How the Best Get Even Better | RevThink

It’s just not fair. Some creative firms – already known for being the best in their field – just keep getting better.

How do they do it?

As a consultant working with high performance firms (as well as having run my own groundbreaking creative studio over two decades) I’ve noticed a practice that propels the best firms from the $2 MM Punch Season to the $4+ MM Perform Season. The best, it seems, somehow do get even better.

When in the Punch Stage, your firm is doing really good work but you know you’re capable of more. No matter how hard you and your team work, you feel like you are merely tackling solid projects (but not much national work) for good budgets (but not consistently above six figures).

But you don’t aspire for “solid” and “good.” You want “killer” and “great.”

Then something changes. In time, you find yourself with new problems – good problems – like remarkable growth, profitability and industry recognition. Welcome to the Perform Season, where your firm’s opportunity consistently outpaces your capacity. Your team grows and develops deep expertise. You win awards. National projects with six figure budgets become the new normal.

The Best Predictor of Success

Later when you look back, realizing you made the shift some time ago, you will wonder what changed. Was it just patience? Was it working smarter instead of harder? Was it mastering the craft? Or was it (my personal favorite myth) our “out hustling” the other guys?

Probably not. The pattern I’ve observed in firms moving from the Potent Season to the Performance Season is summed up by Michael Simmons in Forbes magazine. Here he quotes a watershed research study by Ronald S. Burt:

Simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success. In a closed network, you repeatedly hear the same ideas, which reaffirm what you already believe. In an open network, the more you are exposed to new ideas and significantly more successful. Half of the predicted difference in career success … is due to this one variable.

The secret to how the best firms get even better? They move from a closed network to building an open network.

My own experience confirms this. In 2005, I read Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi. The core premise of his book inspired me to start building an open network at my firm:

People who instinctively establish a strong network of relationships have always created great businesses. – Keith Ferrazzi

Within five years my firm doubled in size, revenue and impact. I credit building an open network above all other factors.

Building Your Open Network

If an open network is the difference maker, what does it look like for you – the owner of a creative agency, studio or production company – to start building one?

Habit 1: Expand Your Bubble… Until It Pops

As your firm grows, you will undoubtedly build a “go to” creative team. Once you’ve assembled that team, you trust them to get the job done, to always deliver, to get results.

Now take an honest look at the downsides. Like a lack of fresh ideas, new aesthetics and revolutionary approaches. This is where your past success can become the very thing holding you back from future growth.

I recommend you get outside your bubble. Better yet, expand it until it pops.

For example, in the Potent Season, you eschew hiring freelancers because they cost more than employees. But in the Performance Season – fueled by an open network – firms enthusiastically embrace hiring a multitude of freelancers from both near and far. It’s not uncommon for top firms to hire literally hundreds of freelance directors, DPs, production crew, designers, editors and more in a given year.

Push yourself to get outside your comfort zone and beyond your creative borders.

Push yourself to get outside your comfort zone and beyond your creative borders. Cast your net – for talent, clients and inspiration – outside your local market and into unfamiliar places. For firms in the B markets, it’s obvious: get connected in NYC and LA. If your firm is already in NYC or LA, get connected in far flung places like Dubai, Denmark or Des Moines. You get the point.

Fresh ideas, aesthetics and approaches are out there. Go get them and your firm will get even better.

Habit 2: Hire Experts You (Don’t Think You) Can Afford

During my firm’s meteoric rise in the Performance Season, I had the privilege of personally learning from a who’s who of incredible minds, names like Dan Sullivan, Laddie BlaskowksiBlair EnnsDavid C. Baker and Tom Terwilliger. I had lots of coaches.

Look at any professional sport – from the Olympics to baseball to badminton – and you will find players at the very top of their game with coaches. They swear by them. Although these players are the best of the best, they believe they have much more yet to learn. They are committed to nonstop, never-ending growth.

Even those at the very top of their game have coaches. They believe they have much more yet to learn.

Question: what coach would you love to train under? Those great mentors would love to train you, too. And although your firm cannot afford adding a whole team of top experts to your payroll, many consultants cost but a fraction of a full-time employee, while you benefit from fully 100% of their knowledge.

Deep insights, hard-fought wisdom and best practices are out there. Go get them and your firm will get even better.

Habit 3: Love Your Enemies

Have you heard the ancient command to love your enemies? The teaching applies to business enemies, too. So although this may sound like anathema, I’m commanding you build strong relationships with your competitors.

It sounds like anathema: build strong relationships with your competitors.

Why? Because I did it and the experience changed my business soul. And it will do the same for you.

If you aren’t in relationship with owners of other creative firms, you are missing out, big time. But I know how you feel: you’re afraid. Afraid you’re too busy. Afraid of rejection. Afraid of being exposed as a half-baked, mediocre, not-really-who-you-say-you-are poser.

Push past the fear. Enthusiastically reach out to principals at those firms you admire, imitate and, yes, compete against. Because you will be amazed how many will accept your invitation to connect. Remember, everyone loves to talk about themselves, especially to a listener who is receptive, intelligent and helpful.

Unexpected common ground, connections and opportunities for collaboration are out there. Go get them and your firm will get even better.

(For an expanded look at this specific topic, see my talk from motion 2014, “The Generosity Paradox” and the discussion which followed.)

Three, Two, One, Ignition…

If your firm is less mature – perhaps the Punch Season is still a long way off – having an open network will still serve you and your firm well.

I invite all creative entrepreneurs to turn your closed network into an open network, and mentor your team to do the same: expand your bubble, hire experts and love your enemies.

As your firm makes the transition into the Perform Season, it will be hard to to see the changes in real time. But the changes will come. And when you look back, you will smile knowing what really made the difference.

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