Masking Rot Just Under the Surface of Your Creative Enterprise

I set my vibrating Apple Watch to go off at 5:00a today. That's when the local landfill opens, and I wanted to get there before all the huge trucks line up at the scale and glare at me impatiently. My 16' BigTex dump trailer was full of remodeling waste and I'd put off dumping it long enough. I thought it was pretty big, but next to these rigs it looks like a bathtub toy.

It’s only $42 per load, so my hesitation wasn’t the cost. It was a combination of the smell, the slime, and feeling like I don’t belong at the place. Like I’m entering another world where I don’t know all the conventions and how to act and how to not get noticed and annoy the professionals that are there all day, every day. It’s worse because you can’t go through the big gate unless you’re wearing a hard hat and reflective vest, so I already feel like an actor.

I love that I can dump the trailer hydraulically because that allows me to be efficient, throw it in 4WD, and listen to the diesel engine climb out of the pit while we both reach for the sky where we can breath again.

The Middle Point Landfill is this massive mound of layer upon layer of stuff that people like me dispose of. Each layer gets trampled by massive Caterpillar D8 machines and then covered by thick layers of gas-collecting fabric. At some point they’ll cover it in trees and grass and create another artificial mountain somewhere else.

But no amount of grass and trees will really disguise the rot underneath. All that stuff just under the surface that we would find if we went digging.

What does it look like under your firm? What’s just underneath the surface? Which of those things could you solve for in advance? Here’s the rot I see under a few firms, combined with some “single points of failure” that could take them down:

  • Client concentration, otherwise known as a gorilla client. You should be nervous about any single related source of work above 25%.
  • Growing too quickly. Anything over 30% a year in total body count is going to require some quick scrambling and is going to leave some scars. So going from 10 to 14 people will bust that norm.
  • One big referral source. During the first 3.0–4.5 years, you’ll have a varied stream of referrers. After that it’ll trickle down to one or two key referral sources, but try to plan on a world where you didn’t have those champions, just in case it happens.
  • Partnership dispute. Except in the case of the quick onset of a mental health issue or affair, these don’t sneak up on you, so you already know if you’ve got one of these on your hands.
  • An ego-driven non-partner with too much control, especially in the client relationship arena.
  • You’re in a trailer hitched to someone else’s software platform. Not only is differentiation a real challenge, but so much is out of your control.
  • A fragile, global economy that stalls after a precipitous event. Remember 2001? 2008? We’re living in an interconnected web of reactions, including clients who turn off the marketing spigot for the oddest reasons.

You make the big bucks because you worry about this stuff, as you should. Do what you can to build an organization like this:

  • Principled, which means guided by a specific purpose in this world. That purpose requires that you be around for a long time to carry it out, which translates into a mandate to care about the bigger things.
  • The right mix between shaking things up without blowing them up. You do get bored too easily, after all, and other people don’t have quite the same appetite for change that you do. But they also need to be stretched and cajoled forward. Your competitors should admire you and hate you all at once. You and they both have great ideas–you’re just the one with the discipline to make it happen.
  • All consuming appetite to keep learning, but particularly to keep learning outside your chosen profession.
  • Deeper and deeper self-awareness and EQ. This right here, my friends, is what will limit your potential the most.

I hope you’ve had a great week and that your year is unfolding splendidly.

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