The first thing we must do to develop a successful career as a creative is to ask ourselves what kind of creative interests we want to pursue. This is called strategic planning. I know it sounds like a stuffy business term, but let me give you an example of why strategic planning is critically important to your career.
When I first launched Wannabe Press, I spent the first 14 months after its inception working inside my business, doing all of the day to day work to keep my business afloat. I didn’t worry about building for the future. I didn’t worry about branding. I didn’t worry about my ideal client. All I worried about was the next sale. And that is really unsatisfying. By November of 2015, I was floundering. There was very little growth in my business month over month and I was going crazy from stress.
That’s because I didn’t know what was going on in my business. I had no idea what was working in my creative life. I didn’t know why people were buying my books or even who was buying them. I just knew they were being bought. It felt like I learned nothing and was no closer to being successful than the day I launched.
So what did I do?
I took the month of December 2015 off from my company. That might sound like a luxury, but I was willing to risk one month of sales to figure out what made my business function. I knew I didn’t want to stay floundering in my business, and the only way for it to grow was to discover what was going wrong and what I was doing right. I learned so much in that month about what worked and didn’t that by January I was chomping at the bit to get back to Wannabe Press.
I went back to work in January implementing all the systems and hypotheses I discovered in December, fine tuning them, and building a brand identity. By February, we came out of the gate with a redesign and massive momentum. We more than double our growth year over year, and our audience exploded. Because of our new mascot, banners, and cohesive brand, people recognized us show after show and we were able to continue that conversation online. More importantly, we were able to target our message to the exact right people instead of shouting into the ether.
Did all of our assumptions work? No. Some of them crashed and burned. A couple blew up in my face. However, being able to start with a hypothesis allowed us to test to see if those assumptions were valid
In the same way, you need to start with assumptions about your career. You need hypotheses about what you want to do and where you want to go. They don’t need to be right. You could start out trying to be a cartoonist and realize you hate it, but it’s important that you have an initial hypothesis. Only then can you work toward testing that hypothesis. Without one, you are left sitting on the sidelines flailing in the dark.
So how do we start with our strategic planning? It’s as simple as asking a couple of questions:
1. What creative field do you want to pursue? If you are on the fence, choose one field to start. Remember, we are just building a hypothesis here. You might hate the work you do after testing it, but at least then you will be able to cut something off your list. When narrowing your focus, cutting something off a list is often as important as finding your ideal career path out of the gate.
2. What is your ideal company to work for in your chosen field? Even if you want to work freelance and build your own thing, it’s important to answer this question because it will give you a company structure and audience to emulate. One of the most important pieces of advice I ever got in business was to model success. Successful companies spend millions of dollars on marketing. With a little time investment, you can see exactly what works for their business. Those same strategies can work for you too, with none of the capital investment.
3. Who is your favorite creative in your chosen field? This can be any creative you admire, but it needs to be in the chosen creative field you want to pursue. They don’t have to work for your ideal company, but they shouldn’t hate that company either. Then, you can emulate and model the career path they took and use it as a guide.
4. If you were to pursue this field, where would you want to be in 5 years? In 3 years? In 1 year? In 6 months? In 3 months? In 1 month? In 1 week? People over overestimate what they can achieve in one year and underestimate what they can achieve in five years. However, both short term and long term planning are incredibly important to your success. Short term planning gives you an immediate goal which is attainable. Long term planning gives you a vision for the future.
Now that you have those four questions answered, hang them over your desk, bed, or somewhere else that you can easily see them every day. You should be able to look at your long term goals and short term goals constantly and either validate them or realize your assumptions were incorrect.
If they were incorrect, that’s okay. You can always revise your plan midstream. Don’t do it every day, though. Make sure to only revise your plan when you’ve hit those benchmarks of 1 week, 1 month, 3 months, 6 months and one year.
You should have at least one hour of strategic planning time built into every week. You should also have a longer strategy session every three months, about half a day, in order to reevaluate the assumptions you made from the previous quarter, reinforce or change your assumptions for the next quarter, and change your strategic plan as necessary.
Every year you should have an even longer session to analyze your entire year and plan for the next one. This is a living, breathing document and if it no longer fits with your goals, then it’s okay to start again.