Why Creative Enterprises Need Strategy Too

Running a creative enterprise is hard. On the one hand, you’re grappling with creative challenges like figuring out how to do your best work, and defining your creative identity and vision. On the other hand, you also have to deal with the challenges of running a business: dealing with competition; defining, finding and engaging your audience; managing cashflow; managing people; promoting your service or product… the list goes on and on. Running a creative business means having to manage both the creative process, the business process, and the balance between the two.

In my 10+ years in the creative industry, it’s been my experience that creative enterprises tend to spend most of their time on the creative side of the business. The business side, and especially working out a strategy for running and growing the business, is treated as secondary to the creative process. In some cases, it’s even seen as an impediment to the creative process. The reasoning is usually something like this:

“We’re too small to be thinking about strategy”

“A strategy is too rigid, we need to be opportunistic”

“Plans are always outpaced by reality”

“Being too commercial hurts the creative process”

I’ve heard all of these verbatim. Do any of them sound familiar? In each of them, business strategy is painted as something useless or even dangerous. Businesses that think like this are usually not doing as well as they’d like to be. They’re either not reaching their goals, or they’re growing much slower than they thought they would. They’re not seeing the success they set out to accomplish.

Of course, the opposite is possible too: companies that are all business and strategy, and not enough creativity. In reality, the most successful creative enterprises I know have a solid grasp on both the creative process as well as their business strategy. Focusing on their craft allows them to make the best product, service or art they can. And by actively working on their strategy they ensure that they are seeing clearly how their enterprise, their product or service, fits into the bigger picture. This allows them to take full control and make conscious, explicit decisions regarding the direction of their company. In these companies, the creative influences the strategic, and where necessary, the strategic influences the creative.

For this reason, I believe that all creative enterprises benefit from having at least some form of strategy. A solid strategy helps you work towards your goals more intentionally. It shapes your options and choices, helping you to decide what to do and, often more importantly, what not to do. In effect, having a strategy decreases your odds of failing, and increases your odds of success.

How does strategy help you reach your goals?

Any enterprise is inherently risky. You dedicate time and money to realize an idea that will hopefully generate outsize rewards down the road, but that outcome is forever uncertain. This uncertainty carries risk. Generally speaking, a strategy is a set of guiding principles that frame company decision making, aimed at achieving one or more long-term or overall goals under conditions of uncertainty. Uncertainty means risk, and strategy is a way to manage that risk.

By managing risk, you increase the odds of reaching your goals. On a spectrum that runs from total ruin to unimaginable success, at the very least your goal should be to avoid total ruin. From there, your ambitions may vary. Maybe you dream of hosting the world’s most famous podcast. Or maybe you just want the financial freedom to spend more time on your art without worrying about bills. Whatever your goal, having a strategy in mind to reach that goal will increase your chances of getting there. Henry Kissinger famously warned us for the alternative: “If you don’t know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere.

Now, I’m not saying you should immediately block half of your agenda for endless strategy sessions, discussing trend forecasts and developing parallel 5-year contingency plans. That’s probably overkill. But I do advise that you develop a broad idea of where you want to end up. Think about the most important points of leverage in your company, and how best to use them. Consider the options available to you, and reflect on why you are making certain choices, and not others. In doing so, you make it easier to learn and adapt, and make better and better choices on your way to your goals. The alternative, simply working hard and hoping for a big break, is not very likely to get you where you want to go.

In summary, strategy is important in the first place to avoid failure. Beyond that, strategy allows you to increase your chances of success, however you have defined success for your enterprise. The trick for creative enterprises is to develop and use strategy in ways that support the creative process, instead of limiting or even impeding it. How do you do that?

Adapting strategy to creative enterprises

Certainly, a lot of the available business literature is perhaps overly concerned with creating shareholder value. A business is considered successful when it generates lots of profit, with profit being the end that justifies all means. If you’re in the creative industry, you likely have a different definition of success. There’s a good chance you’re not in it to become a multi-billionare, but you simply want to make something worthwhile, something valuable.

This doesn’t mean that the principles and best practices in business literature do not apply to creative enterprises. But they might need a little tweaking to make them more supportive of the creative process, and the creative mindset. To put creativity first, rather than profit.

I’m going to use this blog to examine the strategy tools and principles I consider to be the most important, and the most useful, for creative enterprises. I’m going to look at all of them through the lens of someone who has worked in the creative industry for more than ten years, and who understands that in this industry, the creative process and the value it creates is often just as important as profit. Where necessary, I’ll adapt these models to better accommodate and support the needs of creative enterprises. I believe the resulting tool set can be of tremendous help to creative enterprises looking to improve their business.

If you’re a creative entrepreneur, I hope you’ll follow along and let me know which challenges you hope to tackle. I’m sure there’s a model, principle or technique somewhere that we can adapt to creative enterprises like yours.

If you happen to be versed in business and strategy, I’m very curious which management and strategy models you’d recommend for creative enterprises.

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