Strategy for One

Let’s talk strategy. And let’s talk progress. The latter is possible without the former, but you’re likely to feel as though you merely got lucky—and you may fall short of your goal. On the other hand, a well-planned strategy is the next best thing to an actual guarantee of success.

I first had the opportunity to guide a small branding studio in the formulation of its company strategy years ago. More such projects followed, and every time I helped a team record each strand of its professional DNA, the clarity this brought to the business was astonishing. All of a sudden, there would exist this logical and inspired source containing the answers to all possible questions. Now, website copy, employee bios, and conference applications were little more than a copy-paste away from completion. Every tactical brief was already halfway filled out. And founders and employees were armed with honed answers to questions from potential clients and other key targets—as well as clear knowledge of just who these people are.

In 2014, it occurred to me to take myself and my up-and-coming consultancy through a similar strategic process. I was interested in defining my ultimate area of expertise, though not by “finally picking a specialty” but rather by synthesizing my skills and interests into a cohesive, multifaceted whole. I was curious whether I could, at last, discover the common element linking linguistics, writing, photography, branding, performing, and information design. It seemed worthwhile to take the long way to what I believed would be the ultimate shortcut to updating my website, pitching my business, and planning the evolution of my career.

Years and dozens of projects later, I’m thrilled I talked myself into this challenge the first time around, and I’m glad that I recently managed to update and simplify my original thinking. Not only have I found the common thread linking my interests, I’ve also realized that all of my skills are an expression of one fundamental ability. I am, it turns out, single-mindedly concerned with organizing things, removing the unnecessary, and communicating meaning. Whether I’m writing a strategy, an essay, or a product description, that is what I do. Even when my medium is not language but photography (or paper, or food, or clay...), that is what I do. My values, no matter what’s at stake, are purpose, precision, and clarity. I also like a hint of irony, or a flash of witty humor, or an element of surprise. (Lucky thing, too, since all that precision tends to get exhausting.)

In addition to arriving at a useful mission statement and list of values, I’ve also done the vast work of distilling the facts of my education, experience, and list of services into a highly useful dossier. I’ve also made course-altering discoveries about my category, target clients, fees, and competitive advantage.

While engaged in this illuminating process, I discovered another thing: the people around me seem to have a real hunger for doing something similar. One reason is that I’m surrounded by a more-then-average number of creative generalists in their forties who are still figuring out what they want to do when they grow up. The other reason I attribute to a zeitgeist factor: these days it’s fashionable both to be a this-slash-that—which often requires some defining—and to love what you do whan you’re on the clock.

Another interesting thing I noted as I progressed through the strategic questions and prompts was the way they, too, were evolving. Thus, the structure of my strategic guide developed in tandem with its content. Of course that’s likely to happen every time it is deployed, so I’m not about to call it a final version, but it is a solid version, and I’m happy to share it if you’d like to apply it to your professional brand or your gestating startup. Just click to download, below.