By Dave Sharp, ~4.5 min read.
Everett Rogers, a communications expert, wrote the bible on product adoption in his 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations. In it, he explained the five stages an innovation goes through on its journey to becoming a household name:
An idea begins with a small, forward-thinking group, then it slowly goes mainstream via four main elements: the objective value of the innovation, communication channels, time and a social system.
In short: Do good work. Talk about your work. Wait. Meet new people.
That is super simple right? However, I understand what it's like to be an ambitious, controlling person who refuses to think long-term or leave things to chance; who makes simple things complicated just to feel challenged and productive rather than redundant and bored. In the first two years of my business, I threw out my business model on a weekly basis. My positioning was whatever I thought people wanted to pay for. I was different for every client. I got to the stage where if I was in a meeting and noticed a client perk up at the idea of a certain service, I'd rush home and rebuild my website. One week I was a Facebook ad agency. Then a copywriting agency. Then an Instagram specialist. I was like a van driving around town with a pile of magnetic signs in the back, slapping up something new every time. When that became a confusing mess, I tried putting up all of the signs at once - "I do everything for everyone."
Eventually, I decided the paint the damn van.
I learnt that you really just need to choose a thing and focus.
Stick to it.
The leap from early adopters to the early majority, from non-architects to the general public, is the part where we all get stuck. It's known as "crossing the chasm". In hindsight, I can see that my crappy positioning was just an attempt to avoid the truth: I was scared of the leap from my own personal network to the rest of the industry.
I was scared of the chasm.
It's an intimidating name because it's where most firms lose momentum and fail. It's the dangerous stage plenty of my clients are at when they seek out my consulting services. They've survived through the first few years of their firm's life just by tapping their personal network. Their small, forward-thinking, highly innovative projects have started a wildfire in the industry–but their work is still misunderstood or ignored by the mainstream, the non-architect.
The level of hype around their firm and their monthly invoices are worlds apart. When they approach me to work on their marketing, there's a dead giveaway that they're panicking at the edge of the chasm. "We've been doing great, as you know, with residential clients - but we want to start breaking into larger public and commercial..." I respond: "Okay, so who are you interested in targeting in the public and commercial space?"
They reply: "... forward-thinking, innovative decision-makers."
Notice what happened there? Facing the chasm, the moment where their work is just about to reach the non-architect, the early-majority–they turn back and look for safe harbour amongst the innovators. Moreover, terrified of repetition, they want to do something totally different to the thing that got them where they are today.
They approach the chasm by jettisoning their positioning, audience, and portfolio that they have been building consistently since the day they decided to start their own firm. They're busy scraping the paint off the side of their van just when they need to be painting on a fresh coat. Don't throw out the game-plan when you're winning at half time. Crossing the chasm is about refining your positioning, saying no to certain opportunities, and ramping up your communications to spread the word.
Why don't creative people stick to the plan?
In any other domain of professional service, an expert will seek out repetition and specialisation. By doing the same sort of thing over and over again, you begin to recognise the patterns, and this intelligence helps you to do a better job for your clients. You develop competency and efficiency. Word begins to spread. Position that intelligence around an appropriately sized niche and your business becomes un-interchangeable and thrive.
So why do creative professionals, and architects in particular, only get excited when they're faced with a brief to do something they've never done before? And more importantly, why do we see that as the bridge that will give us safe passage over the chasm from early adopters to early majority? Survivorship bias reminds us of famous architects who did lots of different things and somehow rose to the top. Frank Gehry renovated his house, then did the Guggenheim, right?
Ignore Frank, and starchitects like him. They're the exception that proves the rule. You don't hear about the thousands of firms who slowly went out of business because they couldn't focus. Effective professionals, the ones who make the most money and have the biggest impact, carve out a groove and perfect what they do. Effective professionals do good work, talk about it, wait, meet new people and repeat.
It's really that simple.
Dave Sharp is our first regular contributor and the founder of Vanity Projects, a social media marketing agency for entrepreneurial architecture firms. Dave’s Master's degree in architecture and work in small practices in Australia and Japan have helped him to gain a broad perspective on the architecture industry that allows him to see trends and opportunities that most people don’t and help his clients benefit from it.
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