One of my clients is starting a business and she just can’t summon the energy to create the “lead magnet” (AKA free resource) that’s supposed to entice people to join her mailing list. Another knows he should be networking more, but hates the typical gatherings where elevator pitches and business card exchanges are the only things on the menu. Another is struggling with pricing, and longs to find a happy medium between “charging what you’re worth” (which — have you noticed? — always seems to mean “top dollar”) and giving it all away (and thereby abandoning financial stability). And all of them are feeling the pressure to grow big and grow fast.
We all have moments where the accepted wisdom of business — extract as much value as you can; give away as little as possible in return; leave your complexity at home; and scale up as quickly as you’re able — just. Feels. Gross.
It feels gross because it doesn’t respect your humanity or your customer’s.
The freebie might sound generous, but in practice it can be a form of manipulation, a way to trick people into signing up for yet another newsletter they’ll never read.
When you find yourself resisting the “accepted wisdom” of business, it might just be that you’re itching for a new kind of economy — and a new kind of wisdom.
And, if you don’t want to create a lead magnet, don’t! (Hey, if a no-freebie newsletter sign-up is good enough for Paul Jarvis, it’s good enough for the rest of us. He literally teaches list-building.)
This is what I call honouring your ick.
That shiver up your spine, that queasy feeling in your stomach when you think about doing business the way everyone else does? It’s trying to tell you something: there is a better way.
And you get there by honouring your ick.
“Networking” sucks, as you well know.
I’ve taught workshops on networking for people who hate networking. I wrote a chapter inn my book on it, too. My point is, I have a lot to say on this subject. But the gist of it is this:the reason you hate networking events is that most of them are dehumanizing. The people who go there are faking it and it shows — and they expect you to fake it, too. Ugh.
So instead of “networking,” just show up in the places where your people hang out. And by “your people,” I mean the folks who wind up being your very favourite customers of all time. The people who make your heart sing to work with. THOSE people.
The reason you feel gross when you go to the soul-deadening network events is because they are soul-deadening for everyone. It’s just that some people believe that deadening their soul is a prerequisite for business.
Honour your ick. And go hang with your people instead.
Growth doesn’t always lead to bigness.
Look, I get as excited as the next person by measurable goals and upticks in profitability. But does the world really need more entities that see increasing their revenues, customer base, and/or number of employees as the only viable ways to grow?
We call those things measures of success — but too often, we measure only what we are extracting from the ecosystem our business belongs to, and not what we are contributing back. When we measure growth only in extractive terms, we are seeing only one facet of our business’s impact. We aren’t calculating other forms of contribution, and neither are we measuring costs beyond the financial ones.
I come back again and again to Tim O’Reilly’s advice to entrepreneurs, to “create more value than you capture.” Most of the small business owners I know try to do just that — but the dominant culture within business can wear us down. We see so many companies playing a gluttonous, zero-sum game that it can feel like you have to keep hustling just to stay relevant.
But the fact is, our addiction to rapid, exponential growth is literally killing the earth. And it’s killing us. We are overworked and burnt out. Economic inequality is growing as businesses race to maximize profits at the expense of their workers’ and suppliers’ wellbeing. We are consuming resources at horrifying rates.
We need to be cultivating our sense of enough-ness.
It is enough to build a business that sustains you. It is enough to celebrate your wins with your inner circle and forget about the press coverage. It is enough to grow in ways that are invisible to the outer world.
Maybe your business growth plan this year involves taking more vacation, personal time, or family care leave than you did last year. Maybe it looks like developing a new offering and finding the right product-market fit for it. Maybe you’re investing in some professional development, or bringing on a VA or some other form of help.
Maybe it looks like downsizing (AKA right-sizing), because you’ve learned that you don’t actually want to manage a bigger team.
Maybe your fear of growth is truly avoidance of your potential to be a great leader; maybe it’s fear of success; or maybe, it’s genuinely fear of betraying your true definition of growth.
Uh-oh. I just went there.
Yeah, so here’s the thing. “Honour your ick,” like most advice, has some limitations.
We should all honour the part of us that recoils from truly icky stuff, right? That seems right and good.
But yeah, OK. There is another “ick” that shows up sometimes, and that’s the playing-small ick, the “But I’ve never” ick, the “Who am I to?” ick. (That’s the part of us that would keep our prices close to zero, forever. And keep us from ever trying to expand our customer base. And certainly, shut down every marketing effort we might imagine.)
That ick is bullshit. So we can’t JUST honour our icks. We need to practice discernment about our ick.
Sometimes our ick is telling us, “Hey! If you do this thing, you will be betraying your values of X, Y, and Z.” And sometimes it’s just being an asshole.
We can discern the difference by asking questions like:
- What about this makes me feel icky?
- What’s the tone and texture of what I’m feeling? Is it more anxious and avoidant, or resistant and rebellious? What does that typically mean for me?
- When I am a customer and a company I buy from employs this strategy (e.g. the mailing list freebie, changing their pricing), how do I prefer that they approach it? Can I think of some examples that I really liked?
- What are the alternatives I’m considering?
- If I release the “shoulds” and status-quo thinking (i.e. “the way things are,” “what successful people/businesses do”), what do I really want?
Your ick has something to tell you: about the status quo of capitalism, about your values, about the aspects of your work that chafe–and about how there’s a way to be true to yourself, and more humane, while running a business.
If you’re interested in the questions I’ve raised here, stay tuned: there’s lots more to come. I’ve been reading and mulling and talking to other entrepreneurs about how we can shift — and are shifting — the economy into a more humane, and less damaging, mode.
I know there are people out there thinking more radically than I am about capitalism, and how to totally upend it. I’m a pragmatist, and while I think there may well be a better world coming, I do my best work around what we can do in the meantime. So I’m collecting ideas and stories about what small businesses can do to rethink status quo capitalism. And I’ll be sharing them here, and via my newsletter, which you can sign up for below.