The way we think about business shapes what we can do and build with our businesses.
Two different perspectives will lead to two different choices about the same circumstances. Different ways of thinking lead us to seeing things differently, too.
Consider how a tourist, an artist, and an archeologist might interact with a city. They each see things differently. They’re interested in exploring different things. Each has a different way of interacting with the infrastructure—often hidden or invisible to the untrained eye—of the place they’re in.
The tourist seeks out the big attractions and the hidden gems. The artist notices the subtle details that bring a city to life. The archeologist sees layer upon layer of the ways humans shape a place.
These different ways of thinking—and interacting with hidden infrastructure—can teach us new ways to see our businesses. And in seeing our businesses differently, we can discover new ways of problem-solving, planning, and executing to reach our goals.
It’s been a long time since I was a tourist in a new city. But, when that was a thing I did on a regular basis, I had a pretty consistent approach.
I’d do a little research about the stops I might want to visit: gastropubs, cultural sites, a cool bookstore, a world-class climbing gym, or a college campus with great architecture. Then, I’d slowly check them off the list—preferably walking from stop to stop.
Depending on your interests, you might choose different things to sightsee—a museum, the home of a historical figure, a natural wonder, a monument, or a store you can’t find anywhere else.
I think most of us are interested in seeing and experiencing new things if we’re visiting a new city for pleasure. Yet, there is so much more to what the city actually is than the sum total of any of these stops.
“When we’re touring these cities, we’re encouraged to look at everything but how the city actually runs.”— Annalee Newitz on The Feminist Present
Let’s take a brewpub—one of my favorite things to add to a travel itinerary. When I’m there, I experience what is hopefully a delicious IPA and some creative food. Hopefully, I get good service in a nice environment. But what else is going on to facilitate all that?
There are the cooks in the kitchen, of course, and the brewers making the beer. There’s the food that comes in from local farms listed on the wall. There is the grain and hops that goes into making the beer. And there are all of the farmers that produce those items.
There’s also the infrastructure that delivers fresh water to the brewery and the electricity that runs the equipment. There are the workers who do maintenance on that infrastructure and the tax dollars that go into their pay.
There are the delivery drivers and the roads that they use to carry ingredients from one place to another. We see the servers and bartenders—but we don’t see the people at home making it possible for them to go out and work that shift by caring for the kids.
Whether in a new city or at home, there are the externalities that we engage with—the things we consciously experience. And then there are all the unseen things that make that possible.
Businesses are like this too—especially with so many influencers and entrepreneurs vying for the best “social proof” that what they’re offering is not only a great value but worth going out of your way for.
When we’re looking at offers or claims or even just lifestyle signaling, it’s really easy to forget about the infrastructure that makes it all possible. And when we do think about it, we’re often making assumptions about what’s going on underground or behind the scenes.
Behind The Scenes
You might assume that the entrefluencer who always has beautiful candid photos for their Instagram account is paying an expensive photographer to create those images for them. Or, you might assume that they have a skillful partner who is always shooting great pics they can use at will.
Either way, you might not think about what else goes into creating those pictures. You don’t think about organizing the trips and the outfits and the lighting to be just so. You don’t think about the editing that goes into those pics or the emotional labor of making an artificial scenario seem natural.
And you almost certainly don’t think about the underpaid and overworked virtual assistant who keeps the business running while they’re out getting their photos taken. You don’t think about all of the software she uses—software that purports to make her life easier but just keeps raising the bar on what she “should” be creating.
Let’s look at another example.
Consider the new podcast or newsletter that seems to come out of nowhere. The one nobody knew about but now everybody is talking about. It must be top-notch, right? Innovative, creative, groundbreaking?
Maybe. Or maybe it’s the result of having intentionally built a professional network over a decade. It could be the result of porting an audience on one platform to the new platform. Or, it might be the result of having a close relationship with someone else with a massive audience who shares it.
Again, the resources and infrastructure that support all of these scenarios remains unseen until you look for it. The scheduling and background research that goes into all that networking takes time. The activities that go into building an audience takes significant effort. And developing the kind of relationship that can make a “lucky break” possible often takes quite a bit of money.
You probably don’t see all the times the creator put themselves out there and asked for early readers or listeners to provide constructive feedback. The drafts and revisions aren’t public knowledge. You don’t see the test recordings they made. You don’t see all of the emails that were painstakingly customized for every single receiver.
A key part of my motivation in starting What Works (both The Podcast and The Network) is making the invisible infrastructure of our businesses visible.
While I’m an eager business tourist (I mean, I’ve hosted over 320 interviews!), I’m also interested in the beauty of what’s behind the scenes and the subtle details that often go unnoticed. And I’m fascinated by peeling back the layers to excavate the systems that make a business possible.
Infrastructure As Art
The artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles aims to make the human infrastructure and labor that goes into our cities and households visible as the artist-in-residence at the New York Department of Sanitation. She created art by shaking hands with and thanking every single sanitation worker in the city of New York. She created art by cleaning the steps of the Wadsworth Atheneum. And she even created the Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969! in which she made explicit the value of the work of maintaining as well as the art of creating.
My husband will attest that I’m not too interested in performance or conceptual art. I’m much too literal-minded. But I keep returning to Ukeles work over and over again since I learned about it. I find it profound and moving.
In her Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!, Ukeles makes her different roles clear: artist, woman, wife, mother. She names that her work as an artist has been separate from the maintenance work (“washing, cleaning, cooking, renewing, supporting, preserving etc.”) she does as a woman, wife, and mother. And then continues:
“Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art.”
Ukeles work makes visible the tenuous distinction we make between Art and labor.
And this informs the way we think about our businesses, too.
It’s tempting to think that Entrepreneurship is the work of creating new things, signaling success, describing a bold vision. That less sexy tasks like managing, administration, maintenance are just unfortunate byproducts.
But managing, admin, and maintenance are part of Entrepreneurship too. How could looking as these tasks as such change how we feel about them or influence our level of satisfaction in completing them?
The infrastructure of our businesses can be Art, too.
Infrastructure As Culture
Similarly, I just finished Annalee Newitz’s book, Four Lost Cities. In it, Newitz explores—you guessed it—4 ancient “lost” cities: one in modern day Cambodia, one in modern day Italy, one in modern day Turkey, and one in modern day Illinois.
Newitz is fascinated by the infrastructure and labor that is easily overlooked when we just focus on the monuments, temples, and palaces that are visible centuries after a city’s decline. She talks with the archeologists who are digging into what the day-to-day life of common or enslaved people was like instead of only piecing together the history of rulers. These archeologists are excavating homes, studying refuse, and tracing the flow of water & food throughout the cities.
And they’re often rewriting our modern understanding of these ancient peoples by drawing a much more detailed picture of the culture and daily routines of these places.
I think we can learn a lot from this kind of excavation when it comes to business-building, too. There’s a tendency to build an understanding of how businesses work by looking at the monuments, temples, and palaces of celebrity entrepreneurs.
We trace their business development through Instagram posts, headlines, interviews, and emails. We see the offers they make and the marketing tactics they use.
But we fail to see the infrastructure of the business—the labor that’s use to build it and maintain it. We don’t know the daily routines and habits that make the business possible. And we don’t understand the connections and relationships beneath the surface that channel the financial, human, and intellectual capital through its streets.
The hidden infrastructure of business is the culture of the everyday work.
The Tourist, The Artist, And The Archeologist
When we’re looking at other businesses, we can take on the role of the tourist, the artist, and the archeologist to learn so much more—and spot our own opportunities.
The tourist seeks out the best spots. Some use guidebooks and apps. Others talk to locals. Being a business tourist is a good way to get the lay of the land. You start to see the current trends, get an idea of the big players in your market, and feel out what customers are most interested in.
Thinking like a tourist gives you new models of possibility.
The artist sees the beauty in what is unseen. They go looking for the quiet corners and small details that make a location special. The business artist sees creative potential in the inner workings of their business. They sense the beauty in small details and revel in making things work just so.
Thinking like an artist gives you a creative of working with the mundane.
The archeologist pieces together clues underneath the surface. They use both scientific tools, cultural context, and thoughtful inquiry to develop a theory of the place and people. The business archeologist digs for clues in the way other businesses operate. They reverse engineer the systems, thought processes, and mindsets that make them work. They discern the values and stories that influence their day-to-day routines.
Thinking like an archeologist gives you context for your decision-making.
Each Role Has Value
Being a business tourist can expand your entrepreneurial imagination. When I got started, I had a very small idea of what my business could be. Like very small. But over the first year or two, I learned what more and more business owners—both in my market and outside it—were doing. I was inspired by the offers they made and the ways they marketed themselves. I saw loads more possibilities than I did when I was just setting up my very first website.
Being a business artist gives you a more creative outlook on what can seem like drudgery. For the first 5 or so years in business, I really hated administrative or operations work. And I avoided it at all costs to my detriment. But I had a change of heart and started to see how beautiful admin and ops can be! I don’t know that I’d say I like it so much now as I’d say I find it incredibly satisfying—and that’s been good for business.
And being a business archeologist can teach you a great deal about how successful businesses work. If you only ever take a business’s marketing tactics or Instagram posts at face value, you miss out on what you can learn by asking yourself what else is going on below the surface. I don’t mean that in a nefarious way, of course! I mean that when I started adding, “What’s really going on here?” to the way I thought about other businesses, the more I learned about how I needed to or wanted to build my own.
Develop New Mental Models
You might have a tendency toward one of these ways of approaching your business. But this isn’t some sort of personality test. There’s no either/or. You can think like a business tourist, business artist, and business archeologist as the need arises. Plus, there are plenty of other ways to think about business, too!
How about a business doctor? A business carpenter? A business anthropologist? A business mechanic? And maybe my favorite: a business theologian?
My point here, of course, isn’t to prescribe a set of ways to think about your business. But instead, I want to invite you to craft different ways of approaching business-building. I challenge you to recognize the mental model you’re using to think about your business right now and try another one on to see what hidden treasures (and infrastructure) you might be able to spot.