If you are the founder of a services business, you’re probably in therapy or in desperate need of help. Look, it’s not your fault — a knowledge-driven business is one of the hardest to scale, especially if what you do is super custom and can’t easily be productized. Add to that mix the fact that most service companies are deeply infused with the founder’s ethos, and that essence is really hard to replicate.
Still, it clearly can be done. After all, there’s a reason that the OG powerhouse advertising agencies that are still industry leaders today bear the founder’s names, like Leo Burnett, Ogilvy, Wunderman, Saatchi & Saatchi, and Wieden & Kennedy. Their reputations and expertise were what the business was built on and grew on.
Having that kind of longevity is complicated, though, and it’s also probably why nowadays, service businesses don’t often get named after the founder, as their involvement can make or break it. The creative consultancy I launched from my dorm room, Digital Surgeons, doesn’t bear my name. But it does, however, call upon my passion and hands-on participation to this day, nearly 19 years later.
And this brings up a lot of great insight given to me by well-meaning mentors that I fully ignored as a new founder. Even though I was advised to focus on a single category or only offer a limited set of productized offerings, I never did.
Honestly, I was a naive 20-something who wanted to be a rebel and make cool shit for the internet. I don’t believe in regrets because I learned a ton and got exposure to a wide variety of industries, celebrities, and Fortune 50 companies — some of the best (and also some of the most toxic) of all time.
But there is one piece of advice shared with me in those early days by a prolific mind in the consulting and agency world that came back to hit me like a ton of bricks when I hit a milestone birthday and had my first kid:
“Running an agency is a young person’s game.”
When you’ve got a family, hobbies, and aspirations related to your meaning, purpose, and legacy, you don’t want to be chained to your desk dealing with non-stop client requests at all hours of the day and night. Still, your company is your baby and is likely your bread and butter too. So, you better learn how to scale yourself, or you’ll get stuck on the hamster wheel.
In this article, I’ll tell you how to stop spinning on the little day-to-day tasks of your business — being simply a maker or a manager — and get rolling with realizing your potential as a true leader and, if you desire, a creative entrepreneur.
If I have to pinpoint where I’ve failed most often, it was those times that I rushed at the beginning of creating projects. Or even companies, for that matter.
Upon reflection (and not a small amount of beating myself up), I learned that this is very common when creativity starts flowing.
In my quest to better understand both my successes and failures, I’ve studied countless creative geniuses and talked to hundreds of creative leaders. The pattern I’ve noticed is that the beginning and end of any given creative act — not the middle — are the crucial parts of the process to consider when evaluating concepts like variability and repeatability.
Sure, there are frameworks like design thinking and lots of fancy MBA processes like lean and Six Sigma that apply to other industries, but one fact remains: all ideas originate from a single mind. However, that doesn’t mean only one person has to ideate and execute continuously.
In fact, some of the world’s most prolific and successful artists found ways to repeat the seemingly unrepeatable. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples: Andy Warhol.
As you probably know, Warhol was a brilliant artist and one of the founders of the Pop Art movement. But it was his business acumen and ability to mass-produce art that made it all possible.
As a young man out of college in the late 1940s, Warhol moved to New York City and immediately became a successful commercial illustrator and graphic designer. In the ’50s, he started making drawings, collages, and hand-colored picture books… and it was the first time he effectively scaled himself by tapping assistants to do the middle stages of his artistic production and inviting friends and associates to “coloring parties” — fun and festive, sure, but also expressly to help him color in his numerous works.
Then, in the early ’60s, Warhol turned to painting and silkscreening. Again, the vision was all his — from his lifelong obsession with pictorial imagery, including comic strips, ads, and photos, especially of celebrities — but the work of manipulating the imagery during the silkscreening process (i.e., repeating, overlapping, cropping, smudging) to product multiples from source materials was all done with the help of assistants who worked like they were in a factory assembly line. Thus, his infamous studio was dubbed “The Factory.” In addition to his artworks, Warhol invited other avant-garde creatives to collaborate with him on other mediums, including film. By the mid-late ’60s, Warhol and The Factory had produced more than 500 films.
As the Guggenheim pointed out:
“Through this mechanized means of production, Warhol capsized existing notions of authenticity and the value of the artist’s hand.”
With his assistants’ help, Warhol cranked out a massive volume of paintings and sculptures. According to the Andy Warhol Foundation, from the late 1940s, until he died in 1987, Warhol produced over 9,000 paintings and sculptures and nearly 12,000 drawings.
There are loads of other examples of creatives who have well-trained assistants to help them scale their work, from Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and Damien Hirst. And that investment can carry on even after they’ve hopped off this mortal coil — spy-thriller writer Tom Clancy became a fiction franchise that continues to this day… even though he died in 2013.
It turns out that cutting-edge creatives and successful founders have cracked the code of being able to spin themselves off, and it’s easier than you think. All you need to do is focus on how projects start and finish.
About a decade ago, I first learned about a principle for maximizing time and effort pioneered by a legendary leader of leaders, John Maxwell. He calls it the “10–80–10 Principle,” and it breaks down like this:
The first 10%: The Beginning
This is the conceptual phase, where you share your vision of the big picture, participate in ideation, help identify tasks and objectives, ensure any necessary resources are teed up, and generally pour yourself into getting the work off to an excellent start. If you were a master chef, this would be when you would present and discuss the recipe with your sous chef and kitchen staff. Ideally, you’re open-minded and flexible to set the stage for a fruitful collaboration.
The 80%: The Middle
After the initial phase, the project becomes your team’s baby. You can help out here and there, but less is more. Going with the restaurant analogy, this is when your team does everything to execute the dish. There may be spots along the way where they add their own spice, but generally speaking, the direction stays true to the original recipe you discussed. At this point, you must be clear that the leadership role you’re playing is purely supportive — this is delegation.
The final 10%: The End
You jump back in just before the team takes the project over the finish line. As the head chef, this is when you’d rejoin your staff by sampling the dish, discussing with them what more it might need, helping guide them to make any final adjustments to get the flavor just right, and adding the perfect garnishes for a killer presentation. To be clear, this isn’t about turning the project into your own so you can take all the credit; it’s about elevating the work of the collective to its highest potential. And it tells the world that the work has your involvement and approval, which encourages your team and infuses the project with credibility and authority.
When it comes to the 10–80–10 Principle, a couple of critical factors come into play. The first is, can you delegate? You have to be committed to not being a micromanager. I think that’s the easy part — the challenging part is having complete confidence in your team.
So, how do you trust your team to take your vision and up-level it so that when you get to integration, the work has all the fixings of a successful project?
I’m not going to go into a big dissertation about hiring people here because that’s not my primary area of expertise. But what I am an expert in is deeply understanding and building brands. In fact, I have a framework I call the Brand DNA Framework that I walk new hires through (and use with nearly every client).
The Brand DNA Framework is an invaluable tool because it’s a way of thinking about your business as a living, breathing creation, and it’s a powerful means to express the heart and soul of your business. The founder’s ethos is at the core of the framework.
Here are the elements of the framework:
- Creation Story: Every story (and brand) has a beginning. What’s yours? Where did it all begin? Why?
- Beliefs & Principles: What do we believe to be true about the world around us? What principles, ideals, and points of view do we share as part of this tribe/team/community?
- Purpose/Mission: What has your brand set out to accomplish? What is your big hairy audacious goal? Simply put, when you boil it down, why do you exist?
- Positioning: How do you define yourself against your competitors? What’s your USP (unique selling proposition) or differentiator, and for who? If you want some inspiration, I often turn to https://brandpositioningexamples.com/ to see how some of the greatest brands position themselves.
- Vision: As a leader, how do you believe we will achieve our mission? What does the path forward look like? What actions must we take to see it through?
- Values: As a team, what rulesets do we hold ourselves to that serve as a guide to how we think, act, and interact with others? What do they look like in action?
- Rituals: What activities, experiences, or expressions are uniquely ours? (These can be internal or external facing.)
- Personality: If your brand was a person, who would it be? What characteristics, archetypes, or attributes define how we want to be perceived?
- Voice & Tone: How do we talk to our audience? What words do we use? What does our delivery sound like?
- Visual ID: How do we visually communicate the brand? What is iconic or symbolic of the brand?
(If it’s helpful, you can download a Brand DNA workbook here.)
Taking new hires through your Brand’s DNA when they first join your company is vital, as it gives them a good feel for how your company does things. And periodically reviewing your Brand DNA with your whole team is also crucial. After all, in today’s digital-first economy, when AI constantly evolves how we think and work, brands are no longer a “one-and-done” proposition — they’re an ever-evolving ecosystem that connects people, products, and purpose.
With a clearly articulated Brand DNA, you can feel confident that your team is applying their own thinking within the context of the creativity constructs and company values you set forth. Now that others handle 80% of project execution, you can focus on expanding your entrepreneurial empire. There’s one last step to help ensure you don’t backtrack on your commitment to delegation: prioritize working in what I call your “Green Zone.”
If you want to take your life and work to the next level, you’ve got to spend as much time as possible in what productivity expert Gay Hendricks calls your “Zone of Genius.” That’s when you’re working an uninterrupted creative flow, strategizing, innovating, and envisioning what’s next. To get there, you have to steer clear of the three other zones that Hendricks identifies in his book, The Big Leap:
- The Zone of Incompetence: You’re doing something new — it’s not necessarily hard, but it takes time for you to figure it out.
- The Zone of Competence: You do something you know how to do, but anyone else on your team can do it, too.
- The Zone of Excellence: You’re doing something that you’re specially qualified to do — it’s likely the very thing that made you a leader and a founder in the first place — and it’s what you’ve been most invested in until now.
Does any of these zones sound familiar? They should because we founders wear many different hats, and at any given time, we might be working in any of those zones.
But don’t be fooled, especially by the Zone of Excellence. The more time you spend doing things you can do now, the less time you have to focus on what’s next.
This is where the Green Zone comes in: it gives you the space to keep evolving and growing your business opportunities. Here’s a quick look at how to optimize your Green Zone:
1). Audit Your Calendar: Look at your calendar for the last month, and color code meetings and tasks according to how they made you feel:
- Green = Things that give your energy (this is your Genius Zone)
- Red = Things that drain your energy
- Yellow = Neutral
- Gray = Personal to-do list (I do this because it helps me see if I am making time for family, friends, and self-care.)
2). Plot Your Energy and Time Usage on a Graph: The Y-axis (up/down) measures passion, and the X-axis (left/right) measures competence. Now, plot the activities/tasks from your calendar on the graph.
This gives you four zones to consider:
- High Passion/High Competence: Green Zone
- Low Passion/High Competence: Yellow (or orange) Zone
- High Passion/Low Competence: Red Zone
- Low Passion/Low Competence: Red Zone
3). Optimize Your Work-Life Balance: Anything in the yellow or red zones are things you should be delegating using the 10–80–10 Principle — I’ll bet many of the things you’ve been doing until now are part of that middle 80% of a given project. Now that you know how to scale yourself, it’s time to let go of that work.
What’s left in the Green Zone should be your core focus. For me, that includes taking forward-driving action, including:
- Listening to the market and my customers
- Looking for trends
- Setting and shaping vision with my leadership team
- Developing creative strategy for my existing brand
- Experimenting with and exploring new technology
- Generally doing the legwork necessary to move my career forward by creating new product roadmaps for business problems that are beginning to arise
The joy of being a creative entrepreneur is that continuous evolution is implied. But it’s so easy to get stuck in a stagnant place if you’re using “delegate” as a buzzword but don’t really do it. Now that you have the tools to lead, what will you dream up next?
I’d love to help you on your entrepreneurial journey, so let me know how I can help by leaving a comment or DM me on Twitter.