There are many reasons creatives end up climbing the ladder from part-time freelancer to full-time, from solo-practices into small firms, or from small firms into larger growing agencies. Rarely, however, do creatives jump on the growth train having thought through all their reasons, or having established their goals.
Some creatives see larger agencies landing big-name clients with amazing opportunities and think they are too small to attract these clients. Others hit a ceiling on their revenue, and think that the only path for more income is to expand capacity. Some are so talented their reputations grow quickly and demand results in growth.
What Happens After You’ve Grown?
There are all sorts of paths that can lead to growth, but before you take any of them, you might want to think through the end game. Why do you want to grow? What do you think will happen? What do you envision your role being once you’ve succeeded?
Unless you think these think through ahead of time, you may end up growing, but you might not like what you grow into. There are alternatives to growth, that can deliver great creative opportunities and higher profits, and they may be a better path for you. Let’s work through some of the issues, options, and results of growth.
Skipping to the End
Try out this thought experiment: Imagine a day when you’ve succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Fast forward to the day you own a full-service firm with scores of employees, nationally recognized brands as clients, and more money than you ever dreamed. What then? Would you be happy as a high-powered executive managing other executives, who oversee art directors, account managers, and strategists? Would you want to cash out and retire early? What’s the end game?
Most creatives want to keep their hands in the creative process. And yet, as soon as you get on the growth path, if you’re not careful, you’ll be forced to become more like an executive than a creative. Creatives who grow their practices often find themselves more and more occupied with management, new business, and administration and less and less with creativity. You might be getting those big clients, but someone else may be having all the fun conceptualizing and creating the work.
Less Creativity and Less Money?
What’s more, growth and profitability do not always go hand in hand. In fact, the larger a company gets, the more stress they’ll put on their profit margins. Overhead and step-costs keep many firms from hitting their financial goals. And the larger a firm becomes the more challenging the issues get. And frankly, most creatives lack training and tend not to have very good business instincts. So as headcount increases, profits may sink.
As a result, creatives in this situation usually try to pivot by bringing on a business partner, or by hiring administrative and sales staff to handle business necessities so they can return to being a creative. But the ownership role cannot be escaped entirely. There are huge vulnerabilities for any business owner that diverts their attention from business fundamentals for too long.
The Desire to Work With a Team
Another reason creatives start down the growth path is to escape the loneliness of being a solopreneur. The desire to have other people “in it” with you can be very strong, especially if you’re an extrovert. The psychological reassurance of “safety in numbers” is also a major factor for creatives to seek partnerships or hire employees. And indeed, a business partner with complementary skill sets is a real asset.
But keep in mind, if it’s hard to process your own long-term goals, adding another person’s goals to your own is not going to make things any easier. Therefore it’s all the more important for partners to work through their long-term goals and ambitions before heading joining each other on the path.
So before you get on the growth path, ask yourself why you want to grow. And consider the alternatives. Growth does not automatically lead to the creative promise land. Nor does it always deliver greater wealth.
Next week we’ll consider some of the alternatives to growth, and various options for the kind of creative practice you might want to grow into.