Excerpted from Living the Dream: Putting your creativity to work (and getting paid)
By Corwin Hiebert
Copyright © 2012. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.
I like playing with fire; and no, I’m not talking metaphorically. From an early age I’ve been fascinated by the aesthetics and effects of flames. When I was in fourth grade it was my pyromaniacal tendencies that helped me make friends with “the cool kids.” Our extracurricular activities consisted of building weapons of miniature destruction (WMD). Match-heads, firecrackers, Roman candle tubes, electrical tape, WD-40—you name it, we used it to inflict a fiery torture on many stuffed animals and figurines not only in our backyards but also on the school playground. We held little regard for the single adult monitor whose job it was to watch hundreds of kids play on a 10-acre field (oh, how times have changed).
During lunch one fine spring day, we dug a small hole to contain the destruction, and my friends got to work melting things; I was on lookout duty. When we were interrupted by the bell signaling the end of lunchtime, I jumped up and headed back to class, while the other guys remained dedicated to the task of deconstructing a My Little Pony doll. Moments later, sitting at my desk, I saw the teacher looking over my shoulder, her eyes wide open in shock. I turned around to discover that the dry, brittle soccer field was ablaze. Needless to say, they got in trouble, but I somehow escaped judgment. These same friends lost their eyebrows and half their hair to a Ziploc bag of gunpowder not long after, while serving their suspension.
Creative at Work: Photographer and best-selling author David duChemin at Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada, three weeks before “the fall” in Pisa, Italy.
I can think of any number of reasons not to recommend a career in pyromania to anyone reading this book. But there’s a broader lesson here, and it has to do with understanding the forces you’re dealing with and entering into your actions (or, for that matter, avoiding them) with a realistic idea of their outcome. Unless you develop a process by which you earn the confidence and trust of your clients and turn that into successful work experience, you’ll be playing with fire, and not in a good way.
Understanding Your Clients’ Needs and Wants
Your role as a creative service provider is to make your expertise and labor available so your clients can achieve their goals. Your goal is to make them feel and look good along the way. At the end of a project you want them to have enjoyed working with you and be successful in the eyes of their superiors. You’ll be able to accomplish this once you’ve determined what it is they need and want from you. Understanding their expectations and finding the best way to meet or exceed them is why you’re in business. Your job is not to manage your clients but to “get them.”
In my work as a manager to creative entrepreneurs, I find that the more I discover what stokes my clients’ fire—what motivates them, what goals and passions they have—the more successful they are. For example, I get paid to produce and market photography eBooks that I don’t understand. I’m not a photographer, so how can I run a wildly successful photography education company? It works because I know the owner better than anyone. I understand what David duChemin wants and needs and how Craft & Vision fits into the big picture for his company and his life. I spend time with him in all sorts of situations (with clients, customers, and collaborators), I spend the energy learning about what makes him tick, and I know what questions to ask him based on our shared experiences. I get him.
My working relationship with David is the standard to which I hold myself in all my client work, even if we’re only working together for a short time or our personalities are not as compatible. My hope, for each client relationship is for me to “get them” as best as I can. It’s an attitude of dedication; it’s an expectation I impose on myself to find ways to contribute to get beyond the project and the clients’ immediate needs and find ways to make their lives better.
Getting to know your clients inside and out requires you to be at your best. Here’s how I break that down:
- Be an agent of intelligence. Understand the elements of the creative brief, RFP, or job requirements; leave no stone unturned. It sounds basic, and it is, but your expressed comprehension of what it is they’re asking you to do, or be a part of, will give them confidence in your ability to serve their needs. Throughout the project, whether it’s the big picture or the minutiae, when you’re knowledgeable about the work you can speak to the issues intelligently and quickly prove that you “get it.”
- Be a real character. Work hard at being kind, generous, and supportive. Manifesting characteristics such as these fuel a fire that can burn bright for a long time because people want to work with good people. A good service attitude affords you the opportunity to be a reliable cohort, especially when times are tough. You can learn more about a client’s needs and wants when relied upon in a pinch than in a straightforward project. The quality of your character can build trust, which is the conduit for professional transparency.
- Be a Jeopardy superstar. You may not have the answers, but knowing the right questions can produce the opportunity to go beyond the immediate and get to the heart of a stakeholder. Asking good questions, or working to fill in the gaps and read between the lines, is what an experienced service provider does. When you dig deep and uncover the unforeseen or ill-explained factors, you’re going above and beyond the call of duty. An inquisitive attitude conveys passion, and it elicits a deeper connection between client and service provider.
Understanding what your clients need and want takes intuition, experience, and time. When parachuting into a project, it’s important to remember that your success doesn’t rely solely on the final deliverable. Rather, it’s the knowledge and insight you gain, and share, along the way that is equally valuable to your career as a service provider.
Creative Work: “Hong Kong Nights” by Ada and Miranda. Their shoes are a labor of love. Inspired by art and photography or just life itself, they take the concepts they love and transform them into hand-painted shoes. Web: cocopunkz.com Twitter: @cocopunkz
Establish a Scope of Work
The most challenging part of working for a client comes when you least expect it: before you even get started on the project. A happy client is one who has hard-working creative talent at their disposal; what makes you happy is knowing that you’re indispensable and that you’re getting paid to do something you love.
Establishing a workable “Scope of Work” is essential to any client relationship. A Scope of Work is evidence of a mutual agreement between you and your client about the particulars of a project, and it’s often the difference between success and failure. It keeps everyone happy. A Scope of Work acts like a guiding force that helps everyone involved keep their foot on the gas or get back on track. Only once you have that understanding in place can you hold hands and skip off on a rainbow together.
A Scope of Work is not a contract. A contract is a legal document that minimizes liability and states the terms and conditions of service; it protects you both should something go wrong. Having a Scope of Work means that everyone understands the finer points of the project and what following them entails. A contract can include a Scope of Work as a schedule or appendix that outlines the details of the work effort, but the two are not synonymous.
A Scope of Work doesn’t have to be a formal document, but it should be written down and shared with project stakeholders. It’s a good idea to capture what the planned outcome is, who’s responsible for what, how and when the work will be accomplished, and other details that weren’t covered in any other project discussions or documents. Unlike a contract, which should be ironclad and static once a project starts, a Scope of Work should be a dynamic, living document that changes along the way, as tweaks and adjustments are inevitable.
A good friend and collaborator of mine, Dave Seeram—also known as “That Web Guy”—is a WordPress developer who has a knack for creating a simple Scope of Work for even the smallest of projects. “I am often responsible for building things with a perceivable limitless potential for growth,” Dave says. “By understanding the big picture, I can work backwards to clarify and develop an appropriate scope of work that ultimately propels the project forward towards those big-picture results.” For him, documenting parameters and priorities early in the project means he can gain momentum as he checks things off the to-do list; focused work is harder to derail.
This has a motivating effect, and you will always produce better work when you do it. A Scope of Work helps bring the type and amount of work into plain view, and that will always work in your favor. If this sounds too formal for you, call it the “Parameters of Awesome” document or something more reflective of your style or approach.
I always encourage creatives to spend the time early on in the life cycle of a project to get into the details instead of just jumping into the tasks or—worse—the fun stuff. Dedicating two hours to planning now is better than losing two months to soul-sucking, backtracking work later.
The business value of having a Scope of Work rests on the fact that if you don’t know what it is you’re signing yourself up for as a service provider, you may not know how it is you’re going to meet the client’s needs or make the money you need to operate an independent business. By outlining the details of what’s in store, you can also better determine what it is that this project offers you: money, experience, clout, strategic positioning among your competitors, or starting or strengthening relationships like a partnership or an alliance. If a quoting process was involved, you may already have the labor effort identified, but a Scope of Work can also help clarify how much time and overtime are required, and by what date/time you’ll need to accomplish the tasks.
Sometimes a project goes sideways, and as tragic as that can be, a more common issue affecting hardworking, emerging creatives is Scope Creep. This happens when a project veers incrementally away from its original design, when the schedule or budget haven’t been adjusted. And sometimes it happens so slowly that it can catch you by surprise. Like a slow-burning forest fire, Scope Creep can quickly destroy your passion for a project and ruin its business benefits. It starts small, like the need for more meetings, or one extra piece of collateral, or a change in location—small things that wouldn’t amount to much as isolated instances, but can completely derail a project as they pile up.
When small changes link together and beg decisions, actions, and tasks that end up costing you time (or money), you risk resenting the very thing you wished for. Often, these off-track issues happen at the hands of stakeholders that weren’t involved early on, but as they came on board started kicking everything out of whack. That’s tough to deal with in any project, but these types of setbacks could be easily managed if you and your clients buy into the Scope of Work early on.
Creative at Work: Dave Seeram is the guy that everyone wants in their back pocket. His work goes beyond WordPress. He’s also the publisher of a wildly popular free online magazine and a photography and Adobe Photoshop Action bulletin board. Web: photographybb.com Twitter: @photographybb
Of course, not all change is bad; creative-oriented projects involve a certain number of variables. But if you identify one concept or element of a project as a variable at the outset, you’ll be better prepared to deal with where it might go. Scope Creep results from unplanned, small-scale changes that can turn into large-scale challenges. The more experience you have in your creative work, the more you’ll learn to spot those sparks that you’ll want to keep an eye on before they catch.
Fitting In and Standing Out
As a service provider you are contracted to do what your clients can’t do themselves or don’t have the time to do. They’ve looked beyond their immediate resources and have found you, the creative-for-hire; as a result, you’re in the unique position of being an outsider on the inside. The client’s operation and staff make up an environment into which you’re entering like an alien. The culture you find yourself in may be welcoming, hostile, positive, or toxic, and all you can do is manage yourself in such a way as to make your presence as valuable and unintrusive as possible. Your job is to get the work done, but the future of your business relies on you going beyond delivering the goods. A savvy service provider is one who finds ways to make an impact without being a disruption—to make a spark without burning the place down. Your goal is to fit in and stand out, to be a professional dweller.
Regardless of the size of your client’s company or organization, you’re walking into a pre-established environment. The culture shock may feel as extreme as being transported into a biosphere in the Antarctic. You’re the new kid on the block with all eyes watching. Whether you’re working onsite, having regular meetings at the office, or simply offering your services at arms’ length, you need to be aware of the culture you’re working in and contributing to. Three elements make up the cultural landscape of your client’s business environment:
- Business culture: How they work, and how they organize people, money, and the policies and actions that drive action or inaction.
- Political culture: The opinions, attitudes, behaviors, and values that make up the distinct micro-society of owners and employees.
- Social culture: The way the staff organize and order themselves in relationships and alliances, and how they draw territorial lines based on nonbusiness issues.
These cultural forces have an impact on your ability to make decisions or act on those decisions that have already been made. They can inspire you and provide a support network that helps you be productive, and they can also suck you in like a backdraft and burn you badly. The point here is to be aware of the forces at work and the people behind them so you can navigate your way to success. Your tenure there is likely to be brief, so you don’t have much time to work with. But you still need to be attuned to the cultural tone, so you can stay clear of the hot-button issues and cheerlead their success.
The unique position of a newly contracted service provider affords a multitude of opportunities to go above and beyond the call of duty, and it’s the entrepreneur’s ability and willingness to capitalize on these situations that will turn successful projects into more work, new work, and glowing referrals. There are two kinds of opportunities you can capitalize on:
- Chances to step up to the plate and hit a home run; as in, you put yourself in harm’s way, get called on to make a big contribution, and you rock it.
- Self-selected opportunities that are risky but are worth attempting as failure has ill-effect, but success means instant rock-star status.
I use the term “harm’s way” very loosely in this instance. When you’re dialed into the business culture and the players, you can position yourself to be in that extra planning meeting, you can join your client on a coffee run, you can pipe up in a discussion you have strong feelings about, and you can volunteer to support an internal fundraiser. Whatever the specifics, you’ll have gone the extra mile with your actions and, based on your proximity, you’ll have increased your chance to get asked about something that wasn’t planned. (Assuming, of course, that you feel it’s within your scope or that it’s a change or addition to your role that fits well.) For new clients or for creatives whose personalities lend themselves to holding back instead of speaking up, this is a great way to stand out and remind your clients why they are so happy they hired you.
Those self-inflicted opportunities are the ones you must pursue. As you become more familiar with the subtleties of the client’s business, getting deep enough into a project that you feel an increase in your leadership or intellectual contribution could have a big impact on the success of the effort. This is that moment when taking a risk is worth it. The magic ingredient that buyers always want when they hire creative talent rarely shows up in a flash of brilliance; it’s usually due to methodical, productive creativity put through the rigors of due process. But when that “A-ha!” moment does happen, there’s little to lose if you seize it with the needs of the client in mind. That sleepless night of manic ideation, that extra long work session that you know will produce a breakthrough, the tweaking that gives way to wholesale shifts that require caveats ad nauseam—these instances are often best capitalized on by experienced or outspoken creatives that can handle a bruised ego. But those willing to take the chance will separate themselves from the pack, and their reputation for risk-taking will precede them, making their portfolio and work history more compelling than it would have been had they sat on their hands.
A word of caution here: The goal isn’t to show up the staff. Your legacy will grow as you help others around you become more successful themselves. Your goal is to stand out among your predecessors, the creative talent or contractors whose shoes you’re now filling—especially if you go about your work with an air of ignorance regarding their past performance. There’s often a lot of initial enthusiasm for the new talent, and it’s important not to let that get to you. Your ego should take a back seat, and your words should be few about what took place before you got involved. You don’t know all the factors that were in play, and you’ll stand out in a bad way if your bravado puts you on a pedestal to the point that others find you an easy target down the road. There’s a spectrum of engagement and there’s a risk that you can swing too far. On one extreme, you could barge in with guns blazing, kicking down doors with enthusiasm and fresh ideas only to be put in your place. Or you could be a fly on the wall, and waste any and every opportunity to make a name for yourself. The best course of action is to work a little out of your comfort zone and be on the lookout for opportunities.
Emerging talents hate hearing about the value of experience because they feel that if they can’t get a break, they’ll never be able to build up the experience they need to progress (and grow their business). But experience is a funny thing; you don’t need as much experience if you’ve built up a good rapport and reputation with your clients. Goodwill, and good opportunities, come as you grow strong relationships with like-minded people and as you rise to a role of leadership, regardless of the project, client, or collaboration.