Building A Business Is Not A “Choose Your Own Adventure”

Jun 15, 2021 | Business Models, Growth

Most new business owners treat business-building like a Choose Your Own Adventure book.

There’s the backbone of the story—the plot points that have been chosen for you. You know that you need to have something to sell, a customer to sell it to, and a plan for connecting customers with the thing being sold. You know you need to set a price. And, you need a way to keep track of all the inner workings.

Then, within those preset plot points, you have options. Which way do you want to go? You can choose a low-priced offer or a high-priced offer. You can choose blogging or podcasting. You can choose products or services.

Every so often, you get to make a choice and continue on with the story.

I have a fondness for Choose Your Own Adventure books—but mostly as a nostalgic artifact of youth. I always found these books promising in theory but incredibly underwhelming in reality.

And business that’s treated like a Choose Your Own Adventure? Well, it’s going to be underwhelming, too.

A strong business isn’t just a set of decisions to be made.

A stronger business is a whole world to be built—with a logic all its own. Every component builds on the next. Each component must make sense within the larger whole or the business starts to break down.

Business-building is not a Choose Your Own Adventure.

Business-building is an opportunity for careful world-building.

World-building is the process of creating the setting, culture, and socio-political structure of a world that is—in some way—different from our own in which a story takes place.

And it it very, very much like the process of intentionally building a business.

Many of our most beloved stories rely on meticulous world-building. Think Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, Star Trek, Star Wars, the Marvel Universe.

You know what it feels like to be dropped into a new world by an author or a filmmaker. It can take mere minutes to become fully immersed in the logic and culture of a foreign world.

These are worlds in which so much feels familiar but key elements change the game of how characters behave, how conflict forms, and how a plot evolves. The inclusion of magic, the existence of superheroes, the reality of space travel—one relatively small change introduces a whole world full of new variables.

I started considering the relationship between world-building and business-building when I listened to an old episode of The Ezra Klein Show where N.K. Jemisin—the completely badass fantasy author that won the Hugo Award for best novel 3 times in a row for The Broken Earth Trilogy—walks Klein through how she teaches world-building to other writers.

If this is at all interesting to you beyond the business context, this conversation is a must-listen.

Keep reading and I’ll walk you through Jemisin’s process and map it onto how I think about building a business, too!

The Metaphysical Questions

Jemisin started out by asking Klein to consider the big, metaphysical questions about the world they were building first.

What are the universal principles governing reality in this world?

In business-building, this would be your business’s core values, ethical standards, and mission. These are the things that dictate how the business needs to function at the very highest levels.

Then, Jemisin asks Klein to zoom in on the particular planet where the story will take place. What kind of world is it? What are its defining features?

She told him that, sure, you can get wild and choose a gas giant or a planet with a methane-based atmosphere—but you’re going to have to do a lot more work as an author to understand that world and explain it to your reader.

More likely, you’re starting with something Earth-like and then making a few notable changes.

The planetary level in your business is your business model.

It’s the most basic structure for how the business operates and how that model is constructed puts everything else in motion.

Again, you can go wild and build something no one has ever seen before. But it’s going to take a lot of work—and you’re going to have to be really careful about how you drop customers into that world.

More likely, you’re starting with something that feels pretty familiar (a subscription business, a productized service, an consulting agency, etc…) and then making a change or two based on your preferences, an opportunity you’ve spotted, or your values and ethical standards.

At this point, you’re keeping things pretty broad. You know who you’re serving. You have a basic idea of what you’re offering to serve them. And you have a loose idea of how you’re going to connect those two components.

From there, Jemisin asked Klein to consider a spot on that planet where the story and its characters are going to originate from. The resources, geography, and climate of that spot are major factors in how culture and social structure develop.

In your business, this is where you can start to get more specific about your offer.

Instead of resources, geography, and climate, you consider price point, time frame, and level of service. These will all be major factors in how you build the rest of the business.

This is a good place to pause for a moment and talk about the logic of world-building.

The Logic of World-Building

Every decision you make as you’re building a world impacts the next one.

If you choose to build your world on a gas giant, the life that evolves there isn’t going to have 2 or 4 legs for walking around on. If you choose to situate your story at the frozen pole of your planet, you’ll need to account for adaptations—physiologically and culturally—to accommodate the environment.

Those evolutionary factors continue to ripple through each subsequent decision. And each decision further dictates what else has to be true about that world and its people.

The more logical (which is not to say “realistic”) a world is, the more immersive the story becomes.

A world can be really out there but, if the world-building all makes logical sense, you can still imagine feel like you’re there.

I’m a Trekkie, not a Star Wars fan. But I think the most accessible example of the logic of world-building gone awry is in the Star Wars universe. The original 3 films (Episodes IV, V, and VI) immerse us in the world of The Jedi, The Empire, and The Force. It was a complete story with a satisfying and logical world.

Then the first 3 episodes come along 25 years later. These films tell a portion of the backstory of the original 3. But in doing so, they interrupt the logic of the original world-building. Now The Force has a physiological explanation.

Fans were not impressed. Not only were those 3 films not very good, but the introduction of new elements of world-building actually made the original 3 films less immersive. (That is, if you watch them in order. Let’s just keep the magic alive and stick to Episode IV-VI, shall we?)

This same issue occurs—frequently—in business-building.

You start off making decisions that all make sense together. Your values and mission help create the logical framework of your business model which creates the logical framework for your offers, so on and so forth. But at some point, you introduce a variable that disrupts the whole logic of the structure.

Maybe you’re a coach who has been selling 1:1 coaching packages primarily through referrals, and you work with about 10 people at a time. It’s going great. Things are running smoothly and you’re making good money. So you start to consider what’s next and you decide to build an online course.

The course is priced at $299 and you need 40 people to buy it in order for it to make financial sense. This is where things get wonky.

The logic of your business you’ve built to this point is based on a high-touch, personalized service. You work with a relatively small number of clients for a relatively high price. Sales come easily through referrals.

But the logic of an online course business is (typically) about lower prices, higher volume, and more hands-off sales through ads or content marketing.

Basically, the whole structure of what it takes to create a successful line of business with your online course defies the logic of the business you’ve already built.

That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t build an online course if you’re a coach primarily working with people 1:1. What I mean is that you have to build a whole new world (queue the Aladdin soundtrack). If you don’t invest the time and energy to do that, not only with the online course fall flat but there’s a good chance your coaching business will suffer, too.

Okay, back to the next step of world-building.

The X factor

After choosing the location the story will take place, Jemisin instructs Klein to pick what she calls, “the X factor.”

The X factor is that distinct variable that separates the logic of the world you’re creating from the logic of the world we live in. Think:

  • The Force (Star Wars)
  • Magic is real (Harry PotterThe Magicians, countless other books)
  • Humans are no longer able to reliably reproduce (Children of MenHandmaid’s Tale)
  • Vampires (TwilightTrue Blood)
  • Far future, far past (Dune, Star Trek, Star Wars)

The X factor isn’t a plot point—it’s not the inciting incident. It’s a fundamental truth about how the world you’re building works.

When I think of the X factor for business-building, I think of a few different things: brand & positioning, business strategy, and core competency.

I’m sure you could argue for making other things the X factor—but those are 3 very common ones.

Brand & positioning is all about what your business is known for and how it’s different from others.

Business strategy is the choices you make about “where to play and how to win.” (Not my favorite phrasing… but I still haven’t come up with an easier way to define strategy.)

And your core competency is the thing your business does really, really well in the way it operates. It might be a unique skill, a proven process, or a method of working.

These 3 components are all tied together—core competency influences brand, brand influences strategy, strategy influences core competency, etc… And together, they symbolize why someone would buy from your company and not another.

You might have a stronger hit on one of those 3 components, though, so you end up building out the other 2—and your X factor—around that. That totally works.

This X factor also contributes to the logic of your business-building.

For example, if you choose to position your business as a high-end, personalized, done-for-you service with exceptional results, the logic of your business-building means you’re not also going to offer a low-end DIY online course.

Or, if you build out a core competency around being super process-driven and following a standardized system, the logic of your business-building means you’re not also going to offer a la carte services.

Effective Business-Building Creates Constraints

The logic of your business is going to start to impose more and more constraints on what you can and can’t do—assuming that you want it to work well. You’ll notice that the logical constraints start making decisions for you.

Those constraints shouldn’t so much hem you in as they should give you an objective framework for making the decisions you would have made anyhow given more time and better information.

It’s easy to look out at all the different ways people are building businesses and see it as a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure buffet. But the reality is that the vast majority of the things other people do is off the menu for your business because these tactics don’t fit the logic of your business.

The further you get in your decision-making and business-building, the fewer options you have for what else to add in.

I cannot stress enough that this is not a bad thing. It’s a very good thing! It means that once you’ve made a set of decisions about your business-building you can stop trying to find new decisions to make. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

If, however, you realize that the logic of your business-building leads you to a certain decision that is just a thing you do not want to do or a direction you want to go, you can adjust.

So let’s say you are a coach or a consultant and you absolutely do want to develop an online course to sell. That changes a fundamental part of the logic of your business.

Once you’ve identified that, the question becomes: 

What else needs to be true about this business so that it can be true that I have a successful online course?

What also needs to be true is that you build a larger audience, develop a capability around more hands-off sales, and create a customer onboarding process that makes your new customers feel supported and ready to learn. You also might need to hire a new team member and purchase some new software.

And just by asking that simple question, “What else needs to be true?” you’ve started to make a good plan! Your business can further develop in a way that makes logical sense.

Finishing Up World-Building

Once you’ve got that X factor figured out, it’s time to think about the people, their culture, their relationships with one another, and how one community relates to others. What are the social structures? What are the political structures? What are the ethics and guiding principles of this civilization?

What resources do they have? What resources do they do without? Who has power?

At this point, the list of questions goes on and on.

The more questions you answer as you build out your world, the more immersive it becomes and the easier it will be to tell your story.

Jemisin makes the point that often an author goes through this process as background for actually creating the story. Some of the details will come to light as the story unfolds—but much of the inner workings of the world are just there to guide the author.

At this point in the business-building process there are many more questions to answer, too. What does your team need to look like? How will you manage your operations? How will you design your customer experience? What does your marketing plan look like? How does your sales process work?

Much of this work happens far beneath the surface.

You won’t see business owners sharing this stuff on Instagram or in emails. It’s not readily apparent how their teams are structured, what systems they use the manage it all, and how their marketing plan is actually structured.

But all of this business world-building is what makes a business work. It’s what makes it more stable, more resilient, stronger.

Your customers or fans may never know what goes on behind the scenes. You may never share those inner workings with another soul. But they give you the framework you need to run the business well.

So What Now?

This is the fun part.

Whether you’ve been in business for a month, a year, or a decade, put your world-building hat on (mine looks like a wizard’s hat, I don’t know about you!).

How would you build your business—the world you work in every day—from scratch? What big metaphysical decisions would you make to set the whole thing in motion? What options would you take off the table by virtue of other decisions? How does your X factor impact how things work?

Once I get started on this process, I get lost in a flow state and happily spend hours thinking through the logic of the business I’m building—detail by glorious detail.

You might not have quite as much fun as I do. 

But I think any business owner can see this as a fun, creative process.

And not only that, it’s one that will teach you so much about what you’ve already built and what’s next for you and your company.

Quentin recognized this land and yet at the same time he didn’t. Could this be home? He didn’t see any reason why not. But it was a strange, wild country. It was no utopia. It wasn’t a tame land.
— The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman


Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

Tara McMullin, What Works Weekly Newsletter

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