I started Great Not Big to share what I’ve learned over 10 years about building and running a custom software development company. I figure there are on the order of 100,000 people in the US who care deeply about this topic.* A question that arose early in the thinking behind GNB was whether people in other types of business might be interested or could benefit from this effort. It was an important question to consider since it determined my audience; the narrower the audience the more context you can safely assume when writing. (By way of example, what I was doing, in software design terms, was considering how I might generalize from a particular instance to a class abstraction. This nerdy aside tells you how I ultimately answered the question.) The thinking about audience ultimately led to a small breakthrough on an issue that had bothered me for a long time.
One of my motivations for Great Not Big was the lack of respect that service firms receive in comparison to product firms. I’ve always felt that companies like Atomic Object are more important to the economy than the mildly pejorative phrase used to describe them — “lifestyle businesses” — suggests. I understand the basic economics behind the phrase: service firms scale linearly, their ultimate size is capped and small, they don’t have life-changing exits for their founders; in short, they provide a nice lifestyle while you’re working and that’s about it. I think this misses an important point about their significance, but I couldn’t articulate this very well until we wrestled with the question of audience for GNB.
Great Not Big is better for not being a solo effort. Marissa Christy helps structure and refine posts, takes care of WordPress, measures impact, suggests topics, thinks about the audience, and generally provides a pair when I need one. Mary O’Neill proofreads posts, improves clarity, and tells me when she thinks I sound like a twit. (If typos, obscurity, and twit-ness make it through occasionally it’s my fault, not Mary’s.) Wrestling with the questions of audience and significance was definitely pair work. Marissa and I came up with the following qualities that Great Not Big companies share:
- sell services to their clients
- makers of the end product, not just advisors or consultants
- work in teams
- work collaboratively with their clients on the client’s products
- constantly alert to client’s needs to remain relevant
At first I referred to firms that share these attributes as “creative consultancies”. Later we decided that the business relationship between these firms and their clients was a better way of collectively naming them. These companies provide outsourced innovation to their clients. More than telling people how to do things, these firms take responsibility for collaboratively creating the product of innovation with their client. They are therefore “innovation services” firms. Daniel Pink has written about some research that supports my belief and observation that innovation services firms have some inherent advantages in what they do and can offer their clients a strong and clear value proposition. The question of significance is answered by the term we chose since no one disputes the importance of innovation. The economic impact of innovation services firms is hidden by the fact that their work is brought to market by their clients.
To answer the question of audience for GNB we took the list of shared qualities and combed through the NAICS taxonomy. We found firms in several industries that seem to fit the definition of innovation services.
- Design consultants (like IDEO and Cooper)
- Software development (Atomic Object and Pivotal Labs).
- Product management consultants (Enthiosys)
- Product development (Disher Design)
- Innovation consultants (Doblin and Systematic Innovative Thinking)
- Special effects (Eden FX)
- Environment design (Illuminating Concepts)
- Entertainment design (42 Entertainment).
While I ultimately ended up deciding to write to and for the founders and leaders of software development companies, the exercise of considering the audience for GNB was quite productive. I have a name for the type of service firm that I believe are strategically important, I can better articulate the value that innovation services firms provide, and I know who might be really interesting outside software development to swap stories with someday.
*Data indicates approximately 40,000 companies in our industry; I guessed at an average of 2.5 founders/leaders per firm.
- Atomic Ownership, Part 6: Lessons Learned - November 26, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 5: Distributions - May 1, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 4: Financing employee ownership - April 4, 2019
- Atomic Ownership, Part 3: Valuation - January 2, 2019
- Atomic’s purpose: to be a company where work matters - November 5, 2018