With running “my own business” now just about hitting the one year mark, I’ve been looking over the stuff I put down a year back and since.
Pictured: The Shrink Your Briefs class at Studio of Things.
I’ve a collection of documents - business plans, road maps, and all that; and I also write a “behind closed doors” blog that helps me get my thoughts down and worked through - I’ve reviewed to see how it’s gone. Reasons why I called the business “a studio” rather than “an agency”, how the business could work, survive, and grow. All that stuff is in there. Some bits stand out more than others.
Anyway something lingered away while going through it all.
Why was I doing “my own thing”?
To explain: I was having a chat with someone recently who said it was inevitable I’d do my own thing. I get this a bit.
They (some people) say I have my own ideas. They say I do things differently from the norm. They say I don’t just see the world as “digital” or “traditional”. They say I see a lot more of “the wider picture”. They say I can deliver a lot more of “the wider picture”. They say the things I do have positive results (and there’s been some negative ones to learn from as well). They say I way I do things doesn’t fit into “agencies”, at least the existing local ones. And it goes on. Some and all of these, they say, apparently lead to the inevitability of “doing your own thing”.
I am not so sure me doing my own thing was inevitably something I’d choose.
I love the buzz of agency life, the buzz of a good agency. A good working environment is infectious - and “good” is about realism as much as it is about being creative with your ideas and application. There needs to be a rational element to it, the work has to… work. It’s got to be balanced. It brings assurance and stability.
I’ve been lucky to work with fun, talented people at some great places. I am accused of having Brahm at the forefront of my mind too much. I did spend a month shy of nine years there during my formative agency years, and felt lucky to work somewhere that stood for something, that gave a shit. Beyond there I’ve had a good mix during my career, each place full of talent, full of opportunities, most of it waiting to be untapped.
In the best of those we all worked together, were trusted and - for the most part - responsible, collaborating with a common understood purpose: At the end of the day the business end of that - we need as much money coming in as there is going out - was understood by all. The best agencies are run effectively by a talented collective who understand that. Like I say, that’s fun to be amongst, and exciting.
Rewind a year.
I left Home and felt like throwing the towel in. Head off to be a teacher (an increasing route out of agency world) or something else. I’d gone in to Home and just got on with it, thinking we could move the place to become, as I saw it, “the BBH of the north” (which definitely still seems increasingly brash as the days go by).
Despite promising myself when I joined I wouldn’t give everything, I did, in a massive effort to understand the place and then try to move it forward. By the sudden end I was spent. I don’t regret joining Home though - it felt we all shared something like the same idea. You can’t predict how things turn out.
(As an aside, I keep a quiet ear open for what the Homies are doing since I left - and it seems to be going alllllrrrright.)
Before I joined Home, after I left Bloom two years back, I talked to a lot of bodies, very few who wanted to employ me. As time went on I looked at the idea of “my own thing” as something to pay the bills and was actually getting on doing it.
I often don’t see the point of starting from scratch. If there’s something that can be folded differently into better shape, why start afresh?
You’re already some way along, at the Just Visiting corner of a Monopoly board.
It’s not being lazy - starting up takes time. I would always take hitting the ground running foremost. And I like I said, I genuinely enjoy that buzz of being around good people - and agencies come with the idea of strength in some sort of numbers. Irrespective of “looking at solo stuff”, I thought I could employ my thinking at Home - so went there.
When I left Home I remembered the struggles to find somewhere to hole up when I left Bloom.
“Sell yourself to me - show me where you fit in” was usually met with the reply “We don’t have that kind of role here, we don’t see how you’d fit in.”
When I took voluntary redundancy from Brahm in 2009 I’d worked myself into a career cul-de-sac then, of a different kind.
Back then I deliberately tried to get myself into a mental place where I knew I had the skills, knowledge, and confidence in both of those, to get a job somewhere I fancied locally.
From years of rumbling along going with the flow at Brahm, I gave myself some focus, some tangible ambition.
I made a little list of places to aspire to be and worked my arse off to get to one of those (which I did: twentysix).
12 months ago moving “back down” (like I did in 2009) wasn’t going to happen again, that was clear. So, I felt I had no choice but to do my own thing, whatever that was.
Some people talk about how they make their move, how they planned it, they saved up, then resigned. Others - many it seems after the recent Leeds Digital Lunch - are pushed by redundancy and don’t look back.
I was probably in that latter line of thinking, pushed into my own thing through being in a position where I couldn’t get another job in the Leeds area. Being unemployable spurs you into action.
So I got on with it.
“Take the positives.”
I saw it as a chance to work the way I felt it should be done:
Reason led work, knowing why we are doing what are doing.
Not against one process, but about being adaptable and curious based on the work’s needs.
Work with the people I want to, to actually be doing work, not managing people and processes.
..and therefore having the chance to say no.
A chance to work with all sorts of bodies, a real variety - and learn what is being done well out there and what isn’t.
I could work on “it” a day, a week, or longer - on site, from home, from a coffee shop, wherever was needed.
Being open to try a few things - a bit of grunt work to go with the “thinking work”.
Early on I relied on pushing a lot of work out to extra help, so Mike came to work alongside me doing strategy, design, and delivery, and “I” became a “We” — and we got a serviced office to work from for 12 months. It’s been good. He’s been a solid partner in everything. I would have gone spare alone!
And by being a “studio” there has been the chances to do work with “agencies” and “directly with clients”. It’s as close to having my cake and eating it as I could have.
At the middle of it all is doing the work. People come to me, we have chats, talk about how we could work together. We decide then some we do work with, some we don’t. (Sometimes we have a trial workshop to try out the way we work.) As a business we say “yes” and we say “no” and understand between us why. If we say “no”, we try to refer the job on.
I have been asked about a strategy for the studio’s growth or an exit strategy (because that’s what we all need these days, so say readers of Fast Company).
I am candid to admit at the moment I have no idea where the studio will be in six months, let alone 12 months. I have an idea of three months from now, and the next month in more detail, and especially the next week. As long as we break even every three months, and for the first financial year, and enjoy it. We have no investment funding and the bank never offers any support. What else can we do as a small business? See where the work takes us.
I’ve been through it all now and know that what I plan today won’t be the case tomorrow.
I’ve learnt that at bigger businesses and smaller businesses.
I’ve had bodies ask if we could work “closer”, either through exclusivity or potentially being absorbed. I’ve always been open to the idea of working closer, whatever that entails.
I see the identity of the studio as disposable, which some see as a surprise. “It’s your thing,” apparently. But I’ve also been quite accepting that I am running the studio because I can’t be anywhere else - but I also want to make sure if we were to work “closer” it would be with like-minded people. If a body came to us that was aligned, we’d talk. The name over the business isn’t such a precious thing for me. But at the moment we don’t have an attractive offer, so there’s nothing there.
But personally I don’t just want to be doing “just digital stuff”, for me a marginalising approach. I want to be plugged into an environment that allows strategies to deploy things in the appropriate place, not because “the digital department has a P and L line to meet so we have to do a website”. Also digital isn’t just about websites. And digital is as much a part of real lives as any other medium. A chance to do that is part of my jigsaw.
So, to go back to where we started: I am not so sure me choosing to do my own thing was inevitable.
It’s not something I have chosen. But it is where I am now - and I can’t complain. In the past year we’ve worked on the whole spectrum of projects, from simply building some emails for an agency against their supplied designs through to fully designing and building websites, and then working on innovation projects and digital strategies for some big organisations.
We’ve even taken time out to run some “classes”, such as Shrink Your Briefs (pictured at the top of this article). There’s certainly variety.
Where does our future lie?
We don’t do as much work in Leeds and the local area as much as I thought we initially would, but c’est la vie, I and we go where the work is.
Maybe the studio will grow to be something bigger. Maybe we’ll get a big break we choose to take.
But at the moment, we don’t have that, and it’s going alright. There’s now four of us in the studio, we’re doing good work, we enjoy the work, we work with some really good clients (and I say that genuinely), we’re doing it our way, and we’re living in the moment.