2021 marks ten years in business and ten years of growing as a freelancer and transforming into a creative agency with gloriously talented humans (and the dog). It’s also the year I turn 35. If I could go back and tell my 25-year-old self that I’d be writing this in ten years, I would first, have a heart attack from the excitement of realising time travel is real, and then I’d tell myself to stop talking rubbish.
It’s been a rollercoaster. No, scrap that, it’s been like a rollercoaster where you’re permanently hanging upside down and feeling hungover. This not-so-small milestone almost passed me by. As with many of us, I’m so focused on planning for the next year or five, or even another ten that I barely stopped to reflect on what’s passed by, celebrate the achievements and learn from the mistakes.
There isn’t a rule book or an instruction manual for running a business. There certainly isn’t one for when the world turns upside down and where businesses are forced to adapt or die. What works for some may not work for others. But making mistakes is definitely part of it, it’s part of life. The important thing is that we learn and keep going! We don’t have to have it all figured out, we just need to have a curious mind, keep learning and in my case, a stubborn, bloody-minded urge to run headfirst into things and figure it out later. Here are 8 things I’ve learned over the last ten years.
1. VALUE RELATIONSHIPS
“The business of business is relationships; the business of life is human connection.” – Robin S. Sharma. No matter what size your business is, relationships are what matters. Relationships with your clients, customers, colleagues, and suppliers are what matter. Without them, there’s no real foundation. I’ve always been a huge champion of the belief that people buy from people, and they interact, purchase and stay loyal to those people that they really connect with. That’s why we’re always focused on staying in touch, being communicative and swift in our replies, and crucially, just being human. The age of the faceless corporation is over, people buy from people. Just be a nice human being and focus on how you can help, rather than how much you can sell. This leads to trust and long-lasting relationships. And if you have a great relationship, always deliver what you promised, why would anyone want to end that relationship and go elsewhere?
2. CULTURE IS CRITICAL
When I was considering the possibility of growing my freelance business into an agency, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep the personality, pizazz, and personal touch that I’d based my business on. I was selling because I was valuing relationships (see point 1) and those relationships were based on me being me. So building an agency seemed to me, to be really daunting and that I’d have to become one of those corporate businesses that I disliked so passionately.
Thanks to an amazing coach, we developed a recruitment process that fits perfectly with the culture I wanted to cultivate. You can teach skills, but you can’t teach a great attitude, resilience, positivity, and tenacity so easily. I needed a team that first and foremost, could get on board with me and my personality, and had something to say for themselves. Some passion and drive. People who wanted to be part of something special and who wouldn’t be shy about speaking up about their ideas and how they could help build the business. We’re three years into growing the team now and I am so proud of how well the team work together and how much they value each other and each other’s ideas. After all, we spend most of our lives surrounded by colleagues, so it’s important we all get on! We’re nothing without our team, so make sure you value yours.
3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR HELP
Starting and running a business is hard. There’s no shame in saying it. When you have an idea, a skill, or a product your passionate about that’s great but it’s challenging when you’re trying to be the best at every role. If you’re not great with accounts. Get an accountant. (One of my first major lessons, that fine was crippling!) If you’re not great at social media. Hire a social media manager. If you’re not smashing it at sales. Hire a salesperson. Obviously, all those are easier said than done and there are periods where you do need to wear lots of hats. But you get my point. Me? I was a designer and I was, and am, great at building relationships. But I had zero experience about how to grow a business. So, finding someone who was, was pretty high on the list. I just wish I’d done it earlier.
There are lots of fantastic business coaches, and there are lots of crappy ones. Do your research, ask for referrals, and most of all, make sure you’re compatible. This person (if they’re great at their job) will be your cheerleader, your coach, keep you accountable, be your therapist, your teacher, and more! You’ll be spending a lot of time with them so it’s the same rule as hiring your employees. You’ve got to be a good fit.
Having someone who knows how to build, run and grow a business is invaluable. Never be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.
4. SHAKE THINGS UP
Stale working environments, processes, routines can often suck the joy from your day-to-day life. One of the reasons I wanted to work for myself was so that I could make my own rules, design my own timetable and make sure I was excited to come to work every day. This was obviously a little easier when it was just me, and even when it was three of us. There was a lot more flexibility when it came to working hours. Inevitably, as the team grew and as more clients came on board, we adjusted into the usual working hours as every other business. It just makes sense when you need to plan ahead and be available for your customers. But for us, that never meant becoming just like everyone else. So every now and then, we shake things up in the studio and because our culture is so strong and we have a firm belief that family comes first, the team are able to manage their time autonomously, leave early, arrive early, and have some flexibility around their lives.
Since the pandemic began and since we shifted to home working and back again, we’ve made a conscious effort to keep the team in touch and keep the same atmosphere and close-knit vibe that we had in the studio. We shook things up by developing a whole campaign around what brands the team would love to work with, took their input, and got them excited about having some ownership of what clients they wanted to work with. The Alchemist’s Workshop was a huge success and we’re now working with an epic hot sauce brand that the team are huge fans of! It means the team is excited to come to work and do their best work too.
5. BEING A LEADER DOESN’T MEAN YOU HAVE TO HIDE YOUR STRUGGLES
Being a leader is not something that came naturally to me. It was something I had to learn and work on. And just like other areas of the business, in the beginning, I had huge preconceptions about what being a leader meant. I assumed (which we now never do) that a successful leader always had to be unwaveringly positive, show strength, and never ever make mistakes. And if you did, hide it! No one wants a leader who fails. But, here’s the thing. You’re only human, I’m only human and sometimes shit happens to you that means it’s impossible to hide your pain or worry from anyone. And actually, that’s okay.
In a period of 13 months across 2020 and the beginning of 2021, I lost my Dad, my grandmother, and my grandfather. It couldn’t have been a worse time. The pandemic had us wondering whether the business would even survive, whether we’d be able to keep the team and on top of that worry about how we were going to pay the bills I was dealing with a tremendous amount of grief. As you can imagine, there wasn’t a great deal of time to process it all, along with the business and two small children.
I was, and still am to a certain extent, a believer that you can shake things off, leave your issues at the door when it comes to working and that it’s important to inspire action, positivity, and a can-do attitude every single day. That’s the way to lead a team. But there were times, where that seemed utterly impossible and I couldn’t help but show my real emotions at work and in front of the team. What happened? Something glorious. An outpour of support, understanding, and a team that gave all they had to make sure we still delivered what we needed to, to make sure we came out stronger on the other side. If I hadn’t shown my human side, I have a feeling that everyone would have assumed all is well and carried on as normal. Showing your struggles and pain is a sign of strength, not weakness. It brings everyone closer together for a common purpose.
6. LEARN TO BE COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE
A comfort zone is a peaceful place, but nothing ever grows there. Including people. There are tonnes of overused, over-shared quotes around pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and that can mean that the message gets diluted and loses meaning. But it shouldn’t be underestimated. Starting out in business, everything apart from actual design work was completely out of my comfort zone. But as I progressed, slowly things became easier and more new challenges came my way.
Public speaking was something that terrified me and wasn’t something I’d ever longed to do, but in this business, it’s a good idea to be seen, share insights and advice and attempt to position yourself as an expert in your industry. So, I said yes to every opportunity that came my way, and these days I can count speaking at a conference in front of hundreds as an experience that I not only really enjoyed, but turned out to be one of the best opportunities to get in front of some big brands. It worked! That means, that I’m probably venturing into my comfort zone now when I speak at an event. So it’s time to find the next challenge and keep pushing. Opportunities come from all different directions and if you can get used to saying yes to things that scare you, then success is right around the corner, along with a huge dose of personal development, self-belief, and confidence in who you are and what you do.
7. YOU ARE THE AVERAGE OF THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU SPEND THE MOST TIME WITH
These inspirational words by speaker Jim Rohn really resonated with me and it’s true that who you spend your time with, who you surround yourself with, matters! Whether we like it or not, we are greatly influenced by the people around us and the interactions we have with them, the discussions we contribute to. It affects our self-esteem, self-worth and whether we look at things positively or negatively. We are affected by our environment.
The good news is, we can shape and influence our environment. Spending less time with negative attitudes, less time with people who only want to see you fail or say things like ‘are you sure you’re capable?’ rather than ‘I believe in you!’, is key to success. Choose the people who you surround yourself with carefully, they’ll have a huge influence on you and have a significant impact. Surround yourself with people who push you to do better, challenge your views and perspectives, champion you to be the better version of yourself.
Spend as much time as possible with people who are better than you, more intelligent, more talented and highly motivated and you’ll learn so much more than you realise. This doesn’t mean creating a circle of ‘yes’ men or women. Criticism is important if it’s constructive and if you’ve found the right tribe, this will be ever so valuable.
8. BE FEARLESS, TAKE RISKS AND KEEP LEARNING
Be fearless in creating the culture and expressing your purpose and your original personal brand. Doing something different means taking a risk and that can be terrifying. But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, the bigger risk is NOT doing something you’ve been meaning to do because of fear or because it’s outside of your comfort zone. You’ll always wonder ‘what if?’.
If there is something stopping you from taking the leap, try and pinpoint what exactly the stumbling block is and write it down. For me, growing the team was a risk, building an agency seemed daunting and when I really pinned down what was scaring me, it was clear that these were things that could be easily overcome.
I was scared because I’d never led or managed a team. So, I read a tonne of leadership books and listened to hours of audiobooks on team, culture and management.
I was nervous that I wouldn’t be taken seriously and that competitors and customers would think I was ‘playing’ at business. So, I took some time to work on my confidence and mindset with my coach and again, lots of reading.
I could go on, but you get the idea. I still read for pleasure but these days my choices are to educate myself rather than entertain. Self-education and self-improvement are high on my list of priorities now, more so than ever before.
Although it’s been ten years it’s over the last twelve months I’ve felt an awakening and enhanced passion for business. I’ve focussed on my purpose and gained a new sense of clarity for why I get up every morning and do what I do. Ten years ago, I wanted to feel more in control of my life, I wanted to enjoy going to work and feel achievement in what I was creating. I wanted to be able to be myself and work with people who could get on board with my mission to unveil the people and the personalities behind businesses and brands. These reasons are the same, but with more depth and understanding than I had back then. I still want all those things, but I want them even more and with even more gusto because I know why I want them. That’s probably a whole other article in itself.
I’m not the perfect leader, manager, business owner (who is!?) and I will be learning more about how to be better, until the day I can’t. However, I am proud of what we’ve achieved so far and grateful for the lessons I’ve learned. I am also incredibly grateful to all members of our team. Every single one brings something unique to our business and our culture. Without which we wouldn’t have a business.
Creating and continuing to build our agency has changed my life and put me on the road to being who I really, truly want to be and the path to creating the life for myself and my family that I’ve always dreamed of. We’re not there yet, but being on the right path is something to celebrate.