Right before we spent a bit too much of a night and way too much of our profit on a wild night out to climax our working year, we spent a couple of hours together figuring out what went well, what went not so well and what we could do better.
2018 was our first full year in operation. The first complete year of designing, building, capturing, meeting, managing and selling. Here’s what we learned.
1. Office space matters
We moved into our first ‘proper’ office in February. This was driven by the need for us all to be in the same place, at the same time, uninterrupted.
We upgraded to a larger room in August. We were recruiting, needed more seats and a place that would attract and retain incoming team members.
In the new year, we’ll be looking for our next address. Yes, we’re adding to the team again, but we could find a way to cram a couple more desks into our current digs. No, we wouldn’t work at our best if we did.
We underestimated the value of, well, space. Space to do whatever it is you do without feeling unencumbered by the thoughts and actions of others.
2. Process x 1, pragmatism x 3
Don’t build processes before you get any clients.
Don’t worry about the process when you’re still figuring out what you’re doing.
And don’t forget to work on, write down and reinforce your process when you’re scaling.
3. You don’t have as much time as you think
We use a tool called Forecast. It’s good. Try it. It helps us to schedule our team’s time per project and figure out how much capacity we have in the studio.
The issue, and in turn the learning, was that we figured that a day in the diary meant a day to work on a project. It doesn’t. Directors, managers and team members have different levels of responsibility over and above their workday. In a small business, there is little room for specialism and everyone, to some degree or another, needs to help beyond their basic remit.
Then there’s holiday (who’s covering for x), illness (x isn’t at 100%), travel (Chiswick is a 3 hour round trip from Old Street, fact) and whatever else slows us all down. If you can get 3 or 4 good hours of work done every day, you’re doing alright.
4. Involve everyone in new business
As we’ve just noted, time is a limited commodity. A lack of time can cause priorities to become muddled, rarely more so in our case than with business development.
As our BD process professionalised, so it became siloed. Too often, we’d sign a client without more than a couple of people knowing what we had to do, how we were going to do it and, most importantly, who we were doing it for.
We’ve always believed that relationships were at the core of our business philosophy, but we let this fall away in favour of expediting a process. Which, considering our sales cycle, made absolutely no sense.
We work on projects reliant on a high degree of trust. They’re potentially invasive, time-consuming and expensive. There’s a lot at stake. So, it’s no surprise that it can take months (we’ve yet to hit years, but it will happen) to convert an initial conversation into a piece of work. Which is why it’s always worth the time to delay the proposal by a couple of days to make sure everyone has had a chance to see it, feedback on it and learn a bit about the prospective client that you might very well be working with for the next year or two.
5. Meet > Call > Email
Don’t email when you can call. Don’t call when you can meet. Always push to meet everybody you can.
6. We weren’t ready for interns
We wanted to recruit interns from day 1, partly because that’s how our two Creative Directors started out, and partly because we wanted to help give a bit back to the industry.
Best case? We found a diamond in the rough that became a valued part of the team. Worst case? We didn’t, but we kept the team fresh with new ideas and new personalities.
We spent time finding people that we thought would benefit from the time with us. We prepared induction documents. We paid our interns the London Living Wage.
But, looking back, we underestimated how much energy and forethought would be required to get the most out of our intern’s time, both for us and for them. It prompted us to consider what we could do to support an incoming intern’s individual goals, and the resources required to help them as much as they helped us.
7. Quotes don’t matter when contracts are signed
As a salesperson, you can be forgiven for focusing your attention on the value of new work coming in, over the value of the work going out. As a founder, your job is to consider how to maximise both.
I imagine that most mature businesses are defined to some extent by this potential fluctuation: undervaluing and overdelivering early, over-resourcing whilst scaling, overpromising from time-to-time.
Our business operates to a relatively consistent, labour-based model. Our ideas, strategies and designs will vary wildly per project, but the underlying process changes little; from a distance, a lower value project might look a lot like a higher value project.
We learned that, when a contract is signed, the value of the job is no longer imperative. Chances are, the person paying a little will be equally as demanding as the person pay a lot, and the process – stakeholder management aside – will be just as thorough, and just as expensive to run.
8. Keep writing, keep posting, keep sharing
Many months after we started, people started telling us that they read what we write or like what we post. Prospects, clients and partners alike.
It’s flattering; it’s reinforcing. Stick at it.
9. Collaboration is king
We’re a relationship-lead business. We have to be. We simply couldn’t produce great work without truly understanding the challenges our clients face and partnering with their teams to help solve them.
Our early insecurities made this challenging – they’re paying us to do the work – but we learned to lean in, listen and collaborate. It worked.
It worked so well that we started to administer this mentality across the company (beyond the obvious work alongside specialist freelancers on certain projects).
Now, our prime channel for new business is via the partnerships we’ve fostered in the past year. We work with businesses outside our sector – but embedded in the same vertical markets – to produce work for clients that, alone, we wouldn’t be able to.
10. Invest in each other
Founding, running and driving a business are hard tasks. They take a real toll on your life.
5 of us founded this business, so that’s 4 other people to rely on and be thankful for sharing the load. It’s also 4 people to think about, care for and help.
We’re ‘client-in’ rather than top-down, but we’re team-first. Nothing has been more important to our success thus far, and we’ve learnt that nothing ever will be.