choose to go fully remote from the off be aware it can be a hard path to follow. Building the all important bonds between team members and that all-important culture is going to be measurably harder. Early stage companies need an all-in mentality and the ability to pull as one team and whatever the internet tells you, it’s markedly harder.
That said, there are many brilliant fully remote companies that have done very well for themselves. Our client Slite has put together a great guide on setting yourself up for success in a remote setting. This includes onboarding, building relationships, and creating a company handbook people actually read.
Beyond the physical space, putting a structure around your team is also a smart idea. With growth comes natural questions around hierarchy. If you want a flat culture that’s cool, but you’ll have to spell it out to people. If you want to take some pressure off you managing people then you’ll need to share this with others. Drawing up an organigram might feel overly formal, but everyone will know where they stand. This will help them aim for promotions and be a good tool for their personal and collective team development.
The dynamic between your team will change over time, and some will develop faster than others. They will have collective cadence which ebbs and flows, but the structure lets everyone know where they stand. If someone is causing trouble, deal with it, regardless of how you feel about potential confrontation, or it will set the team dynamic off.
Being in the right state; be the best you can be
If your business is successful then you’ll pretty much never get to the bottom of that to-do list. However hard you work there’s always more you could be doing, be it in the near term day-to-day management or long-term strategy. You have to learn to accept this pretty early on to avoid burning yourself out. The same ambition that got you here will not sustain you indefinitely, so look at its longevity and work on its cost to you.
For starters, prioritize and don’t fool yourself into thinking you can be on top of it all. Once this is accepted then work out who you are going to be giving some of your work to.
Good leaders will look to give their work away to focus on the really important business stuff. Trusting your team with more and more responsibility will give them space to grow while giving you space to think.
I have days like today where I sent my first email at 6:30am and my last one at 10pm. I’m now writing this late at night as it’s the only time window in my day, but I can’t do that everyday, the overall performance cost is not worth it. Everyone has an energy limit.
Looking after yourself doesn’t start and stop at the amount of hours you put in. It’s easy for a business to be all consuming, especially if you enjoy it, but it’s not going to be healthy for your creativity and the rest of your life. Give yourself thinking time regularly, however you can find it. This could be going for a run, a coffee, a long walk. This isn’t listening to podcasts or social time, this is thinking time for you to digest everything.
I have mentioned previously about the power of a co-founder, talking honestly and frankly every week with them will help you clear your mind of the challenges you face and build the bonds between you. If you don’t have a co-founder then I really recommend finding a mentor. See them monthly at least. Be totally transparent about everything in the business, from numbers to staff issues, and tell them how you feel about it all. Just like with therapy, there is no point in sugar-coating things for them, you have to be honest.
For me personally, I have found that the power of communicating keeps me sane. Any issues I try to deal with quickly, I talk to my mentor and co-founders regularly, and I make sure I have time to clear my mind every week, even with a young family and a never ending to-do list.
You can’t stand still
As well as growing the business, you’ll need to grow yourself. Whatever you started out as, you’ve probably developed a much broader skill set. There is the danger you can feel like you’ve moved too far from why you started the business, which can lead to nostalgia for an imagined past, but this wearing of many hats should be celebrated. Leaning into inevitable new challenges will broaden your skillset and make your business more robust.
In a world full of wannabe hashtag entrepreneurs, you’re a real one and the journey is a lot easier if you look for and embrace change.
The author David Epstein neatly sums this up in in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World:
“Our work preferences and our life preferences do not stay the same, because we do not stay the same.”
James is the Creative Director and Co-Founder of Koto. Leading the strategic and design efforts across three studios, James has led the team working with Airbnb, Coca-Cola and PayPal. James has over 20 years of experience working at some of London’s leading studios, for the world’s biggest brands. He delivers talks globally and writes regularly for Creative Review about all things branding.
Also in this series
How to Keep Business Creative
What does it take to keep creativity flowing through the veins of a business? In his final instalment of this series, Koto's creative director and co-founder James Greenfield delves into how to keep the energy and avoid "creative rot".