The Biggest Mistake I’ve Made (To Date)
This post is mostly for me, but I hope it helps someone in the future.
Let me be clear: I made it happen. I was the one who identified the opportunity and saw a positive outcome. Now, close to 3 years later, it’s hard to argue with the data. I was wrong.
In 2015 my company Assembly Digital started working on a few projects with Clou Studio. I saw a possibility to merge and form a digital-first branding studio. After much discussion, some negotiation, and plenty of convincing, we all shook hands. Palms was born. There were 6 of us, all partners — more on this later.
Our first year was great; the majority of work that came through the door was the right work. We were busy enough to hire a few full-time staff. We were making an impact for our clients and figuring out the direction of the business. We were experiencing our opportunity and felt we were close to harnessing our potential.
Shortly after our first year, some cracks began to show. In hindsight, it’s obvious what happened. We merged two companies that had distinct focuses (digital + design). We increased the complexity of our offering and, as such, diffused our focus. We were spending more time explaining what we didn’t do rather than what we did. We also weren’t catering to our unique talents. We had overhead and payroll to meet and inevitably had to say “yes” a few times when we should have said “no.” Another undeniable reality became evident after our first year: the data pointed to the market needing more digital work than branding work.
“When you change how you look at things, the things you look at change.” Max Planck
In theory, a digital-first branding studio should work. Over the 3 years I was running Assembly, clients asked me many times to help with their branding. After putting our theory into practice, I now realize there’s only one reason those conversations happened. It was because my clients understood what I did. They knew that I cared about their businesses and trusted me to continue helping them reach their goals. Once we merged and tried to pitch branding and digital from the get-go, we learned it was too much, too soon.
Life is About Constant Learning
I believe we each have a set of principles. Some are aware of these principles and develop them, some follow them intuitively. When it comes to my principles, I continue to refine. A couple that relate to this post are:
“Everyone is awesome, until they’re not.”
What I mean is this: I start relationships with a positive outlook and hope whoever I’m engaging with is equally interested in advancing our mutual goal. In my experience, there are people who want to help themselves more than genuinely want to help others. I get it, I’ve had times when I had to prioritize my needs. It’s not awesome, but I’m not perfect either. By having the view that “everyone is awesome,” each situation starts from a positive. That gives everyone — and every project — the best chance to succeed.
Another principle that has evolved over the past few years is:
“Good design is good design.”
I believed that a good designer could operate at a high level, no matter the discipline. Product, packaging, print, digital: the core principles of design should result in success. I no longer believe this, and I was definitely naive to think that way. Digital, as with every design discipline, is very complicated. Designing amazing interfaces takes commitment. Moving forward, I’ll be making sure a designer’s discipline matches the outcome of everything I work on.
Over the course of running Palms, I learned that decisions have to happen quickly. With 6 partners in the business, the decision-making process was complicated. Design, whether user experience, product, user interface, or otherwise, needs to have an opinion. Without an opinion there is no expert insight and effectiveness is diluted. In other words, what you’re producing will try to be everything to everyone but will end up being nothing to nobody. The same applies to running a business. A business needs to be opinionated, and these opinions need to be consistent. Consistency is harder with each decision-maker added. I’ve found that reinforcing your opinion by proving it with your work leads to increased confidence. The more confident you are in your opinion, the more right you feel you are in holding that opinion. Truth is, you’re never really “right.” You’re just further away from being wrong; this is still a good goal.
Not All Mistakes Are Bad
Even though Palms represents the biggest mistake I’ve made, I’m farther ahead than if I hadn’t made it happen. I’m grateful to my past business partners that I’m able to say that. Without them, and our combined teamwork, the past 3 years would have been an incredible waste of time. We’re all moving forward with our heads held high. We have a body of work we’re proud of and have improved our situations.
“To get what you want, you have to deserve what you want.” Charles Munger
I’m also grateful to say I’ve improved in some specific areas:
I’ve become a better leader
My emotional intelligence leveled up 10x
I’ve become a better communicator (thank you, MB)
My negotiation skills have improved; To me, it’s a conversation, rather than a negotiation
I’m more aware
I have a clear understanding of how the digital tools I build relate to all parts of my client’s business
I understand that committing to technical solutions too early can limit the value of the product we’re creating (thank you, RG)
I learned a ton about branding and packaging (thanks, TC & RR)
I became a much better writer (thank you, RM)
“You will think you have failed — but that won’t be true unless you give up.” Ray Dalio
What am I going to do with everything I’ve learned? This post is part of the plan: acknowledge and own my mistakes. Be humble and public about my learnings. I’m simplifying my focus. There continues to be a huge opportunity for businesses to connect with their customers via digital channels. To earn trust through awesome customer experiences and use data to lead decisions. I’m going to continue to refine my opinion and share it more often. As always, I’m going to stay positive — it’s how I’m programmed. Compared to the day I started my business, I’m now so much more valuable to those I work with.
Honestly, this post is mostly for me, but I hope it helps someone in the future. If you or someone you know is considering making a change or questioning a decision they made that their gut is saying was wrong, it’s awesome to admit that you were wrong. It’s okay. It’s going to work out for the best. Have the confidence to tell everyone around you that, even though it’s hard, you made a mistake, and you’re making a change for the better.