Essays / Global
There’s no single formula for running a successful business but entrepreneurship serves up moments of insight and true discovery. Here, those at the top of their fields share what they have learnt, from the importance of harvesting opinions to the need to build brand loyalty.
Dare to be vulnerable
by Adi Goodrich
Designers are expected to have all the right answers, all of the time. Yet the most rewarding collaborations require humility and an acceptance of uncertainty.
It’s 15.00. In an hour I’ll have a meeting with a client about the interior design of a creative office for between 40 and 60 employees. I’m racing to put the final touches to my presentation.
Fifty minutes left. I think to myself, “Why did I rush into having this meeting?” In all fairness to ourselves, we have been pushing hard to get everything together in time but our ethos at the studio is to leave room for collaboration.
This project came to me via text: “Adi, I’m such a big fan. Will you design my new retail space?” The message was from a dream client, the kind you simply don’t turn down. So I agreed and then daydreamed and night-dreamed about the magic that we would create together. “Together” – that’s the most important word. This is also a huge project for a tiny creative studio like mine.
Thirty minutes left. Deep breath. We can do this. Interior design requires a lifetime of interest in materials and construction, as well as an education in how to build things first so that you can design them second. It’s the outfit that a room wears to present its best self and the backdrop to life’s key moments: falling in love, the big work meeting, a child’s memories of the home they grew up in.
It’s go time. The client is calling from Australia. For the next 40 minutes I present my ideas. In the social-media age, people often share their thoughts as soon as they think them but I believe in mystery and surprise so I’ve kept mine close. The client is anxious to see what I’ve been working on and now is the time to reveal how I’ve distilled months of conversation into a plan for a physical environment.
I don’t give options in my presentations. I choose one colour for the walls, one couch for an office, one pendant above a stairwell. I have sifted through thousands of choices; it’s my job to present a single vision. This leaves me open to criticism but that’s precisely when I thrive. This is the magic moment when collaboration happens. By presenting ideas that could miss the target, I will get to the true essence of what my client wants.
Designers who come into situations such as this with huge egos do so because they assume that they need to have all of the right answers. I disagree with that approach. It’s true that designers are hired to make good decisions but we are also here to serve as an interface between the client and the project. We facilitate creativity by presenting our ideas to be dissected.
Collaboration is ultimately a conversation and we all know that the worst kinds are one-sided. So I encourage everyone in our industry to be a little less certain, to take a few more risks and to make it known to your clients that you’re working through your ideas. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and let yourself be embarrassed. Don’t wait until you’ve landed on perfection. Instead, be confident in your uncertainties. Presenting bad ideas will sometimes lead you to the best ideas you’ll ever have, especially if you leave room for others to join in.
This rather counterintuitive ethos is summed up by one of my favourite quotations from French film-maker Michel Gondry, which has been taped on the wall beside my desk for about a decade. “Every great idea,” he said, “is on the verge of being stupid.”
About the writer: Goodrich is a Los Angeles-based artist and spatial designer who specialises in large-scale set design, site-specific installations, sculptures and interiors. An alumnus of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Sorbonne in Paris, she is a co-founder of Sing-Sing Studio.
Education, education, education
by Ruchika Sachdeva
Being the creative force of a business doesn’t excuse you from number-crunching. Keep on top of all aspects of your brand and never stop learning.
While I was studying at university, my friends and I would joke that financial struggles were a sign of creative genius. By this we meant that if your creations were commercially viable, you probably weren’t original enough. But how do you run a successful business and come up with ground- breaking designs? This was my biggest dilemma when I started my clothing label Bodice 10 years ago. Little did I know that it’s the cushion of cashflow that gives you the freedom to take risks, hire great talent and experiment.
Fashion is a creative field that thrives on ideas but in the end it’s a business. My guiding principles are data and planning. Data analysis sounds intimidating but it can be as simple as keeping a diary. Record information such as who your customer is, why they’re buying your product and how. Small details such as these can deliver valuable insights.
Running your own business requires you to educate yourself constantly. A university degree is wonderful but you need to keep learning when you step out into the real world. Entrepreneurs should know about the entire ecosystem of their business, from managing employees to accounting. You can hire people to do these things but no one knows the larger vision better than you. I’m a creative director but most of my time goes into setting up systems for other departments. I have a great team but when they’re stuck, it’s my job to step in.
No matter how well you do your homework, however, being an entrepreneur is a risky business. You should save up for rainy days and you can take loans when you need to but it’s important to have contingency plans for when everything else fails. If this happens, you’ll need to persist, find creative solutions and take tough decisions. Success is often attributed to finding a winning idea but in reality it largely depends on the execution. So always be prepared for challenges.
About the writer: Winner of the 2018 Woolmark prize, fashion designer Sachdeva is the founder of Delhi-based luxury clothing brand Bodice. Sachdeva, a graduate of the London College of Fashion, founded Bodice in 2011 with the aim of taking minimalist Indian fashion worldwide.
Don’t wait for the green light
by Ben Page
Polling shows that the global public wants bolder action on climate change. For it to happen, however, governments and businesses must take the initiative.
The climate is getting hotter. It’s not just scientists who believe this: consumers do too. According to leading market-research company Ipsos Mori, global concern about climate change has risen over the course of the pandemic. Even in the US, a country with strong undercurrents of climate-change scepticism, 73 per cent of people now believe that we are heading for disaster if we don’t act urgently. Meanwhile, 83 per cent of Germans think so; in China the figure is as high as 92 per cent. In the UK, following another summer of floods and fires around the world, spontaneous concern doubled in a few weeks from 16 per cent to 32 per cent.
If we interpret these polls literally, people all over the world are ready to act. The vast behavioural shifts that occurred over a few weeks in 2020 in response to a respiratory disease that had then killed a tiny proportion of the global population show what humanity can do when it feels threatened. Yet the challenge with climate change is that many people feel hopeless or cling to the hope that governments or technology will come to the rescue without requiring them to fundamentally alter their lives.
One problem is that we overestimate the benefits of relatively easy actions, such as recycling and reducing packaging, while underestimating the positive effects of more difficult ones, such as flying less, reducing our driving and having fewer children. Giving up meat and taking up a plant-based diet would make far more difference to an individual’s carbon footprint than eating locally produced food; however, 57 per cent of people around the world believe the opposite.
Despite consumers’ good intentions, most are also unwilling to pay more for environmentally friendly products. They expect businesses to provide them at the same price. And brands and industries don’t make it easy for us. If you go to a supermarket in the UK hoping to buy products that are less damaging, you’ll be faced with more than 85 different types of eco labels. Globally there are about 450 different eco labels.
All over the world the public wants action but is often waiting for business and political leaders to take it. The evidence suggests that there is latent permission for governments to make transformative changes but if they hold off until people vote for them, these changes will come too late. Since 2003, London has had a congestion charge: motorists must pay £15 (€17.50) to drive in the city centre. Ken Livingstone, who was mayor when the scheme was launched, introduced it without a referendum or a public vote and the idea was initially unpopular. Yet not long after it came into effect, Livingstone was re-elected with 55 per cent of the vote. The measure was seen as fair and it worked in reducing traffic. Plastic bag taxes have also been introduced all over the world with barely a murmur.
The changes that we need in the 2020s to hit net zero are more daunting: decarbonising transport and replacing gas boilers in millions of homes will be far more difficult than schemes involving plastic bags or recycling. Governments will have to step up. The question is whether they will.
About the writer: Page is chief executive of Ipsos Mori. A visiting professor at King’s College London and a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, he also sits on the economic and social research council at UK Research and Innovation and is a council member of the Confederation of British Industry.
by Megan Gibson
The post-Zuckerberg generation of entrepreneurs may have cracked the code of projecting success – but what ultimately matters is your brand’s performance.
For years, aspiring entrepreneurs looking for successful role models have consistently been offered two options by the media: the “tech bro” and the “girlboss”. The former, exemplified by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley wunderkind billionaires, was initially lauded for what he was not: a slick corporate type following the yuppie path. Tech bros were portrayed as visionaries who broke dress codes (think Zuckerberg’s grey hoodie) and forged new ways of funding and building companies. Venture capitalists, it seemed, couldn’t throw their money at them fast enough.
The girlboss evolved as a kind of counterpart to the tech bro a few years later. Pioneered by Sophia Amoruso, founder of the fashion line Nasty Gal and later Girlboss Media, the girlboss was almost always the head of a millennial-focused brand who leveraged both the ideals of second-wave feminism and the power of social media to sell themselves first and their product second. Like the tech bro, the girlboss was young and ambitious. Unlike the tech bro, however, she was almost always polished and camera-ready.
But as entrepreneurs sought to inhabit these roles, seemingly putting as much effort into crafting personal celebrity as they did into building their companies, glaring flaws became apparent in the glossy façades. The more eccentric and notorious of the tech bros, such as Wework’s Adam Neumann or Uber’s Travis Kalanick, publicly wilted as they were confronted with bad press and difficulties in turning an actual profit. A slew of girlbosses stepped down from, or were pushed out of, leadership positions in their own companies as torrents of employee complaints revealed everything from mismanagement to abuses of power and racial bullying. Too often, it seemed, publicly projecting successful personae had become the primary goal and the job of successfully running companies had been neglected.
The lesson for aspiring entrepreneurs is this: make it about the business. That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t act as the face of your company: doing so could be a smart move if it makes sense for your brand’s image. Neither does it mean that you shouldn’t look to examples of success for inspiration. But rather than looking for a ceo-turned-celebrity you’d like to emulate, think instead about which businesses you would like your company to take after. Few people want to run a company that is in chaos, could collapse at any moment and has a reputation for being built on smoke and mirrors rather than results.
So don’t follow the trend of focusing on how to sell yourself as the latest iteration of the entrepreneurial success story. Your time would be better spent first ensuring that your company has all of the elements it needs to thrive: a target market, a product that you believe in, a cracking business plan and the right team. Once your brand begins to grow, so can your profile. But rather than being an imitation of those who have come before you, you’ll be able to forge your own path and paint a new picture of a successful entrepreneur.
About the writer: Gibson is senior editor (international) at The New Statesman. A graduate of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, she was previously monocle’s foreign affairs editor and a staff writer at Time, focusing on business, politics, diplomacy, defence, urbanism and global relations.
Slow and steady
by Ana Andjelic
Quick fixes and fast cash won’t elevate brands into lasting cultural institutions. What consumers crave is a more meaningful, longer-term investment.
Like genetically modified food, GM brands are monstrous, tasteless versions of the real thing. They show up out of nowhere and grow rapidly, thanks to the steroid effects of venture capital; they reach outsized proportions before imploding or rotting away. And they follow the Silicon Valley playbook of “rapid brand-building”. This is when a company funnels its venture capital funds into a brand’s aesthetics and its tone of voice, which are then pushed relentlessly via witty blasts of PR (and are supported – equally relentlessly – by the business media). But this isn’t enough to build a lasting brand, let alone lasting brand loyalty. Everyone from budding entrepreneurs to those trying out a new venture should remember the following.
Tone of voice is not a brand
Being chatty, clever and approachable can mask the missing cultural link that ensures a brand’s durability. It can also mask the missing unique value proposition. GM brands don’t compete on the actual business value, such as technical innovation, design or product quality. US mattress company Casper’s popular riddle adverts, placed in stations across the country, did little to improve its lacklustre ipo. Tone of voice by itself is not a real, durable advantage.
Don’t confuse having a lot of followers for having a cultural voice
A cultural voice is built over years and through experience. It’s not just about telling a tale. “In the early 1990s, we were all rooted in some sort of subculture,” says Erik Brunetti, the designer behind Los Angeles-based clothing label Fuct. “For example, there was skateboarding or graffiti or punk rock. Compare that to some brands today that aren’t rooted in any subculture; they sort of appeared out of nowhere.”
PR doesn’t build brands
PR agencies aren’t in the business of brand-building, no matter how much they’d like to be or claim to be. They might optimise the brand for a cultural moment and engage in the modern version of propaganda – repeat, repeat, repeat – but they don’t have the strategic and creative know-how that is necessary to build iconic brands.
A well-executed media blitz isn’t a creative campaign
A perfectly planned rollout creates momentary awareness but rarely makes lasting brand associations. In contrast, great creative work stays with you for decades: think of vintage Coca-Cola ads, Apple ads from the 1980s and 1990s (from “1984” to “Think Different”) and Lego campaigns from any time. Their appeal is in their craft; sometimes even their art. They provide an infinite number of references and myths that assume a life of their own.
Delayed gratification is a feature, not a bug
Performance marketing and paid social-media carpet-bombing, no matter how well targeted, do not create the kinds of human connections that all truly durable brands have. A quick rush of sales after a social-media campaign or a stunt should be interpreted not as a sign of a positive return on investment but as an inverse measure of brand loyalty.
A successful brand has genuine empathy for a particular group
Many brand founders – for example, those of Dôen, East Fork and Fly by Jing – are members of their target audience. They respond to the gap that exists between what this audience looks for and what the market is offering. The outcome is that people recognise the brand as unique.
A good brand asks what would be missing if it didn’t exist
Often the answer to this question redefines a category, expands it or creates a new category altogether. If cosmetics brand Fenty Beauty didn’t exist, many women and men wouldn’t have access to a foundation that exactly matches their skin tone. Companies with a clear idea of their role in the world, such as Fenty, Ikea and Veja, can achieve a far larger growth in brand value than companies that are focused purely on profit generation.
GM brands ultimately do very little for the wider culture or for their company’s long-term business. Without its cultural connections, Coca-Cola is just carbonated water and syrup. Today’s venture- capital time horizons make it difficult for the next generation of Coke-level legends to emerge and establish themselves. What we get instead are equivalents of Coke Life: churned out, gimmicky and quickly forgotten.
About the writer: Named as one of the world’s most influential cmos by Forbes magazine last year, Andjelic is a brand executive and the author of The Business of Aspiration. She specialises in building modern, brand-driven companies and runs a weekly newsletter called The Sociology of Business.
In it for the long haul
by Pete Davis
Keeping our options open has become a way of life, but the magnitude of the challenges we now face demands a sustained commitment to our goals.
It’s an experience that we’ve all had, especially during lockdown. Night falls and you start browsing Netflix, looking for something to watch. You scroll through different titles and even read a few reviews but you just can’t commit to anything. Suddenly you realise that it’s been more than 30 minutes and you’re stuck in infinite-browsing mode. So you just give up. You’re too tired to watch anything now. You cut your losses and go to bed.
Infinite browsing is an apt metaphor for our time, which is the age of keeping our options open. Polish philosopher Zygmunt Bauman called it “liquid modernity”: we never want to commit to any one identity, place or project, so we remain like liquid in a state that can adapt to fit any shape.
Browsing and the flexibility and novelty that it brings can be thrilling. But we should be careful. Keeping our options open for too long will lead to unhappiness. Nobody wants to be stuck behind a locked door but equally nobody wants to live in a hallway either. It’s great to have options when you lose interest in something but, as American psychologist Barry Schwartz notes in The Paradox of Choice, the more options we have and the more times we jump from possibility to possibility, the less satisfied we are with any given option. And the experiences we ultimately desire the most aren’t rushes of novelty but deep, simple joys: the perfect Tuesday dinners with old friends, the quiet afternoons honing a craft, the feeling of creative flow when you hit your stride at work.
We encourage the young to keep their options open, particularly when it comes to their careers. Yet the people who end up earning our respect are often those who ignored that advice. It’s the long-haul heroes, those who have taken the radical act of committing themselves to particular projects over an extended period, who capture our admiration. Nearly everything that we cherish today originated in an effort that was sustained over many years. Healing a community, rectifying an injustice, revitalising a town, solving a tough puzzle, launching a start-up: all of these things come slowly. Meanwhile, the singular moments that Hollywood likes to celebrate – the epic speeches, the dramatic confrontations, the sudden flashes of insight – rarely move the needle in the real world.
There might be a cinematic moment at the end of some long hauls but it often looks less like waving a sword at a dragon than a well-tended garden finally blooming. Folk singer Pete Seeger liked to talk about long-haul projects through the parable of a large seesaw. One side of it is planted firmly on the ground, weighed down by heavy boulders. The other side is in the air with an empty basket on top. A small group patiently works to fill the basket with sand, one teaspoon at a time. A crowd of people who are watching scoff because nothing seems to be happening. But the whole seesaw will one day flip, not little by little but suddenly. People will ask, “How did it happen?” The answer, Seeger explains, is all those teaspoons over all those years.
Despite our admiration for people who have clicked out of infinite-browsing mode, many of us have difficulty following suit. Three fears seem to account for this hesitation. First, we have a fear of regret. We worry that if we commit to something, we’ll later regret having not committed to something else. Second, we have a fear of association. We assume that if we commit to something, we will be vulnerable to the chaos that this commitment will bring to our identity, reputation and sense of control. Finally, we have a fear of missing out. We are afraid that the responsibilities that come with commitment will prevent us from being everything, everywhere, with everyone.
If you choose to let such fears dominate you, you might be fine – at least for a while. You might even make flashy headlines for riding the waves of liquid modernity, surfing from one hot new thing to another. But our time calls for courage. There are so many big problems to solve, institutions to rebuild and breaches to repair today. And perhaps the biggest barrier to tackling these challenges is that there are simply not enough people willing to set forth on and sustain the decades-long journeys that are necessary to address them. To put it another way, our increasingly liquid world needs more solid people.
But here’s the good news: long hauls aren’t necessarily ordeals. Dedicated people will tell you that on the other side of the fear of regret is the serenity of purpose; on the other side of the fear of association is the comfort of community; and on the other side of the fear of missing out is the power of depth. Good work gets deeper and deeper, sweeter and sweeter, with every day in and day out, year in and year out.
There’s no better time than now to click out of infinite-browsing mode. This is the moment to begin to experience what American poet Jack Gilbert once called “the beauty that is of many days, steady and clear... the normal excellence of long accomplishment”.
About the writer: Davis is a writer and civic advocate from Falls Church, Virginia. He is a co-founder of Getaway, a start-up company that designs and provides cabins for woodland escapes, and the author of Dedicated: The Case for Commitment in an Age of Infinite Browsing.
Out of adversity
by Kunlé Adeyemi
Nigeria might not be renowned as a business hub but it offers plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurial growth – especially if you’re an architect.
Doing business in Nigeria’s biggest city can be challenging. Lagos is congested and competitive and there’s always a lot of resistance when you’re trying to get anything done. For example, you might expect there to be some minimum infrastructure to help people get on with their lives but that’s not the case here. Instead, you’re constantly having to deal with a variety of simple challenges.
When I explain this to people who are unfamiliar with the city, I say, ‘Imagine waking up to find that there’s no power.’ You try to turn on your generator only to realise that you’re out of petrol. So you go out to buy some but the petrol station is closed. And when you try to make a phone call to fix the situation, you find out that the network is down.
Lagos is huge and highly competitive. There’s a scarcity of the kinds of infrastructure that you might take for granted in many other parts of the world, such as transport, health, education and technology. These factors, together with all the small day-to-day challenges, have encouraged people to find ways of going around things. They have to make the best of what they have.
This has built resilience in the people of this city. You’re always thinking of multiple solutions to every problem. Lagos is not about making fixed plans and then executing them. It is about analysing possibilities and trying to make the right choices as you go along. While that isn’t guaranteed to make you a good businessperson, it will at the very least make you tenacious.
All of this generates vibrancy and fosters ingenuity. And it creates an environment in which you can truly innovate. Working as an architect, you see this in the way that people here use space. Public space is sometimes treated almost as though it were privatised and seemingly every inch of the land is used in one way or another. There’s no waste.
If you look at my work on “water cities”, which began in the lagoon-side Makoko community in Lagos, you will see how the people there have occupied such a zone. A scarcity of land in the area has led people to adopt watery spaces as places of urban living. While some would consider the idea of living on the water in this way to be a problem, we saw it instead as a challenge – an opportunity to innovate and to create something that would improve the existing situation, all while learning from those who had already built hundreds of homes in the area.
Lagos, then, is a place where we can still add critical value in a way that would help to spur development and make better forms of civilisation. We have a rich history in Africa that we can tap into but we have also seen what has been successful and what has failed in developments in the West. There is potential here to learn from other parts of the world and make improvements.
In many cities in the West, development is often about reappropriating and rethinking what has already been built. In the global south, there is more focus on the new built environment. Lagos now has the option of doing something new. But, hopefully, we’ll do it completely differently.
About the writer: Nigerian-born architect Adeyemi studied at Lagos and Princeton universities before going on to work for Rem Koolhaas at oma. This gave him a foundation in research and design that allowed him to launch his own practice, nlé, in 2010. He is based in Amsterdam and Lagos.
Images: Nikolai Senin (Parkol Design)