Paper can be a canvas for proposing value, but its as a commodity, it’s simply a medium. A few years ago when, with a partner, I ventured into a startup, we pushed a lot of ideas on paper.
One day a proposal that had only existed as fantasy until that point, met reality when I hurtled in my trusty beater toward an upscale, suburban strip mall north of Los Angeles. Within earshot of a bubbling fountain or some other hardscaping features, and corporately-crafted cafés, I met our first legitimate client, a gentleman who handed me our first legitimate signed contract, and our first legitimate signed check.
By this time I was accustomed, prior to being in this partnership, to the relief of receiving The Check. The Check that would prevent whatever potential personal financial catastrophe would otherwise ensue. I’d like to think that whatever desperation I felt on our fledgling company’s behalf, was masked behind gratitude, with a smile and a handshake.
The low five figure deposit wouldn’t be something a lot of people would get out of bed for, but to us, in context, it was a damn useful sum, and perhaps more importantly a validation that we might get off the ground. Our words, our agreement was now about to be converted to another form of paper: Currency. Of course the reality is that currency, money, is the ghost in the banking machine, it becomes visible only when you ask to see it. As we did to pay rents and eat.
Contract in hand, capital coming to fruition, this should have been the exciting moment where, in earnest, as diligent practitioners, we rolled up our sleeves and got to work according to the plan.
Talk is cheap
Proposal writing can become abstract. On paper, anything’s possible, flourishes emerge. Copy and paste occasionally replace the connection between mind and word along the thread of meaning, let alone empathy. Words are spewed as filler (“Look how impressive our proposal is at 78 pages!”) I’ve learned that transparency (thorough, yet concise explanation and clear disclosure) and deliverables are essential to meaningful, actionable proposals. But in my role, proposal generation was an aerobic activity. When originally written, the dreamers in us had meant what we said, now dreams needed clipboards and wrenches.
Our words soon came to bite us in the ass. Not because we changed our minds. Not just because we failed to confront that we couldn’t deliver what we promised, but because the conditions within our partnership were increasingly toxic, paired with expectations beyond our resources. Our scrappiness was pushed to the brink. All of this made it virtually impossible to deliver what we promised in the way that we promised it—that we’d deliver a remarkable installation, experience, and critically a salivating audience. The latter was the kicker, you can’t deliver an audience out of thin air.
As the clock was running out on the deadline we’d given ourselves, our desperation forced us into accepting what we’d presented for the wrong reasons: pride and financial necessity.
Business is prose
The proposed glamour of high concepts never fully emerged from under the dusty spatial void we aspired to convert into a temporary boutique, en route to a grand high-end circus in the name of style. The foot traffic was fair, but far from droves. The financial ROI from sales was nonexistent.
Our wonderful charter client traveled back-and-forth across state lines to attend the scrappy table we’d constructed for her to display her wares from. I felt ashamed of myself in a hurry. In essence, we did the minimum of what we needed to do to disguise our efforts as our intentions. For a prelude event, I begged my girlfriend to bake cupcakes. There were additional modest events. In reality, we ran out of gas. A friend, the one who’d so warmly referred us to the client, felt obligated to run out and buy booze and snacks, and saw through the whole sham of two guys who’d meant well but were emotionally absent and coming up short.
If we hadn’t elevated the paper fantasy so much, we might have had a better time, been better hosts, better service providers, and the metrics would have been completely different.
Mental evaluation: Monger or mongrel
Complete with press (that’s another story), our initial low-bar foray as retailers en route to presumed ringmasters, was generally well-received. I genuinely enjoyed being sometimes shopkeeper. Through a first-person embodiment of our vision, I could appreciate how if everything had been done for the right reasons, and refined as we stayed open, that our processes could have been made more precise. I could have brought more to it, people could have gotten more out of it, and the experience could have been truly sweet.
Looking back recently at some Blackberry pics from the time (admittedly with the benefit of nostalgia), there were scenes of success sandwiched between failures. People did come, and they did engage. Our team—essentially volunteers on commission (a compensation model I don’t recommend)—did some great work recruiting vendors and making things happen. A lot of credit was due. My partner did a version of what he knew best, creating an experiential presentation, as I improvised my role, sweating stuff, driving a truck, and hoping for the best.
Casting a personal motto: Transcend scrappiness
I enjoy and embrace the scrappiness of starting things. Necessity breeds interesting solutions. Startup behavior exposes integrity to the precipice of necessity. Necessity and integrity must be bound for the venturer to venture as a whole. Solutions are under added pressure to perform where there may be no process or tools, with very limited or virtually nonexistent resources.
With the partnership clearly divided, I made it official and left. I’d allowed my integrity to be compromised, and I realized just how priceless integrity is.
Do it for the right reasons
As a post script, I have tried not to take on projects for the wrong reasons—on the contrary, my intention is to take on projects for the right reasons, with the following intentions.
- Leverage passions through professional service. Embodying a hollow role doesn’t serve anyone well. I desire to serve people well.
- Money, cashflow specifically, while important, is a byproduct of delivering a good product with both creative and business integrity. Now, as a result, I’m emotionally detached from money, currency, until the moment I receive the first check, and then I watch the sum move through my bank account from deposit to bottom line, it is influential but not essential in the way it was to my old school moment-by-moment lifestyle. This allows me the distance to make wiser decisions and gauge work without financial prejudice. Ultimately, a low-level of stoicism around the financial functions of a project, reduces stress and enables clearer thinking about the work at hand. When I redeem my labor at the ATM, I am personally appreciative for the opportunity that I’ve been given.
- Deliver value as soon as possible. Bottling value for eventual delivery only increases the pressure, the expectations. That pressure can work for you if used early and at a sustainable flow, or against you later.
- Author proposals with empathy. Written communication becomes tangible if it demonstrates value to a client, to the point that they employ you to deliver on it. I find that reading anything empathetically—be it a designed thing, like an interface or a page, or a contract as a designed thing—is the only way I can proof my integrity and provide good, habitable solutions.
- Transparency isn’t always sexy as a sales pitch, but it is liberating. Expectations can evolve as actions deliver. Said another way, the classic “under-promise, over-deliver.”
Full disclosure: I can’t say that everything’s been peachy ever since the previously described episode, but my goals and intentions are better aligned, and I have a framework of personal responsibility within which to constantly improve.