It’s Not About What You Do, It’s About How You Do It!

The last time we talked about the plight of the creative entrepreneur, we discussed that the first step towards creative freedom meant each of us knowing our “why”. I pushed you to go about understanding your why so that you had a better gauge against which to test potential projects, clients and partners. However, although knowing your why is clearly the first step that you should take, it is not the only step you’ll need to take in order to reach entrepreneurial freedom. The next phase you’ll want to move into is that of defining how you accomplish your why, and then using this how to define, very clearly, what services you provide to your clients. Knowing your “hows” and “whats” will make it very easy to pick projects, clients and partners, but more importantly, knowing these will help you to understand your true value, which is critical to helping you to set your price. But, for now, let’s just focus on how.

When we answer the question “what services do you provide?” based off automatic industry responses, it means that we are likening ourselves to every other person who does the same type of work that we do.

How vs. What
Currently, many of us know what it is we do. The answer to this question can seem easy. I design websites so I provide photoshop comps. I am a front end developer so I provide HTML, CSS and JavaScript solutions. I’m an Information Architect so I provide user flows. The list goes on. However, how many of you have really stopped to think about the services you provide, in detail? How many of you are answering the question “What services do you provide?” automatically, based off what everyone else in your industry or field is doing? How many of you are unique, thoughtful and purposeful in your answers? My guess is, not many, and this causes us creative entrepreneurs some big problems.

The first big problem is that, when we answer the question “what services do you provide?” based off automatic industry responses, it means that we are likening ourselves to every other person who does the same type of work that we do. Doing this means you are not differentiating yourself and your business in any way. You are, in effect, making yourself a cog in a system instead of a huge value add over your competition. Now, this isn’t to say that you need to go harder, be more competitive than and be more cut throat about getting business than all the other creative entrepreneurs like yourself out there. It means that there are great projects out there for all creative entrepreneurs, and therefore our aim should be to find the projects, clients and partners that are the exact best fit for us. Therefore we have to be very specific about what we do in order to find the better matches with clients and projects.

The second problem that occurs when we answer these types of questions generically is that we bring down the brand of our entire industry. This has happened a great deal with creative entrepreneurs that are focused in the technology sector (I.e. Developers and designers). Business people or executives look at us all as part of a technology assembly line. We are all replaceable with some other developer or designer. Thus the overall value of our work, as a collective, goes down. This drives prices for people working in the industry down, but more importantly these low prices reflect how people view our value overall. In short, by being generic we make what we do, as an industry, seem like a low value add to companies that need our help.

Defining Your “How” Defines Value
How can we solve these problems and make our work as individuals and as a community a higher value add? I mentioned it before. We need to get specific about How we do our work. Referring again to Mr. Sinek’s golden circle, we need to move into the next portion after Why, to How. Mr. Sinek describes the How layer to us by saying “it’s your differentiating value proposition or your proprietary process or your USP (unique selling proposition)”. How I interpreted that for my own business was that whereas my Why is the purpose behind what I do, my How is the process that I use to get to my why. Further, my how should be what makes me different from others that do similar work.

I saw myself being different from other consultants who do the work I do by figuring out where the business need, user need and technology complexity cross each other in a client’s problem space.

For example, in the last piece I defined my Why as “To no longer create products and services that are useless, or that create little value for others, but instead to create products and services that help enrich and bring meaning to people’s lives.”.

From that Why, I defined my How (my differentiator) as “By unearthing for businesses the mystery of creating contextual, connective, intuitive and meaningful products and services that are successful for their business and desired by their users. This includes not only surfacing and making clear the intersection of business needs, user needs and technology complexities, but also helping businesses to set forth a strategy for which products and services to create, for who, and when to create them.”

It’s long, I know. But more simply put, I saw myself being different from other consultants who do the work I do by figuring out where the business need, user need and technology complexity cross each other in a client’s problem space. From there I create a solution that is contextual, connective, and meaningful for everyone in that intersection. I don’t see many other consultants doing that. More than just your differentiator, defining your How is literally defining how you do what you do. It’s taking the time to think about your process and approach to your work, not just thinking about What you do, but thinking about How you do it.

Once you have defined your How, then and only then can your Whats make sense. For example, many consultants like me (Strategy and Information Architecture consultants) would say that what they do are things like conduct user research, model problems, model solutions, create user personas, sketch wireframes, etc. However, after I sat down and thought about my How, my Whats changed. This is what I came up with, and when people ask me What I do I now say something like:

  1. Understand and agree on the problem(s) or gaps.
  2. Understand the context in which business is done, technology is used, and users are acting.
  3. Bring to light the content and understanding that is missing in these contexts.
  4. Set forth a game plan for filling in the missing pieces.
  5. Execute and iterate on the plan.
  6. Rinse and repeat.

Of course I still do things like user research and wireframes to accomplish my work, but selling myself that way makes me, and consultants like me, sound like cogs and not humans. You can see how answering the “What do you do” question with something like what I have here, makes my work way more valuable to my clients.

The outcomes of us defining our How and Whats in this new way, are that we differentiate ourselves from those like us, and this is a good thing. Getting really specific about what differentiates you as a creative entrepreneur allows you to get clients and projects that are a much better fit, and to find partners to work with that compliment your unique style.

It Comes Down to Uniqueness
Going along with this, you get to express your unique style. We are, afterall, creative entrepreneurs. There is a part of all of us that is unique, and we are always wanting to express this. Doing so as a creative entrepreneur isn’t just about expressing your uniqueness through your outputs, but also through the way that you DO the actual work. You start to see that your creative side can be applied to your business, and this is what will ultimately lead not just to work life balance, but work life integration (more to come on that later in the series!)

Lastly, by defining how you do you work, and what you actually provide in this way, you start to clearly see the value you bring, and your new viewpoint is usually much much different that what you originally thought. This is what will lead you to not only creative freedom, but financial freedom as well.

Thus, we’ve seen that defining our how and whats in detail is the next step we creative entrepreneurs need to take. Probably the most important reason why is that by doing so you set yourself up to understand the value you can provide from the what you do and how you do it. From there pricing your work becomes a breeze (or at least a light wind), and so does finding the right clients, projects and partners. As we move forward in the next part of our series we’ll talk about just that, knowing the real value of your services in order to price yourself, raise your rates and find the balance that allows you to stay creative while being entrepreneurial. Until then remember it’s not just what you do, it’s how you do it!

About the Author Lis Hubert is a New York City-based independent information architecture and user experience consultant whose present & past clients include ESPN Mobile, espnW, Viacom Media Networks, and NewsCorp. She has spoken at conferences around the world on topics ranging from user experience to independent consulting, and is also a frequent contributor to the UX community’s knowledge base, writing for publications such as UX Matters and teaching industry classes for resources such as More by this Author