Frameworks for creatives / entrepreneurs / startups

About 5 years ago I started collecting frameworks. 

At the time, I'd just made the jump from a more corporate situation to a venture-backed startup in San Francisco. As an operations manager, I was basically put in charge of structuring and opening new product lines, both from a technical and brand/marketing perspective. 

No matter what I was working on, there was always a jump, a gap to be hopped across that included some risk. Usually, that meant finding a way to test or experiment, and then operationalizing what I learned into product growth.

The end result rarely matched the early expectations. Over time I started absorbing different approaches, including the lean startup, agile, and customer development focused models that entrepreneurs like Steve Blank champion. 

I also noticed that no matter what you were working on - turning a passion into a business, starting a startup, working at being a working musician, artist, designer, writer, or other creative - a 50 page, 5-year plan pretty much becomes obsolete within a year. 

Enter frameworks. I started collecting them in a public google doc and sharing them.

Truth is, most of the time you need a minimum amount of planning, think of it as structuring an experiment, but until you have validation that something works putting a ton of time and/or money into it doesn't make sense. 

Frameworks fill the gap that occurs early on in any idea, project or business, they illustrate the risk you're taking, and in some cases make clear the risks you don't want to take. 

5 years on, that document now includes frameworks for connecting online / finding jobs, spec'ing creative work, pitching a story to media and journalists, marketing from scratch for creatives and startups alike, evaluating data, and testing your own beliefs about your product. 

I also deliberately created frameworks that are gender neutral, and that aimed at increasing access to startups, tech, entrepreneurship, and creativity.

At the most basic level, having a clear framework for each new product, project, idea, etc. gives the creative or entrepreneur a place to start. It makes the unknown knowable, and opens up opportunities.

Last but not least, a good framework also spurs the best kind of questions, the ones that haven't been answered and/or don't already have a financial or business purpose, as Olia Lialina notes in an essay on media, mediums, technology, and art

"...take time to formulate questions that can not be answered by monopolies or by observing the monopolies."  

 

A startup is just a series of prioritizations

In the early going, before there is a product or service, all you are doing is looking at a relationship between people, and maybe the market at large. 

The goal is to answer one question: can we create something that is useful, interesting, meaningful, inspirational, valuable, and/or helpful to a specific person? 

If you can, and they share with you why it has meaning or value, then you can build a community around it. 

This is what every "visionary" pays lip service to, but experienced founders know: an early stage company or project is just an exercise in building community.

If you focus on growth alone, you may occasionally stumble across value, but you're likely to miss many of the non-transactional reasons people relate to a company or organization - why they are loyal and choose to stick with something, or why they choose to try something new. 

Your job is to keep a list of 10, 20, 50, or even hundreds of priorities that reflect the values of your community...and constantly re-prioritize the list based on what is possible, and what can be imagined.

If the list is all imagination, you'll miss the opportunity to deliver meaningful value. If it's all value here and now, you'll miss the chance to build a community with vision.

When an ecosystem can’t or won’t reject bad actors

How much of what we see online is real?

It’s a question we’re all facing - made worse by the fact that people often fail to look closely at the information they consume, and sometimes quickly fire it back into the world without looking at all.

In the case of millions of fake accounts and bots described by the New York Times over the weekend, the problem has reached such massive levels that if social media giants gave the same treatment to showing the impacts of bots and fake audiences as they are to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, it’s doubtful it would show that anyone has gone without at least one fake retweet or favorite.

In nature, a healthy ecosystem by definition rejects or minimizes bad actors to ensure variation and longevity. But in the case of social media platforms this problem can be deceptive, because most tech startups are optimized for growth and growth alone.

Read More

How pattern matching builds over time

It's been a while since I wrote about choosing your work in the midst of turmoil.

Some of that is because of the normal hustle of building a new thing from scratch (I'm currently working on ABQ Creates), and some of it is because I'm feeling the same political / structural extremes we're all being subjected to right now, and trying to figure out what type of value I need to deliver to help with the situation. 

One of the things that entrepreneurs of any sort struggle with (the good ones anyway), is not just the value of their own work and/or company, but what it means in a broader ecosystem.

If you're designing a matching platform, for example, you may be able to make money and grow a company, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're doing a good job. Uber's continued struggle with both their business model and (lack of) ethical structure internally illustrates how good things can look while simultaneously being a trash fire that threatens to overwhelm any value provided. 

The best founders that I've met care a lot about pattern matching - that is, making sure that the company's value is clear in both directions to audiences, customers, and employees.

If your value is aligned correctly, you can easily say "Cool idea! But we are working on something else" or "Let's run a test for the next 6 months growing this product area that our customers are consistently asking for." 

If your value is not aligned correctly, if someone gets to your landing page, product, event, etc. and it turns out you were telling them one thing but delivering another, there's almost nothing you can do to fix the situation. Even if you quickly pivot to provide what they expected, you've already created a pattern mismatch.

Mostly, pattern matching is about knowing what you are testing vs. what already works, and making sure that what you say or present matches what you actually do. Over time, pattern matching correctly builds audiences, customers, fans, and helps you grow individually and as an organization/company.

It's also a hedge against bad ethics, one-hit wonders, and non-sustainable business practices. 

Where creative projects go wrong

Over the years I’ve worked with creatives on projects that include graphic and website design, physical product design, and UX / UI for apps and online platforms.

There are a few ways for a project to go to hell and leave everyone hating the process. The most common is when the ideation doesn’t match the expectation of the client (can be internal or external), even though they might already have approved it. 

Anyone who’s managed a project with a design component will recognize the cycle… 

  1. The ideation is approved, but is slightly broad / general
  2. Creative realizes they have room to stretch and gets excited, or conversely, plays it safe — leading to a 1st draft that is either specific but not what client had in mind, or overly generic
  3. Client provides extremely detailed feedback on a piece of work they don’t really like, which confuses the process
  4. Creative gets frustrated trying to fix something client doesn’t like, or creates entirely new draft which may or may not please the client (who by this time isn’t always sure what they want)

The critical moment usually happens between #2 and 3. At this point it’s still fixable but deadlines are tight and depending on how many people are involved there may be some serious frustration. 

What has to happen but often doesn’t, is a very timely, concise revisiting of ideation with the end client. You can’t fix wrong or misaligned ideation with more design, no matter how good the concept is to begin with. 

One other note: the phrase “end client” is an important one. A good project or product manager can sometimes alleviate confusion between the different people who are involved (brand, legal, marketing, PR, etc.) but whoever will actually own the end result needs to approve the ideation. That doesn’t always happen, and it’s also why big agencies rarely run a tight enough design communication cycle to avoid cost overruns. But that’s a topic for another time.