How I went from relevant to obsolete and back

Sometimes you spot something important that you can do. A way to change something in the world. You might start a company for it. And you might get very good at it. You can get paid very well. Your life becomes comfortable, and God forbid you succeed in changing that thing. Because if you succeed, what is left for you? What is left of you?

The year was 1998. I was a fresh industrial design graduate, and together with my business partner Frans I started my first company: PARK. Frans was a designer too. Our newborn business did anything but design work. We focused on making sure that the designers who did design, could do it to the best of their abilities. We found our thing to change in the world, and it took a more strategic kind of creativity. It was a wild idea, and it would turn out to be a world wide hit.

Our company did something nobody else did. We set out to help design leaders grow their teams strategically, become more efficient and effective, and make sure their companies would be future-proof through design.
If you were the best in the world at something, who would you call to offer your services? We were the first, so naturally we were the best. We called Sony. 

We got invited. We landed a project: to translate a product idea into a concept that marketing could work with – way before there was an actual product. We had no time to pinch ourselves: LEGO was next. Then BMW. Then Bang & Olufsen. Then Unilever. 

How I found my strength

During one of many strategic brainstorms, I noticed how I felt much more comfortable than most others in the room. I was at work in my sweet spot: the concept phase. Where everybody senses opportunity but ideas are intangible and the way forward is vague. I found that imagination is not enough in this phase. An idea is only worth something if people believe in it. Especially if that idea is about a process or an organisational change. I translated ideas into simple, visual principles that everybody in leadership could understand and discuss. Sometimes literally on the back of a napkin. Anything that could take us from nothing to something. Because something is what leadership can see, critique and further shape. Until the way forward is clear, agreed on by all, and explicable to others in the organisation.

We were frontrunners in a niche of the design industry: leadership.

PARK was booming in the 00’s. We were frontrunners in a niche of the design industry: leadership. Other agencies popped up doing work similar to ours. We grew our team. Everybody was flying around the world working at industry leading companies.
The thing we set out to change: it was starting to change. Design was acquiring a strategic position. It gave us more access and more work. For me that meant: bigger concepts with bigger impact. Even if I had some days without flights – I never landed. Every second I spent was inside my sweet spot. My strengths were increasing and I needed no rest. 

How using my strength got me isolated

While PARK started out as a truly blue ocean endeavour, our waters were getting a little sharky. We broadened our services by adding education. A new brand was in the making: Grow would educate design managers to become design leaders. I spent a few years building the app, developing the curriculum and teaching. It was amazing, very personal and also nerve racking. I thrived as I could once again put my strengths to work. I made some life-long friends in that process. With two businesses now running well, I finally had a moment to step back. And then I saw what I had done to myself.

The ocean had turned red, and we had steered straight into it. Big players like Accenture and IDEO had taken up a large chunk of our industry. PARK worked on broader projects for already well oiled design departments. Grow was educating design leaders at mostly smaller teams. None of it was breaking new ground. None of this work was done in my sweet spot. Where was my place in all this?

I left the company I started

I felt I had to stay with PARK and Grow. It was all I had.
Agreed: our services had become more generalist and I wasn’t as valuable anymore.
Agreed: I had become a source of friction for my colleagues.
Agreed: I daydreamed about freeing up my time for fun stuff.
But I wasn’t going to pack my stuff and go.

But then I did. I broke my heart. All the adventures had with all these great people. It ended there. But I had to go to a different place. My sweet spot. Where my strengths make a difference and I can work without getting tired.

Carry your strengths through change

Frans and I wanted to change something in the world. That thing is now very different. It took all of that work for me to find out that I wasn’t invited to all these companies because they had a design challenge. Growing design was just another strategic choice for them. It was the strategybit that made me a good partner. 

Which means there’s plenty left for me. I’m good at putting a dot behind the horizon, beyond where others dare to place it. And then drawing a map towards that dot. As long as there are companies that need to make strategic decisions, I can carry my strength there. Quicker, wiser, and admittedly more grey-haired than in 1998. And still ready to start something great on the back of a napkin. In fact, I carry those with me, too.