Doing more by doing less

“How do I do less?”

This was how I ended a conversation with a friend who was giving me advice on marketing, back when I launched my first indie consultancy. 

For an entire hour, I took a ridiculous amount of notes on all the things he was telling me to do. I was supposed to create more content, be more present on social media, do more guest blogging, have more meetings… 

I began to wonder – “if I do all of this, how the fuck am I going to do anything else?”

The whole reason I went independent was so I didn’t have to live with the stress of always having to do more, and hit bigger targets, and manage bigger projects. I took a lot of wrong turns in the beginning until I got clear on what I wanted my business to look like.

All I wanted was to have a few good clients, do some good work, and have a life (what a concept!).

To do that, I had to be clear on the few things that actually mattered to me, and go big on those, while discarding everything else.

There’s an exchange attributed to Michelangelo and Pope Julius II (and referenced by Nassim Taleb in Antifrigile) that illustrates that point really well.

The story goes that Pope Julius II, on examining the statue of David for the first time, asked Michelangelo how he was able to create such a masterpiece.

Michelangelo replied “It’s simple. I just remove everything that isn’t David”

So how do you remove everything that isn’t David?

Eliminating what isn’t helping

You can’t be everything to everyone and be at all places. It wasn’t possible when you were at your big agency job, let alone now that you’re running the show solo.

To actually build a healthy independent business, that is aligned with how you want to live your life, you need to become great at identifying the few things that actually matter (for generating revenue, leads, etc) and build systems to make them increasingly easier to manage. 

And in order to do that, you need to get rid of everything that is just noise. 

There are three areas where clarity on what I don’t want has been incredibly helpful in the process of designing my own business: 

  1. Mitigating risks (things that can ruin my business if shit hits the fan)
  2. Focusing on what I’m actually good at (my circle of competence)
  3. Figuring out the business I want to have

Mitigating risks (things that can ruin my business if shit hits the fan)

As we go about building our businesses, we tend to leave traps for ourselves here and there.

Traps that are not a big deal when things are going well, but as soon as the winds change, they come back to bite us. 

Take debt for example. Debt is not a massive deal when you have money coming in. But as soon as you go through a dry spell, it can seriously damage (or even destroy) your business. 

Think of downside as “those things, people, actions, habits, or systems that make you vulnerable to volatility and risk”

One of the biggest examples (and one of the most neglected) is cash flow and payment terms. 

The number of people who neglect to consider their payment terms and how it impacts their cashflow is beyond belief. 

I’ve seen agencies who actually had a good number of projects going, having to downsize because they didn’t have enough money in the bank to cover costs until payment for the work they’ve completed came through. 

I’ve seen indies having to take out a personal loan at crazy interest rates because they agreed to 90 day payment terms without considering whether they would have enough money in the bank to cover their costs until that payment came through.

Some examples:

  • If you have long payment terms you could be cash poor and  exposed to unforeseen costs and market volatility.
  • If you don’t break your payments down (say 50% at the start and 50% at the end of the project) you could be exposed to clients who disappear or just decide not to pay (plenty of those around).
  • If you have no emergency fund, you could be exposed to a pipeline that dries up when the market changes, or being unable to work due to an illness.
  • If you don’t have a clear checklist for the type of work that you accept, you could be exposed to projects that are beyond what you can deliver and end up hurting your reputation

Look around. See what has the potential to hurt you. Eliminate it.

Focusing on what I’m actually good at (my circle of competence)

When we start, we all want to do more. 

We keep asking ourselves – what can I do that I’m not already doing?

For an independent, that anxiety-driven approach can drive you (fast) towards a burnout, or towards a very premature end to your business (or both). 

There’s always more you can do. There’s always a new channel you don’t post on, a new marketing tactic you haven’t tried, a new blueprint you haven’t applied.

Adding more without being critical about what you’re adding and why, opens you up to stupid and unnecessary mistakes.

Instead or looking for every shiny new thing under the sun, consider what you’re great at and how you can be even better. 

If you want to improve your odds of success in life and business, then define the perimeter of your circle of competence, and operate inside. Over time, work to expand that circle but never fool yourself about where it stands today, and never be afraid to say “I don’t know.” – Understanding your Circle of Competence: How Warren Buffett Avoids Problems

Rather than “what can I do that I’m not already doing?”, ask yourself

“What am I currently doing that is actually driving results, and how can I eliminate everything else?”

“What am I NOT going to do to market my business?”

“What services am I NOT going to offer?”

Understand where your strengths lie, leverage the hell out of those, and avoid unnecessary mistakes by trying things that don’t play to your strengths.

Charlie Munger said it best. 

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

By removing what’s not working, and what’s dead weight, you gain more time and resources to improve and double down on the few things that actually make a difference.

 By eliminating the “trivial many”, you can focus on the “vital few”.

Figuring out the business I want to have

Let’s face it – you can’t do it all. 

You don’t have the team, the bandwidth, or even the energy to do it all. And that’s not a bad thing.

Trying to be everything and do everything is only going to take you nowhere, faster. It’s a very clear sign that your priority (yes, in the singular) and your goals are not clear. 

Once you have clarity on what it is that you want, and the business you want to have, you can more clearly understand what your highest contribution is, and where your biggest leverage lies. Then, it’s all about doubling down on those, at the expense of everything else. 

In his book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown puts it like this:

“Essentialists see trade-offs as an inherent part of life, not as an inherently negative part of life. Instead of asking, “What do I have to give up?” they ask, “What do I want to go big on?”

I wanted my business to:

  • Give me the time and flexibility to pursue other interests, to travel, and to take time off. 
  • Allow me to do more of the things I enjoy doing and I’m good at and minimize (or eliminate) the work I hate doing and suck at
  • Have a healthier cash flow and not give me a heart attack everytime a payment is late.

Which meant that I:

  • I had to trade having big global organizations as clients for partnering with agencies as with whom I could develop a closer relationship and negotiate better payment terms.
  • I had to trade super exciting big innovation projects for simpler projects that are easier to manage and don’t require me to work on weekends.
  • I had to trade working across Latin America to work only in Brazil, so I could minimize the complexity of projects and invest more time in my relationships.

Was that easy? Fuck no. My ego screamed for a long time as I saw my frequent flier status begin to slowly fade away. On the other hand, even if I don’t have free upgrades like before, I can afford to take a whole month off to travel if I want to.

Priorities. 

Being clear on the business you want and eliminating what is unnecessary or downright harmful to getting you there needs to be your number one priority. 

Without it, it’s incredibly easy to get lost, overwhelmed, burnout, and give it all up. 

It’s not easy, but it should be a lot simpler.

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