In pursuit of business success, there’s a simple axiom, that is, find a need and fill it. (How many times have I read this!?) It’s offered as the foundational, must have formula for success. Read most anything about starting a business, and you’ll absolutely come across this advice too. If, however, your business is a design or creative-based service, and you don’t fit industry norms in some way, does this advice still apply? The short answer is, probably not.
Filling a need, on the one hand
I’ve wrestled with this question of focusing on filling a need, for a couple of reasons: first, I want my business to succeed. Actually, check that, not just succeed but thrive. This seems to suggest that I focus on filling a need. At the most basic level, my being an architect suggests that my profession is well-suited to this need-based formula. Architects provide a needed service within the construction sector. This fact is historically accurate and continues to serve as a pathway into business ownership for many people in practice. But second, what if the architect in question, me for example, is Black? Or a Black woman? I’ve written previously about our persistent rarity. Then, being an architect in business, is complicated by the person not fitting the predominant white male archetype that has historically defined the profession. A reality-based mental image that clients, and participants across the sector still hold. Some may think that in 2022, these sort of issues no longer matter. Yet in my experience spanning more than three decades of practice, the color of my skin, and how that plays out in terms of history, opportunity, visibility, trust, and culture do matter. Still. Even more so if you add in gender. This doesn’t mean that traditional fill-a-need business success is unattainable to norm bending individuals. I’d be lying if I said that. But, the notable successes we all have a tendency to start making a mental list of when faced with this question, typically achieved their success in spite of their difference, rather than because of it. Filling a need alone won’t likely get you there.
Love, on the other hand
Another offered bit of advice to success in business is to do what you love. I’ve read lots of serious-minded business folks that poo-poo this advice. But for creative individuals committed to making a living built upon their creative interests, and instincts, this love-based business advice is best heeded. For creative folk, their passion for what they do is inseparable from why or for whom they do it. For me to succeed in business, I need to feel passionate about what I’m doing, and why I’m doing it. This is a question that I’m now faced with again in determining the path upon which Flour Design Studio will ultimately trod. Do I focus on the work that I know will get me paid or the work that moves me? In an ideal world, these alternate paths would represent two sides of the same coin. But as I pointed out earlier, what will get me paid, i.e. lead me to success in business, is influenced by aspects of how others see me. Something that has nothing to do with my knowledge, ability or creative interests. What if there’s a disconnect, and the need to fill that’s available to me is hard for me to get excited about? Or requires something from me that I’m unwilling to give? What to do then? Fill the need anyway or follow my passion? These, by the way, are not trick questions.
How to decide? Start by redefining success
Rather than slip down the slope of slot-filling, soul-crushing, fall in line work, my approach is to craft an alternative reality. This redefined vision of success begins with rejecting the false choice between need, and love. As a former colleague of mine who sadly recently passed would say, “You need to recognize when the situation you’re confronted with isn’t in opposition but is, in fact, a polarity.” Stated otherwise, think “both/and” rather than “either/or.” The former is about finding balance by managing the relationship between competing issues while the latter is concerned with trade-offs. In business, there’s the need, then there’s you. By focusing on finding the “both/and” balance between the needs that exist, and what you love to do, the door is opened to a reality where success isn’t achieved for the one at the cost of the other. For me, this means leading first with what I’m passionate about, and then working hard to identify and cultivate relationships with like-minded people. In short, find my space, and my people. This is how I’ve chosen to define my path to success. This next part is critically important, and admittedly difficult…I must then resist impulses to pursue whatever just comes along.
Go forth, confidently
This is the choice I’ve made for myself, and the one I’d advocate for you. I’m not saying it’s been easy, because honestly, chasing behind some of the work people seem to think I should do is indeed tempting. But, this path feels right. And I’m committed to my choice, even if it limits my growth potential. By considering this approach you will at the very least know that what you’re doing and why you’re doing it are in alignment. And who knows, you may even find out that the opportunity pool you’ve chosen to wade into is far deeper than it appears at first glance.