A couple of years ago, creative specialist Matt Essam made a life-changing decision.
Essam, along with a friend, was running a Leeds-based design agency that wasn’t short on clients or regular work. But despite this, the Leeds University graduate felt unfulfilled and took the bold move of outsourcing design work to freelancers, enabling him to experience the thrill of travelling the world while running the business from a laptop.
Speaking at the third Leeds Beckett Digital Hub Breakfast event, Essam recalled how the decision did not have the desired effect.
“In my head I had the dream lifestyle, but I still felt unfulfilled, bored and thought there must be more to life,” he said. “I had my projects with me, but my clients didn’t let me live my values – they only allowed me to execute tasks that didn’t give me creative freedom and respect. It’s amazing how being successful objectively and feeling successful are two different things.”
Following a family bereavement, Essam took some time to reflect on his situation. He came across the Japanese concept of ‘ikigai” (meaning “a reason for being”), and began reassessing his perspectives on life, work, and mortality.
After talking to people who had claimed to have achieved ikigai, he set about developing a five-step formula to identify what he valued in his personal and professional life.
By following its core principles, Essam says that that individuals and small business owners can focus on finding value, solving problems and standing out from the competition.
Five steps to success
Step 1: Identify your values. “After I had my perspective shift, I began to identify what was really important to me. I was chasing things that I wanted, but I didn’t stop to think why I wanted them. When I got down to my core principles, I wanted freedom, creativity and respect.
“People in the middle of ikigai that I spoke to were authentically creative and driven by passion, purpose and values. That contrasted with my creativity when I was at bigger companies, or working with clients I wasn’t interested in. That was corporate creativity driven by financial gain.
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Step 2: Find your niche. “I was doing everything for everybody and had FOMO (“Fear Of Missing Out”). I thought that if I had a niche, I would miss out on work. That was a big mistake. Not having one can make you miss out and blend in with everybody else – being everything to everyone is the greatest formula for failure.
“One thing unique to everybody is their story. Even if others have the same skillset, they can’t be applied in the same context. Step back and gain that context and see what value you can add to other people. What insights have you had? That’s the thing that will help you determine your niche – it’s about becoming clear on where you can be an expert.”
Step 3: The problem. “What problem are you trying to solve in your business? Many people struggle to identify it as they’re focused on the solution or the skillset – they don’t dig down enough. Instead of saying that you, ‘Make an awesome [product\service] that will make a business look great’, say that you ‘Will help [ideal client’s name] to overcome [the problem] by [method/success]’.”
Step 4: The solution. “People can’t win high value projects if they’re not offering a high value solution. For example, a website could be crucial to a business, but it depends on what problem they’re trying to solve; a website might be a tiny part of it. What’s the full solution – the whole package? Also think about collaborating – who could you partner with to help deliver that solution?”
Step 5: Your clients. “Be really clear who you want to work with. The question I asked people is this: ‘If you only got paid after you achieved the result, what are the attributes your client would have to have for you to take that gamble’. Only focus on working with your clients and ignore everything else. Stop concentrating on people you can help a little bit.
“Ask yourself the question of how your clients can help you live your values. Be clear on your values and communicate with your clients – your working relationships will become much better as a result.”
If you’re interested in finding out more, contact Matt at on Twitter @matt_essam.
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