learning to do less

i just got done reading Seth Godin’s manifesto, Do Less.  i’ve actually been reading quite a bit of Seth Godin recently, having decided that his blog is pretty cool.  Seth Godin is a smart guy.  he’s not saying anything revolutionary — in fact, a lot of what he blogs about should be common sense.  but it’s not.  Seth is really good at calling attention to the things that we need to hear and present them in a way that makes it easy to hear them.  in my opinion, that’s what makes him a big deal.

the basic premise of Do Less goes right inline with something erin and i have discovered on our own: when the product we want to make is supposed to be a creative and limited, one-of-a-kind thing — something we like to think of as a work of art — you can’t take on every project you get.  this is tough.  a lot of web designers out there, including the design firm that we did freelance stuff for over a year ago, just has a “take all comers” approach.  they will scale a plan to fit any need and do it quickly and — presumably — well.  but if you take everything you’re offered, you can’t produce anything that’s exceptional.  because a lot of people don’t want exceptional.  there are some people who want budget.  there are some people who want functional.  there are some people who want fast.  and you can do these things, but they do not produce an environment conducive to doing something extraordinary, and, for the most part, these people aren’t looking for extraordinary anyway — they want something that looks like the stuff they look at every day: clean, professional, businesslike.

and we started out this way — taking what we could get, and working for cheap, because we needed to start building up our business and portfolio.  but we knew that wasn’t the type of business we wanted to run.  as we grew, we were torn with the desire to stay true and fair to our past clients, and the need to raise our rates, focus on our niche and unique talents, and brush off projects that would not benefit us in the long run.

it feels counter-intuitive to decline projects, even when they are under your budget.  as a consumer, we’re always looking to make the most out of our buck, and as providers, we feel inclined to respect that wish for value.  but quality is worth something.  Seth opens Do Less with an anecdote about a real estate investor.  This investor does just one new investment a year.  The reason?

In any given year, we look at a thousand deals. One hundred of them are pretty good. One is great.

I don’t think we’ll be at the point where we can do just one gig a year and spend the rest of the year making art, and writing, and working on projects that are self-gratifying, and working on being great parents to our kids.  it sounds great, i just don’t think it will happen. but we probably did more than 100 projects our first year — for ourselves, and freelancing for another company — and we still brought in less money (with a part-time second job I carried at Whole Foods) than the $40k/year job I left to do design full-time from home.  a lot less.  and sure, we could have continued working as freelancers, getting paid $20 a page for a slew of subpar projects that really didn’t interest  us all that much for someone else who didn’t care about individual designers’ talents as long as they got the job done quickly — we could have learned to do more, faster, using as many shortcuts as possible and not spending too much time on the process, but that went against the whole reason for doing this.  it wouldn’t be something we loved, it would be just another job.  and i think that doing something you love shows in your product.

hareandtortoiseit’s interesting that i decided to read Do Less at precisely the same time that we started having conversations about the types of projects we take on and how we want to do business now and moving forward versus how we used to do business.  we were already on the do less path, because what Seth says is true — you can’t be everything.  you can’t have quality and speed, you can’t have cheap and have time left over to spend on side projects or with the fam.  we’re learning this, learning to go against what feels natural.  if you’re in the business to sell the most thneeds as quickly as possible, then bigger, faster, better, more is a good mantra.  but that’s never been something that’s meshed very well in my brain.  when you’re learning to Do Less, you need to think more like Turtle: slow and steady wins the race.