Advice for a Young Creative Starting an Agency: Be Ruthless with Your Talent

The World Doesn't Need Another Second-Rate Creative Agency

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It happens. Talented people leave secure jobs to pursue their dreams.

We recently had this happen at our agency. His name is E. We hired him out of a mega-consulting firm to create presentations for new business pitches. Like the best people, he surpassed all our early expectations and went on to make the agency a better, more creative place. In his seven years at the agency, he crossed boundaries and at one time or another served as a producer, writer, editor, pitchman, actor, musician and overall good guy. Then he decided to start his own video production company.

Before he left, he invited me out and asked what advice I had for a young guy starting a business. We had one of those sprawling lunches where we jumped from one topic to the next without finishing any of them. I'm not sure I was much help. So E, I've given it further thought, and here's my two cents.

Don't ever forget that you're a creative guy. You're going to live and die by your talent. It's all you've got. It's your fuel. Everything else is window dressing. Equipment is cheap. Budgeting, casting, location scouting, production coordination, and every other detail of your business are interchangeable skills. But no one sees the world like you do. No one has your ideas, and no one brings them to life so eloquently. That's your true north. Forget that and you'll look back and wonder where the time went, and why you're still working on second-rate projects.

Be ruthless when you start out. I don't mean with other people. I mean with your talent. You may be nervous about getting enough work or making the mortgage, and you'll be tempted to take all kinds of work that you don't really want, or worse, to work for cheap. Prospective clients have a good nose for fear and desperation, and the temptation will be to stay busy at all costs. If the project doesn't lead you closer to your dream, just say no. At the end of your first year, better to have produced one award-winning video than then ten projects that just pay the bills.

Because you're talented, you'll soon get to the crossroads where you have to decide whether to hire other people or go it alone. I can say this because I know you. Start building an organization, even if it's only two people. You're a natural collaborator and mentor. It's a great thing to share your gifts and watch a business grow.

Your first hire needs to be a brilliant one. Think about it. If your first employee is merely good, half your company will be mediocre. You will be forever frustrated and working overtime to pick up the slack. Slowly, you will watch your dreams swirl down the drain. There are three signs that you made a great hire. You like your job better than before. You wonder how you survived before the person joined you. You're scared to death they'll leave.

Killing time is not all bad when you don't have any paying work. Good ways include talking to people -- almost anybody -- especially over lunch (valuable business tip: always pick up the check, even when there's nothing in it for you). Other worthwhile time killers: learning about anything that fires your imagination; searching for inspiration in great art, popular culture and the chaos of daily life; and staying healthy.

Bad ways to kill time include: worrying about money, doing busy work to make you feel productive and playing Words with Friends all day long. Well, maybe a couple of hours to keep your mind sharp.

Someone once told me three very important lessons about money, but unfortunately I've forgotten what they were. Instead, here's some advice that has worked for me. Don't spend an extra dime to impress people with your office space and all the other accoutrements of business (Well, I do recommend buying a couch, in case you need to take a nap). Collect every cent that's owed you. After all, you do have a wife and three kids. And above all else, don't forget to pay your quarterly tax estimates. Sadly, the IRS is the one organization that doesn't care about your talent.

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