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.

what do you do with a kangaroo?

image copyright 1973 mercer mayer

“What do you do with a Kangaroo
who jumps in your window, sits on your bed,
and says,
‘I never sleep on wrinkled sheets,
so change them now and make them smooth,
and fluff up the pillows if you please’

What do you do?”

there’s an old book by mercer mayer, before he did the little creatures books, called what do you do with a kangaroo?. in it, a cherub-like girl is confronted by an unlikely series of animals all demanding she serve them in absurd (and disproportionately upper-crust, given that they are animals) ways just as she sets out to do exactly what they are doing.  there’s a raccoon eating her cereal but complaining that it’s stale and could she bring him a gold-plated fingerbowl to wash his paws?  and an opossum using her toothbrush and complaining that the toothpaste is too sweet and the brush is worn.  honestly, i had never read any of mercer mayer’s stuff other than little creatures, and it’s the non-little creatures books he did that i think are far superior in retrospect.

my kids love them.

so i was reading what do you do with a kangaroo? this morning to lilah.  erin and i were just talking about some difficult clients we’ve had to deal with in the past, and the frustrating demands we receive as web designers.  and it strikes like inspiration: what do you do with a kangaroo?

“You throw him out, that’s what you do.
‘Get out of my bed, you Kangaroo!'”

it occurs to me that this is advice that is possibly more appropriate when applied to business than when it’s applied to stuff kids have experience with.  i mean, when are kids going to face irritating and exotic demands and have to fend off such requests?  it makes me wonder if it was intentional, like the jokes in old Warner Brothers cartoons that were clearly directed towards adults.

when we got started doing web design, we did pretty much what people asked us to do.  in fact, we took on freelance projects for another company to hone our craft and to start to get income doing design.  later, we started doing more and more work for ourselves and were eventually able to stop doing contract work for other people and have our name on everything we did.  it was frustrating doing our best work for people who didn’t really appreciate it, who payed much more than what we made off the project (we got paid $20 a page + bonuses with kickbacks for upgrades and enhancements), and see that site get crapped up by some other designer later who was responsible either for some upgrade or who added a flash component that completely destroyed the flow of the site.  it also made us fairly bitterly opposed to all things flash.

back then, if a customer wanted something a certain way, it didn’t matter if we disagreed with it, we pretty much had to do it.  it was simpler, we were pushed to get jobs done as quickly as possible, and though the company gave lip service that we should say “well, in my professional opinion…” the truth was that these people were not paying for our professional opinion.  they had clicked on an ad on google (they were plastered all over for a while, i used to get them in my gmail) for pretty much the cheapest custom web design around.  they wanted fast and cheap.  when we started doing our own stuff, we took some of the same mindset.  in the beginning, we needed money, so we needed projects, so we took on projects we weren’t altogether excited about, but could do easily.  on the whole, we fared better than we did working for other people — we had less arguments with clients who were already frustrated by the time they got a designer by how long it took to even get to that point, and an innumerable amount of miscommunication and billing issues;  we were often told we were the only ones they could get a hold of, and the only ones who listened.  in many cases, we saved the day.  we didn’t have that negative start with our own clients which made things roll a lot smoother, but we did occasionally have some difficulties working with clients requests.  and it became clear that the projects we had more problems with were the ones we liked the least.

our prices were a problem, too.  we started by asking for a fair price — even less than average for web design standards — but we didn’t get any bites.  we didn’t have a name, and relied heavily on freelance marketplace sites where often (although not always) the low bid wins.  it’s impossible to bid a competitive (by design standards) price on a freelance marketplace where you will be inevitably underbid by a design firm in india or another designer in the states who’s just starting out, so we had to go with the bare minimum.

and we met a lot of kangaroos.

now that we’re more established, we have a bit more clout, and we have a sizable portfolio with some neat stuff we’re really proud of.  we shouldn’t need to push the Bengal Tiger along on our tricycle to the Taj Mahal Circus while singing about waffles and airplanes and matters-of-fact, only to be thanked by being eaten for breakfast or lunch.  but occasionally, we need to be reminded, because we’re so used to that mentality of just doing what we’re asked because someone asked for it.  even when we know it’s not the right decision, either for ourselves or for our clients or the design of the site.  really, no one deserves to be treated like that in any situation.

what do you do with a kangaroo?

in business, you put your foot down.  you throw the kangaroo out.  you explain your case, and maybe you’ll sing about waffles, but you most certainly are not going to take on a thankless job that you will be underpaid and unappreciated for.  if you value your work, you should feel justified to defend it, not just give in to every whim someone may have.  this is something that designers have to deal with every day, and people see us as pricks at times.  and we can be pricks at times.  and it’s important to find a balance and to make compromises that benefit both sides.  but you can’t let the kangaroo stay and think their friend the llama won’t expect the same treatment.  what it really comes down to is how much you value your work.  but at the end of the day, it’s much more gratifying making decisions that matter and stick to them. not doing so means you don’t value what you do very highly, which means you can’t possibly expect people to pay very much for it.  if you’re in the business of cheap-o design (or cheap-o anything really), then that’s for you, maybe, but for us, it drives us crazy to have to lower our standards, and we’re much less happy with the result.  and i don’t know about you, but we got into this whole running your own business thing to do something we like and make money doing it.  it doesn’t work if we don’t like what we’re doing and our best work is the stuff we enjoyed the most.

also: it’s amazing that you can pay $30 for some management or business inspiration-type book when you can find all the answers you need to run your own business in children’s books.  we, as human effing beings, need to revisit the lessons we’re teaching our kids when we run into problems or frustrations of our own.  and i don’t think that mercer mayer would be entirely out-of-place on a bookshelf next to seth godin…unless maybe they’re sorted alphabetically.