Maybe this scenario sounds familiar to you: A few years ago I found myself working an office job that was ok. It paid ok, I liked the work ok, I liked the people I worked with ok, and I was pretty ok at what I did. Like I said, it was ok. But I didn't love it. I didn't wake up in the morning with a sense of purpose that drove me to excel at my job. It wasn't what I really wanted to do, but for the longest time I put up with it because I'd done the math. What I really wanted to do was go into digital publishing, which in my mind required a new computer that would cost at least $3,000, software that my current laptop couldn't handle, at least one or two creative/business partners, and a camera/other gear I couldn't afford.
See, my background at the time (creatively) was in film and television. Before my office job I had interned at a small studio where my work over two years ran the gamut of print design, copywriting, scriptwriting, motion graphics and some non-profit documentary work. While the studio itself was small we had a lot of interns and volunteers which meant that our total creative team was around 70-80 people when all hands were on deck.
I loved that atmosphere. I loved racing towards a tough deadline with a team of resourceful creatives at my side. I knew that was ultimately what I wanted in a job. The type of challenging creative collaboration that left you tired to your bones but satisfied in a job well done. So why was I settling for less? I was settling for less because I had bought into a lie. I bought into a lie that said I need MORE before I can start doing what I really want to be doing. More experience, more money, more equipment, a better computer, etc. But then I realized that wasn't true. I thought about all the projects I had been forced to do on the barest of budgets, with limited cast and crew, with whatever was at hand...and I knew what I had to do.
Instead of looking at my lack of resources as a hinderance, I began to look at them as creative constraints. So I took an inventory of the resources at my disposal, I made a plan of action that began with projects I could complete right away, and I set goals for growing the pool of resources I would need in the future. Then I got to work.
A Lesson Learned
Not long after that decisive moment I left my office job, began writing full time, and started implementing my plan of founding a digital publishing company. In other words, I stopped thinking about how I couldn't do what I really wanted to because I didn't have all the pieces right in front of me - i.e. more money, a full team, better equipment, more connections, etc. I began with what I had (which was a laptop and all the spare time I could scrounge up) and I started writing my ass off until more resources became available.
None of this is to say that my input here is the end-all in how to start a creative business or be successful or any of that non-sense. I don't think there is any sure way to succeed and if there were I would not be qualified to write about it. That said, some of the best advice I have ever heard on "success" and how to achieve it comes from composer Phillip Glass who said, "You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That is the only secret." While not even that is a guarantee of success, I couldn't agree more with its principle. In fact, because I've thought about that quote so much since I heard him say it in the documentary Glass: A portrait of Phillip in twelve parts, I can attribute much of this post to the implied inverse of his statement; The only sure way to fail is to do nothing.
It is in that spirit that I have written this post. Not as an expert on business or success, but as a fellow creative who has taken action in pursuit of a creative dream and learned something of value along the way. I'm far from the end of my journey - and I've done my fair share of stumbling in the dark - but after two years of relentless application (and some fantastic results) I think this lesson is one worth sharing.
Start with what you have - today.
Begin With An Inventory
Whatever your creative goals or career aspirations, you may be surprised at how many resources are already at your fingertips or easily within reach. It's fruitless and discouraging to constantly think about what you would do "if only". If only I was a better designer, if only I had that camera, if only I had a better computer - if only. How does that type of thinking get you anywhere? It's pointless. And besides, is it even realistic to expect that just because we want to do something that we can just jump from point A to point B and be done? In my experience creative work is less like a straight line and more like an unpredictable zig-zag headed in the general direction of your end goal.
I won't belabor this point too much, but have you ever seen Martin Scorsese's first full length film Who's That Knocking at My Door? In all respect to one of my favorite film makers of all time - it's nothing to write home about. It was low budget, he was working with talented but also very young and inexperienced actors, and the script gives the impression that each scene is little more than an exercise just barely knit together by a central theme and story. But yet, in certain scenes, a glimpse of his unrefined genius is visible. It was only after six more full length films that he created Taxi Driver and blew the door off the industry.
So here's my point: if Martin Scorcese of all people had to start small, figure things out as he went along, and wait for a budget/cast/crew/equipment - we probably will too. And there's nothing wrong with that.
When I sat down two years ago to make an inventory of my resources, the list was pretty short. That is to say, ideally, when starting a digital publishing company - a company that would eventually make media rich websites, ebooks, ezines, and the like - you would have the equipment, team, and money required to begin. I had none. As I mentioned above, all I had was an aging macbook pro and a few spare hours each day before and after work. At least, that was what I thought I had. Once I actually opened my eyes I soon realized that for someone looking to carve their own creative and professional path in the world there is an incredible amount of free resources.
At the time I took special note of the following:
- Google Apps
- Multiple blogging platforms such as wordpress, blogger, and tumblr.
- Zoho Client Relationship Management software
- And of course my own creativity and experience
In fact, when I really thought about it I didn't even need my laptop. I actually had MORE than I needed! If I had nothing but the free resources available online, I could go to the library and start my own business by working off of their computers. Wouldn't be my first choice, but there it was. I had everything I needed to create content, manage clients, and accept payments. At the end of the day, I decided I had absolutely no excuse not to get started right away.
Make A Plan
Obviously, everyone's plan will be different. Yours will be unique to your creative endeavor as well as your current resources. But whether or not you want to freelance, start a passion project, create a company, or even just gain the experience and clout needed to join your dream company - the benefits of making a plan are the same. Creating a plan that you actually have to carry out using nothing but the resources immediately available allows you to eliminate the impossible and start winning small victories that will help generate the momentum you need to grow.
In my case, the plan was this: Use my personal network and the creative work I'd already done to get a few free blogging/copywriting gigs that might lead to paid work. In turn, I decided to immediately implement the lessons I learned from writing for others, for myself, so I started a personal blog that would be the hub I eventually grew my business around. My logic was that quality free writing would lead to quality paid writing. Enough quality paid writing for enough blogs and businesses around the web and I would kill two birds with one stone: not only would I be able to pay my monthly bills freelancing but some of that traffic would find its way back to my personal blog. Of course a lot of work on my personal blog would lead to a loyal following. A loyal following that could then be leveraged to form revenue generating partnerships which in turn would allow me to diversify my products/services as well as build out a creative team.
After creating this general direction for myself I wrote out detailed to-do lists that would bring me closer to my end goal with each finished task. And then I got busy.
Get to Work
Looking back it's sort of hard not to laugh. To say that my plan was a bit circumspect would be putting it mildly. But you know what it did? It got me moving in the right direction. It gave me a path, albeit a roundabout one, from what I had at that moment to what I wanted for the rest of my life. And the best part is that once you get moving you become aware of options you never knew existed before. The plan simplifies. Opportunities come as a result of your work that could not have happened otherwise. Others see what you're doing and they join in not because you have a ton of cash or connections but because they're passionate too. Eventually what you find is that the simple act of doing makes just about anything possible.
This post is really about one thing. Whether you're a web designer, developer, blogger, videographer, or any other creative type - if you're not doing what you love for a living there's no reason why you can't change that starting today. I guarantee you that if you sit down and write out your end goal, there is a way to reverse engineer a path to that goal starting with nothing but the resources you currently have access to. You might even be thinking, "but what I really need right now is cash. I've already done every possible thing before my next step which involves $X." Ok, maybe that's true. Are you on kickstarter.com yet? Are you working overtime? Have you asked friends, family, and anyone else who supports you to help out? If you haven't, then your plan and resource list are not complete.
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