Worry not, I am not starting the year by asking you to read my pledge to self-improve. Not only it is cliché, it is also likely to end up being a public lie.
Sometimes I view living should be about forming and verifying one’s own hypotheses. As one’s life changes, one will form a new set of hypotheses. I am sharing with you how my life has been changing since the last quarter of 2015. After the changes, new hypotheses emerge in my mind, and I know the only way for me to test them is by facing new challenges. I am writing this perhaps also to prepare myself to break old habits and learn new lessons.
I’m writing this piece from my (temporary) home-office. I have left my last job —fortunately with my head held high as I stayed true to what I wrote three years ago. I want to solve a different kind of problems, to keep my intellect challenged, and to make a difference to other people. In doing so I hope I can feel ennobled in at least some small way.
Thankfully I have found the right partner to do this: Misty Diansharira, one of the very few “agency suits” whom I deeply respect. We have been partnering since we founded Lembaga Bantuan Kreatif, a tiny-cell within my previous agency that handled social marketing campaign for non-profit sectors since 2014.
We are setting up our new small consultancy called Communication for Change. We have been observing there are many people, including those from unexpected places, who have good initiatives to ensure “reformasi” will never be an unfinished business. In today’s more democratic and decentralised time, they need their initiatives to get supports from even more varied stakeholders. Once their initiatives turn into programs, they need to draw participations from those stakeholders.
Our first hypothesis is that there’s a sizeable opportunity in assisting these reform-minded organisations. The purpose of our enterprise is to help them get buy-in, change behaviour, and deliver impacts via communication that moves people.
We provide trainings and clinics so they can construct and deliver a compelling pitch for their initiatives in any form. We also advise them strategies to change their stakeholders’ behaviour based on design-thinking principles. And if they want to implement our recommendations, we will help them manage the process.
Our second hypothesis is that we will end-up better financially by not adopting the conventional agency business model. Firstly, we are consultants who get paid by giving clients advice (irrespective whether it will be implemented or not), not an agency that gets paid by doing things on clients’ behalf. Secondly, we just don’t think the agency business model is sustainable for our kind of client. A huge overhead from permanent staff or a hip office is beneficial neither to us nor our clients.
Instead, we adopt the what we call “Ocean 11” or movie production business model. Executive producers, from those who produce Hollywood blockbusters to forgettable TV commercials, don’t employ permanent staff or crew. Once they have scripts they want to produce, they assemble crew that are right for the creative visions and the budget.
In Communication for Change, we make up a small and nimble core that initiates the problem definition stage. Afterwards, we quickly assemble an ad-hoc team of creative partners and solution builders relevant to the task at hand. We want to be the antithesis of the aphorism “If your only tool is a hammer, you will find that everything you encounter needs pounding”. It’s not fair to our clients if we can only propose solutions that are biased by our legacy expertise.
Our third hypothesis is that this endeavour is neither a get-rich-quick nor get-filthy-rich scheme.We cater to a small niche of potential clients who themselves are not bathed in profits. Although we are not doing this to finance a lifestyle that invites Instagram notoriety, we and our partners want to be compensated fairly and decently.
We have never met anybody who tells us starting up a new business is going to be a walk in a park. Indeed: we managed to finalise all the legal paperworks less than a week before the local government banned the use of virtual offices as correspondence addresses for new companies on January 1, 2016. But this is only the beginning.
Right now we are operating in the boot-strap mode. This is by design, not by default. We are not saying no to potential investors. But even if there were some people who wanted to invest on this kind of business (what kind of people they are, I wonder), they would have to accept we would not want to walk away from our purpose and values.
When my former colleague who now has his own ad agency heard the rumour of me quitting, he wanted to confirm straight from the horse’s mouth. We ended up having a short but (at least for me) enlightening talk.
My friend had already recruited a quite aggressive number of staff for a small business in an industry where newcomers survive by undercutting the competitors. He told me he still had to do shitty jobs he used to do when he had been an employer, but at least “They are the shits I choose to take”.
And for him this was acceptable, because, “What matters most to me now is that I can pay salaries to my employees. These people, they chose to join me, and I feel obliged to take care of them.”
I find my friend’s attitude commendable. But I am not like him. I don’t get off on playing Santa Claus or Don Corleone. We left our jobs because want to work on stuff that matters. We want to do meaningful work. Consequently we should maintain our freedom to say no to causes we do not believe in. One of my favourite quotes is “Principles mean nothing until they cost you money” (from the ad legend Bill Bernbach). And we can only afford that cost by staying small.
We are only a couple of weeks young. It’s too early to predict anything. We need to get clients, continue building our network of independent creative workers and solution builders, demonstrate our worth, and manage the business itself. They are going to be challenging.
Not to leave out my personal challenges. Nassim Nicholas Taleb said, “The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.” I am glad I never try the first, unsure if it is humanly possible to quit the second, and have just started kicking out the third one. Monthly salaries are an important pillar of our comfort zone. But comfort zone can also stunt us. How many times have we chickened out of the opportunities to grow because we are afraid to lose our security blanket?
This new chapter in my life is exciting but also formidable. I am neither fearless nor ever aspire to be so. I second Nelson Mandela that courage is not the absence of fear but the triumph over it. I do feel afraid, but I want to conquer it. I have to.
So let me try, let us try. And kindly wish that the force be with us.