“Let go of yourself.”
When you speak, you don’t imagine yourself being quoted. Doubly not, when it’s because you’re tongue tied, you’ve gone off script, and the words just rattle out of your head. But Carla Ten Eyck made it a tweet for the world to see.
“Let go of yourself.”
It didn’t mean much at the time, but I think Carla knew something I didn’t.
See, up until September of last year, I had never even heard of the Inspire Retreat, and now for the past three days, I was not only an attendee, but a speaker. And like all things new and foreign, you’re a little bit anxious. Anxious about what you’ll say, what you’ll do, whether you can make it all work. But more than anything, about All. Those. People. Where you’ll eat. Who you’ll talk to. What everyone is going to be like.
Will it be high school all over again? Will there be the cool kids and the outcasts and the rockstars and the egos? The thought sent shivers down my spine.
But that first night, as Carla delivered her keynote, it all came into focus. In brave, bold, and raw words, she showed something beautiful. She cut herself open and let her life spill out for all of us, and it became clear that the conference was exactly about letting go of yourself.
It was not the egos and the cliques and the who is better than who. As I watched and the days passed, I saw this retreat was about community and about love. About letting yourself go, not in the simple, practical way I had conceived of it as I uttered the words, but as nourishment and growth. As letting go of limitation and doubt and as a necessary step to becoming tomorrow’s you.
We are a community on the edge. These are hard times to be sure. Budgets have evaporated, the market is overheated, crowded, and full, and so much of the magic has been reduced to formula. It is a fight to survive.
And we are fighting. I heard so many stories of life being lived. Of fights being fought. Of standing up and being counted amidst the challenge of children and family and work and a market that doubts your value more than it ever has.
But it can’t only be a fight. It can’t only be survival. It has to be more.
Inspire was exactly that more.
As small business owners, we live a solitary existence. There is a wonder and brilliance in a life that’s yours. Where you dare to make the world your own. But there’s a loneliness in the day-to-day fights.
Inspire was a sledgehammer to this isolation. There were no sales. There was no show. It was pure giving. A reminder that we are not alone. A lesson that we are all more. That in our similarity, we can find our individuality. It truly was letting go of yourself. Knowing that there was nothing to fear for being who you are. It was permission to find your future, brave and bold, free of restraint and restriction. It was the purest of inspiration.
So thank to the entire team. To Enna and Eric and Krista and Carla and Paul. To everyone helping to make it happen. And a special thank you to Mark, who asked me to join. What they pulled off was nothing short of tremendous. For the heart, for the inspiration. For the group of people they assembled and for finding a way to do exactly what they asked of us. In an industry filled with surface, they dared to dig deep and open themselves up for each of us to grow.
You went a different direction? What do you mean you went a different direction?!?!
I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I read and re-read the email. This had to be wrong.
I had it in the bag. This can’t be. They fit the ICP!
I didn’t understand. The couple came signed, sealed, and delivered. They were a referral from a happy client who knew the same people, hung out at the same places, and even liked the same food. I had it. I could feel it in my bones. Everything was flawless from start to finish. I cracked open my best jokes. I shared my best stories. I was the first person on their list , and my pictures were exactly what they needed. Only a fool could fail. Of course, I was that fool.
They were a spot on match for my ICP. In marketing speak, that’s the Ideal Client Profile, and I had mine defined to a T. I knew the music they should listen to, the things they should value, the way they thought, they way they bought, and what they wanted. And what they wanted was supposed to be me.
But they went a different direction. Where had I gone wrong?
DO WE REALLY NEED IDEAL CLIENTS?
You couldn’t spit into the blogosphere more than two feet without hitting an article on ideal clients and target audiences. Define your clients. Get more clients. Find good ones. Fire bad ones. But is the ideal client really a silver bullet? I couldn’t help but wonder, with all that information out there about reeling the right person in, why aren’t we happier with our clients? And why is it so hard to find more of them?
WELL, YES, BUT…
OK, so what is an ideal client? It’s basically a thought exercise to identify the people who are best for your business. You know – who you work well with, who your services fit, who can afford you, and all that. Once you have that person in your head, you have a shorthand ideal you can use to decide who to focus on, how to focus on them, and who to ignore. Do I want to be featured on that blog? Nope, they don’t attract my type of clients. Should I say “Hell yeah!” on my blog? Yep, that’s totally my clients.
Finding the ideal client is a Big Deal, and the articles abound (if you haven’t done the exercise, go do a search and do it – well worth the time – this article will still be here), but the point is simple. If you don’t know who you’re trying to talk to, you can’t really know the best way to talk to them or reach them. Hard to deny that logic. What’s equally true is if you don’t know the best way to talk to people, it’s pretty hard to give people that glorious “OMG! This photographer is the one for meeeee!” feeling when they learn about you, which is the key to big, endless gobs of money and lifelong freedom. Not really. But it is the key to good marketing and strong relationships, which isn’t too shabby, either. But for all that…
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
Creating a great People Match is awesome. But, like all things, there are as many ways to muck it up as there are owners running businesses. It may not be rocket science, but it’s easier than pie to go off track, and the culprit is that good ol’ chestnut of a flaw that haunts us all: self-interest. The problem is it’s all-too-easy to focus on creating what we want – a perfect client – instead of finding a perfect match, which is why I use the term People Match instead. Here are three common mistakes people make when creating their ideal client and how to correct them.
1. PROJECTING YOURSELF
Instead of identifying what your clients are like, you slot your own traits into your People Match. You know you’re projecting when your ideal client profile reads like your separated-at-birth twin. They’ll think the same, want the same, and basically be the same as you.
The problem is this violates the point of it all. You create a People Match to figure out who is right for your business, and to understand them thoroughly. When you slot in your own traits, you’re making a huge assumption that you’re the perfect person for you, and you’re shortchanging yourself from the process of going out into the real world and looking hard for the right match, which is part of the learning a business needs to do. Have you tried selling to you? You might not be as easy to work with as you think. You might not buy the services you want to sell. You might be more demanding than you really want to deal with.
Remember, you’re looking for someone who is a complement to you, not the same as you. And more specifically, you’re looking for someone who is a complement not to you as a person, but to you as a business. Would you want someone who was pleasant to deal with, easy to sell to, and didn’t fuss about your price but wasn’t like you? Or would you want someone who you could hang out with at a bar, but who was a whole mess of trouble?
Now, I’m not saying a client just like you is always a whole mess of trouble – very frequently, your best clients do share a lot of your values and that’s what lets you relate. But even so, it’s often the careful examination that gives you the Aha! moment when you suddenly figure out exactly why your clients are really buying from you, and that’s gold. There are probably a lot of reasons that are very different than you think.
Re-align your People Match by taking a hard look at your business and seeing who is really out there. Don’t create characteristics just because you think they’d work for you. Have you ever read most people’s wish list for their partners? They don’t always look a whole lot like the real thing. The point? We don’t always know what’s good for us.
The good news is life does the legwork for you. Just watch for the problems you actually encounter. There’s nothing better than real life to clue you in as to what you need and who works well with you. If you’ve been in the business even just a little while, you probably already have an idea as to the types of people who value you the most and need what you do, as well as who you get along with and who can make your life a living hell. Figure out what traits mesh well with your business, then connect the dots and figure out how the people with these traits live their lives, so you can seek them out and understand their problems.
How valuable is this knowledge? The Swiffer came about when the design agency Continuum watched real people using mops. The seed was planted when they saw an old lady wet a paper towel to wipe up some spilt coffee grounds instead of grabbing a mop, giving rise to an invention that generated $100 million in sales early on in a meager 4 months. Nothing beats knowing how your clients really behave and think. Remember, people don’t love you because you’re just like them. People love you because you get them that much. Use your People Match to find who’s right for you and find out what they’re about.
Usually, the more specific you get, the better. But you still need to rein it in. It seems harmless enough to say your perfect match prefers ice cream over frozen yogurt, thinks Marc Jacobs is better than sliced bread, and sings soulfully during her time off, but if you can’t make any actionable decisions based on these things, it’s a distraction. On top of it, if you get too attached to it, it might even lead you to exclude people who don’t fit your People Match, when they’d be great clients in reality.
Does that mean you shouldn’t go that deep? No. It means after you’ve gone that deep, you have to decide what really matters and what doesn’t. The worst case is when you feel like you’ve built a bulletproof profile that’s really a castle made of sand. Focusing on the wrong traits can take you take you down the rabbit hole instead of getting actual results. Even if it’s true your ideal client loves ice cream, you have to ask whether that tells us much about their relationship to your photography.
What you want is real specificity. Good business is specific business, but specific isn’t just being detailed. It’s knowing which details count. The common conception is that businesses fail, because they don’t know how to do the right thing. But a lot of people do the right thing all the time. The problem is they do even more of the wrong things, and it burns through their resources and time. If your ideal client is stuffed with characteristics that are questionable in value and limited in use, you’re creating a breeding ground for bad decision making – ironic, given that this is a problem defining the ideal client is supposed to help solve.
Go back to the basics. Look at needs and pain points and what personality and life traits influence your clients’ buying decisions for your services. That’s what you want to know about. What you’re looking for is correlation. For example, knowing that your client considers style part of their identity probably correlates with values like uniqueness, individuality, and artistry, which you could then be sure to talk about and reflect in your marketing (a note about correlation – never assume these things are true – go out there and talk with people). Look through the traits you identify in your People Match, and see what correlates to specific needs. Maybe corporate types are concerned with professionalism and reliability. Maybe some age groups tend to care more about people instead of decorations. Who knows. Go find out.
3. CLIPPING THE THORNS
This happens when you remove every objection possible. Unlike projecting yourself, where you simply assume your perfect client has the same problems you have, when you clip the thorns, you flat-out remove potential issues. Tired of people who object about money? Doesn’t matter, because your perfect clients have trust funds or they make exceptions for the good stuff (a.k.a. You). What about micromanagers? Never, because your client has complete faith in you and would never ask you to do anything you wouldn’t want to do.
If you filter out every possible flaw you could encounter, you’re creating a target audience of zero. Every client has potential issues. But the point is good businesses know exactly how to handle the issues that are unique to their audience. That’s the whole point of the exercise. Knowing exactly who your best clients are, for good and for bad, lets you create a full, nuanced profile that clues you in to the small, subtle things that let you click with them.
Forget about being extra special. No matter how many times popular culture will tell you, “You’re worth it,” what your clients care about is themselves and not you. Caring about you only comes after you’ve shown you care about them. That means you have to put in the legwork to figure out how to service them the best way possible.
Create a profile that helps reveal what issues you’re going to encounter. People who fight for their clients get clients. It’s not a character flaw that a couple doesn’t know why you cost so much. It’s a hurdle. It’s a character flaw (to your business) when they’d never ever pay what you need to charge. Be aware of the difference between problems you can readily solve and problems that hurt you.
For the longest time, I was sure I had a rock-solid People Match. As it turned out, it was a perfect profile that fit no one. I created a person better than reality without figuring out how to make my business attractive to them. I assumed the pictures would say it all, and I blamed everyone else for my problems. They didn’t appreciate me. They didn’t understand me. They didn’t have the budget I needed.
I never found out why that couple went a different direction. But I can take a guess. We shot the breeze, we talked about their story, as well as where we liked to hang out, what we liked to do, and how great my pictures were. But I never learned a thing about what mattered to them and how I could help. They say to a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail. My problem was I never saw that their problem had nothing to do with a nail.
The clip and the clop clack their way through, as each day folds into the next. An unending blur in a whir that grows hazier by the day, until you’re left blind and deaf in the day’s din. But there are those times – those times when you stop dead in your tracks, and life ceases, your mind freezes, and you stand outside of yourself just long enough to check stock and take inventory. Sometimes, the world is like that. It gives you no choice. And far too frequently, I must confess, I have asked “Is this it?”
Maybe I can’t be more. Do more. Find more. “What if this is all there is?”
Silence answers me back. There’s nothing more than a distant yesterday, an unimaginable tomorrow, and me in this frozen moment, dark, still, and cold. Enough to rattle you, but so rarely enough to shake you free, eventually, the moment thaws, life calls, and the clip and the clop continue.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way.
My life as a photographer was born in the warm haze of inspiration. A sort of drippy, gushy feeling. Maybe it’s what it feels like when your heart comes alive. Maybe it’s the stars in alignment. Whatever it is, somehow, in that brief moment, I knew I had found more of me. Photography was my drug, and I could feel the high.
It’s fascinates me that this desire – something that started as nothing more than a way to pass the time and have some fun with that mysterious little black box – could burn so fiercely. We call it a hunger, and hunger is the right word. It’s no coincidence that we equate such passion with our most elemental and primal of needs. Once you get it into your system, you never really flush it out.
But like a drug, over time you can grow numb to its effects. The high is a little less high, the low is a little more low. The creativity starts to look a little less creative, and inspiration calcifies as you go through the motions, praying each time you do, that if you do it with enough verve, you’ll rekindle that lost flame.
And if you’ve made it your job, the cycle accelerates, as you find your creativity pitted against itself. When creativity defines you, change is oxygen, but when you double down and put your livelihood on the line, it’s formula that so often saves the day and puts food on the table.
It’s the most vicious of cycles. Inspiration defines you. Definition limits you. Hunger becomes sustenance. Passion becomes work.
You can never return to Eden. And, yet, the irony is neither do you need to leave. Life is the process of change, and we all do so, whether we like it or not. The question is whether you recognize this change.
You can never really be reduced to formula, though too often, we do just that in the face of unrelenting pressure and unending work. But if you can never go back, then how do you go forward?
The beauty of beginnings is the romance. We live anew, undefined, and unrestrained. There are no voices in your head telling you who you are, how it should be, and what you’re supposed to do. It’s a time of limitless potential, where the only question we need ask is how it can be. But, invariably, as things settle, and we learn the rules, learn our ways, and see the patterns, in the face of the pain we feel when we find our limits, we stop asking how it can be and we start saying how it should be.
And in the face of creativity, how-it-should-be is death. It is the triumph of fear over inspiration – a loss of the faith in the unknown that once gave us strength and a loss of the belief in tomorrow’s tomorrow.
We live by archetypes – fancy little models in our heads about how it’s supposed to all go down. In beginnings we don’t know enough to have them. In ends we know too much to steer clear. We’re filled with notions of how. How we should sit, how we should stand, what we should think, and, of course, how we should take our pictures. But the most damning of them all is knowing who we are. Because if we know who we are, then we just as readily must know who we are not – all the things we can’t do, won’t do, won’t accept, and don’t accept. This is the true loss of creativity.
It may be that knowing who you are is everything. But, if so, only in inclusion. Only when you remain willing to see the world with the newborn eyes, keep the doors open, and cradle the universe in your arms. When you know there’s no way you have to take your pictures, no way it has to be, when you revel instead of revile, then knowing who you are becomes as much an act of letting go as letting in. It’s allowing yourself to change and to follow the path to new conclusions.
Too often, we feel we aren’t measuring up – that we have failed – when in reality, we simply don’t see we’re on a different course. Emerson was right. It is indeed the journey and not the destination.
Each day, we live the journey, but the destinations will change. We do not have to follow the course charted by our younger selves. Yesterday’s rules were meant for yesterday. Today is a different ride. The course correction you need is not to realign the now with your past. It’s to realign your past with the now.
You are at your most brave and powerful in the silence. In the moments you check stock and take inventory and feel the hesitance and fear of an uncertain you. But we have to be willing to shed our own skins and crawl out of ourselves to fly. And while the path might be fraught with challenge and change and the sweat and blood of a hard-earned life, the message is clear. In this moment, as you read this, as you take your next picture, build your next life, and think about who you are, the true danger isn’t that you become someone else. It’s that you don’t accept who you are now.