Everyday, running a business, you face choices — and more often than not, they are in conflict with one another. Should you invest or save? Hire or cut? Spend for better quality or maximize your margins? Keep to your original goals or adapt to cold realities of the marketplace?
It seems like every decision, big or small, takes on an existential quality: What will this mean for the survival, sustainability and growth of my business? It quickly becomes clear these “choices with consequences” require some guiding principle by which to judge them, some greater metric to help you navigate.
Had I but known.
When I started my company 10 years ago, what I didn’t know about business vastly overshadowed what I did. That’s not unusual. When I talk to fellow entrepreneurs, especially ones that built their business out of their art, craft or skill, they all concur that the on-the-job-training of being a boss is intense. The things that force you to reevaluate your motives and approaches are nearly constant.
And with each daily challenge to your core motivations and dreams, you have to ask yourself what’s important, what the point is and where your focus should be.
From day one, I knew I wanted to build a strong community culture, be a good collaborator and set standards for the highest quality product, in our case television and film. I wanted to always be innovative and relevant in the marketplace, while creating an atmosphere for people to do their best work. It was idealistic, and led me to look with suspicion at the standard metrics of business: org charts, five-year plans, IBIDA projections, and so on, as if they would turn our creative venture into something corporate. More importantly, they all struck me as too pass/fail.
The wrong yardstick.
I feel like we as entrepreneurs are constantly being asked to measure the wrong things in our businesses. If you didn’t hit revenue goals and growth benchmarks, was your business a failure? And conversely, if, to meet those marks, you had to compromise something that was core to your reasons for starting your business, was that a success? If you didn’t have an end game, couldn’t you just enjoy the journey?
I’ve thought a lot about these tensions as my business approaches it’s tenth year. I have evolved. I’ve accepted and integrated many aspects of running a business that I never considered starting out. Cash flow, critical. Management structures and HR policies, also critical. But still I opposed some of the criteria that everyone else seemed to want to measure my business by. And out of that, I came to a simple idea: rather than a specific set of goals, I would have values.
I sat down to make a list of what’s important to me and to my business, from our culture to our product, so that now, whenever I need to make a difficult decision about the future of my company, I let those values guide me. The values may overlap with more conventional goals, and that’s a good thing. But even as you evolve, even as the narrative of your company changes, it’s critically important to check in with why you jumped into this venture in the first place, and what it really means to you. It will not only inform you at every point, it will help others feel a part of your journey and become part of your brand.
Here’s how I went about it:
1. List out the values important to you.
Is something creatively interesting? Will an opportunity help my company meaningfully evolve? Does this moment call for growth or for stabilizing the core business? Will we keep the integrity of our brand doing this? What does it take to be sustainable?
2. Communicate your values.
Let people know that this is what’s important to you and represents the ethos of your company. And communicate it to the marketplace. When your values become core to your work, they will become core to your brand.
3. Hire accordingly.
A set of values will help you hire. Not only will like-minded people seek you out, you’ll be able to make choices based on how potential hires communicate their values to you.
4. Renew your values.
Your values will be challenged and they will be compromised. You will have to work hard to maintain them and stay true to them. Check in every year (or more) on how well you are holding to your values and where they presented a conflict to other goals. The values are your foundation, but you can build upon them in many ways.
My business, any business, weathers ups and downs. And with each swing, I’ve had to ask how each decision, each layer of structure, impacts the things that really matter to me: our culture, our process and our product. It’s been a source of comfort to have that ground beneath my feet and to feel others sign on and contribute to the ways we can continually enact those values in our business.
I see many challenges ahead for the television industry and many opportunities, but I also see that by holding strong to my value goals, I have a much better sense of direction for us.