How did you develop your skills to think so deeply and distill advice so cleanly and precisely? What sorts of practice did you undergo to get your mind to that point?
Akash T., VV Subscriber
I received this flattering note earlier this week, and I figured I’d start at the beginning. This’ll be a reasonably long post, and I’ve never written this down before, so please excuse what will likely be a long-winded story:
I stumbled into a graphic design career after trying my luck at a few jobs straight out of school, from assembling cars at a Honda factory to working as an account manager at a commercial print company. There was a beautifully crafted design magazine we printed for one of our clients that caught my eye on a lunch break, and I decided I wanted to be a graphic designer there and then. (I also wasn’t much of a people person, and didn’t enjoy calling people to tell them their 5,000,000 flyers were going to be delivered a week late.)
Fast forward a bit, I scraped my way into university on a “Graphic Communication” course by submitting some dodgy Photoshop sketches I made after a nightshift at the Honda factory. I was by far the least qualified student in my class, as the only one who hadn’t undertaken the “compulsory” year of foundational art study.
I was a reasonably bad student my entire life, with an incredibly short attention span and a mild distain for authority. This changed slightly during my university years when I began to realize it’d be beneficial to get good at something beyond bolting exhausts onto Honda Civics.
So I gave it a good crack - and managed to graduate with honors while spending an excessive amount of time “investing” in my social skills. Without a doubt some of the best years of my life.
A few things I picked up here:
“Make your mistakes on other peoples dime.” — Some advice I received from a student that graduated a couple of years before me. I took his advice, but still managed to make some very expensive mistakes (more on that later).
“Put yourself in an environment where you have to compete.” — I lived with 7 lads who took the same course as me. A constant barrage of banter, criticism and oneupmanship played a massive part in my development.
“When I look at this work, I can tell it’s yours. You should change it up a bit.” — This was offered to me as a critique multiple times. My instinct was to ignore it, and I’m glad I did - it’s pretty impossible (and a massive waste of energy) to develop skills in opposition to what comes naturally.
After graduating, I jumped straight into the job race, eventually landing an internship in London for a small digital agency named Underdog, which was fitting - all of the projects they were working on when I arrived were vastly beyond my experience.
What I learned here:
Fundamentals don’t change. — I hadn’t built a responsive website or a digital product during my time at university, but quickly realized it didn’t really matter. Layout is layout. People are people.
Say yes, then figure it out. — There hasn’t been an occasion where this approach hasn’t served me well, yet. It’s even more applicable now than it was 10 years ago.
The world is a big place, and most risks aren’t actually risky. — I’d built a quality set of relationships and was learning a lot, but left after a short period of time after learning some friends of mine were headed to New York for three months. I could always come back if it went horribly wrong.
I was 5 days out from a flight to New York without much of a plan. A lot of my friends had planned and travelled before or after university and I decided I wasn’t going to bother - a wrong that I had decided to right by quitting a great job and taking a completely unplanned three month trip to one of the world’s most expensive cities, without any money.
I applied for upward of 100 internships on Craigslist a few days before take-off and got one response. I started three days later.
I spent 90 days working 6 days a week for brands that I had no business being anywhere near: Ford, Ralph Lauren, and a handful of boutique fashion houses.
What I learned here:
Be grateful for people who care enough about to you tell you you’re not good enough. — I owe an enormous amount to my first mentor, who’d make sure the work was always as good as it could be before it went out the door. Even if it meant staying in the office til the trains weren’t running. (Quite a feat in Manhattan.)
Don’t shit on your own work. — On one occasion I approached a creative review saying “I’m not sure I like this” or something to that effect, the response “If you don’t think it’s good enough then what the hell am I supposed to think?”
Build all the skills required to sell an idea. — My boss was an incredibly talented writer, designer, art director and strategist, his ability multiplied the value of the work he touched massively. I still know phenomenal designers to this day that have plateaued in their careers because they refuse to develop additional skills.
After two years, my mentor moved on to a huge opportunity and I transferred to an in-house position with one of our clients. Not a particularly sexy brand and a team of one.
What I learned:
If it feels wrong, it probably is. — I don’t regret the time I spent here, but also have never regretted leaving soon after I realized there was little room for growth. If you’re trying to develop and you have no one to learn from, you’re likely an ingredient in a classic recipe for mediocrity.
The next chapter was a gig at a massive digital agency. 11,000 global employees, 50 offices, I blagged my way through an interview with very little digital experience compared to the field of talent I was up against.
After getting the job I realized I was particularly out of my depth - tasked with redesigning huge digital ecosystems that required hundreds of versions of pixel perfect assets, pitching multi-million dollar projects to Fortune 100 brands. Still, I got stuck in and stayed at my desk until the work was good enough to go out the door. (Spoiler alert: most people don’t.)
What I learned:
The people that intimidate you don’t really know what they’re doing either. — After giving a few decent presentations and getting peoples heads nodding, you realize that the only real reason to be intimidated is if you’re unprepared.
Reputation is everything. — When people know they can count on you to do what you say, you can cherry pick your opportunities. More on this later.
More competition = Faster development. — Competing across teams, offices and geographies was a massive catalyst for growth.
Story is an incredibly powerful tool. — Once you’re able to articulate a story that can persuade someone to write a seven-figure check, you really focus on developing that skill.
Details matter. — I used to fight relentlessly (and create a lot more work for myself) by insisting on making things right, no matter how small.
Stay full-stack (relative to your craft). — For me, that means always striving to be a better writer, speaker, designer, strategist, teacher and student. Being self-sufficient when you need to be gives you a massive amount of confidence and leverage.
After a few years of the above at agencies of various sizes, I was beginning to realize that I wanted to start using everything I’d learned to build and run a business of my own.
It’s been almost 18 months since I started Opponent, and they’ve been by far the most significant of my personal and professional development.
I started guns blazing, one massive corporate account with a healthy budget — which I proceeded to blow, aggressively. I took on a number of small projects, some great, some terrible. In the new year, I took stock and started to reign things in.
Visualize Value has been my focus for the last 6 months. It’s somewhat of a perfect storm. First, by allowing me build solutions to complex problems, making me a better designer and strategist. Second, by developing a brand that has connected me to wonderful people like yourself, making me a better writer, student and teacher.
What I’ve learned as a relatively new business owner:
There really is no substitute for experience. — I have read stacks of books, paid mentors, taken courses, and planned projects relentlessly. I still find myself making mistakes that I’ve been made explicitly aware of. It’s only when they sting you properly that you don’t forget.
Figure out what you’re REALLY good at. — If you want to stay small, (and I do) offering everything you’re capable of doing is the quickest way to ruin. Most people overlook this, because it’s completely unnatural to say no to things that you can make money on. This’ll have to be a separate email with more detail.
Work on yourself relentlessly. — I used to have a shorter temper than I’d like to admit, blowing up over idiotic things outside of my control. Anger might be the most useless emotion when it comes to anything business related, do what it takes to control it and everything changes.
Understand and articulate the transformation you can provide. — When I started my business, I didn’t really solve a problem, I could kind of solve this, kind of help with that. I’m unsure if there’s a way to fast track that process, but I’d be happy to help you figure it out if that sounds like where you’re at.
I hope that gives some insight into the question at the top of this email — if I had to summarize it I’d say this: for me, it’s been a product of working on a lot of different problems, selling a lot of different solutions to a lot of different people.
The process is different for everyone, and I’m happy to answer any more questions you have about mine.
Yours in pursuit of value,
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