The Startup Stage Blues | RevThink

Are you stuck in startup mode?

If your creative firm has spent more than a few years in the Push Season (around $1MM in annual revenue with a team of 3-5 full-time employees), you are probably frustrated and feeling stuck in a perpetual startup mode. You look at firms that have achieved the next level and you can’t help but wonder, “How did they do it? And how long will it take me?”

My Startup Story

For twenty years I ran Impossible Pictures, one of the most successful production companies between the coasts. Most people don’t know it took me six years to move beyond the Push Season.

In those years, my company grew to consist of myself and two employees. We were generating about $500K per year. Between my modest salary and distributions, I was earning just over six figures. My dream was becoming a reality… right?

The reality was, I was deeply frustrated and on the verge of burnout. I had launched my firm to create great work, but I was busy doing just about everything but the work. I was exhausted by trying to do it all. My health was being affected. My marriage and relationships were suffering.

At the rate I was going, I wasn’t going to last another six years…

The Ceiling of Complexity

As an owner living in the Push Season, no doubt this hits close to home. You know how every day gives rise to yet another new obstacle. One day it’s bookkeeping. Then bidding. Then taxes. Then managing employees. And so on.

But hey, you are a smart and resourceful entrepreneur! So you overcome each new obstacle, right? You become good at bookkeeping. You become good at bidding. You become good at taxes. You become good at managing employees. And so on.

Do you feel like you’re going in a thousand directions, all at once? Welcome to continual crisis management: you have become good at so many things, that you are great at… very little. If you haven’t already maxed out, you will soon. You will hit what entrepreneurial coach Dan Sullivan calls “The Ceiling of Complexity.” This is the ceiling where one more unit of effort doesn’t produce a corresponding one more unit of result. Your ability to scale your business is bumping up against Law of Diminishing Returns.

I struggled with this pattern for six years because I didn’t know there was a better way. Then I made a discovery.

The Paradox of Success

When your startup’s growth is stunted by your inability to scale yourself, the obstacle to your future growth is your past success. That’s right, the very things that have made you successful are likely the very things that are holding you back from greater achievement. You probably don’t even realize it.

In the Push Season, the obstacle to your future growth is your past success.

In the book bearing one of my all-time favorite titles, What Got You Here Won’t Get Your There, Marshall Goldsmith writes:

That’s the paradox of success: the beliefs that carried us to HERE may be holding us back in our quest to go THERE.

In my firm’s sixth year, I discovered that breaking through the ceiling of complexity required a totally new paradigm.

From Lots of Hats to Just a Few

In the Push Season, you regularly – and proudly – push yourself and your team when you say, “Hey, we all have to wear a lot of hats around here!” And that’s okay, to a point. In these early growing years, you can manage to wear ten – or maybe twelve – “hats” and achieve a level of success.

But if you extrapolate your model, reaching the Punch Season ($2 MM+ in revenue and 6-10 employees) will theoretically require that you wear twenty or so hats. And work twice as many hours. And be twice as stressed out. Does that scare you? Of course it does.

Relax. Growing into the next season will have you taking off most of those hats. Because the solution is found in you breaking through the ceiling of complexity… to a new level of simplicity.

Breaking Out of the Blues

To blow past the Push Season, we need to break your mental paradigm. We’re going to set a goal that is so big, crazy and exciting that it forces you to abandon your old pattern of thinking.

Setting a goal that is big, crazy and exciting forces you to abandon your old pattern of thinking.

The next season depends upon you putting away all those things you are good at, so you can focus on just the few things you are great at. To find out what you can be great at, we are going to set a goal so ambitious, so crazy, that you can’t possibly imagine achieving it on top of everything else you’re currently doing.

Ready to give it a try? Here we go:

Step 1: Set a crazy, ambitious goal to achieve one year from now.

For example:

  • Tackle a project twice as large as any project you’ve ever done.
  • Direct your first live-action shoot.
  • Win a network rebrand.
  • Hire a rockstar creative director or executive producer.
  • Double your firm’s annual revenue.

Step 2: Picture yourself there one year from now, performing  at the top of your game.

Now answer these questions:

  1. In that bigger future, what 2-3 things are you doing which totally utilize your genius?
  2. In that bigger future, what things are you not doing?

If you are a creative at heart, in that enticing future you saw yourself totally focused on Creative (The Work).  However, if you are a business person at heart, in that enticing future saw yourself totally focused on Entrepreneurship and/or Sales.

Whatever you saw in #1, take note. Those 2-3 things are crucial to the future success of your creative firm, in contrast to the multitude of hats you’ve been wearing.

Whatever you saw in #2, take note. Those are your “unacceptables.” Write them down and get ready to STOP doing them. Those activities are stealing from your future.

Getting Past the Blockers

Now that you have an exciting mental picture of you growing beyond the Push Season, your mind is filling with all the things which oppose you. I get it.

If your blocker is, “I realize I wear way too many hats, but I can’t see the forest for the trees,” get a high level view of the Seven Ingredients of a successful business. See The Single Biggest Mistake When Starting Your Own Creative Firm.

If your blocker is, “I would love to delegate more, but my firm doesn’t have the money,” charge more to realize the profits you need to make the necessary investments. For insights on how, see Charge Like You’re The Best, So You Have To Be The Best.

Now You’re Ready to Go THERE

Does this really work? Absolutely. After I went through this exercise and committed to both focusing and delegating, the next two years saw my firm grow into the Punch Season with well over $2 million in annual revenue and 10 employees. This led to even more growth later into the $4 million Perform Season.

If you buy my argument, you now believe it just might be possible. So if you desire to break through the ceiling of complexity to a new level of simplicity, go for it. Other firms have done it and you can, too. Just don’t take six years to do it, like I did.

If you need help, lean on a trusted advisor or consultancy to come alongside you. Or seek out a local business owners peer group which meets regularly.

Just be sure to resist that old pattern of, “We just need to do more of what we know works.” That path leads to exhaustion and burnout. When you feel that urge, come back here and read this warning:

We believe the lower risk strategy is to stick with what works rather than gamble on a new way that might work better. – Charles Hugh Smith

Image courtesy of Andrew Prickett via Flickr.

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