Our Interview With The Guardian

The Guardian website on a tablet

Interview With The Guardian: Leading The Way – when a business becomes more than your idea

Back in April we were approached to do an interview with The Guardian for a story they wanted to publish online regarding ‘Leadership & Management Skills in Small Business’.

A month on and the article has now been published and we’re delighted to share this with you.

Read the full article ‘Leading The Way: When a business becomes more than just your idea‘ by The Guardian.

The full transcript of the interview can be viewed below:

What leadership/management skills/training did you have before starting the business?

Before starting the business, I had very little leadership & management skills. My previous background before venturing into digital marketing was working on a service desk for Volkswagen. It was only in my mid-twenties, once I had confirmed in my mind the career I wanted, that any form of leadership and management skills began to formulate. Looking back at that stage of my life lends great perspective to just how much I’ve had to learn.

Initially I was fortunate enough to land a secondment in the web development team at Volkswagen. This came after actively self teaching for over a year, the skill of web design and web development. So I think at the time, the manager of the development team could see clearly that there was a drive from myself to succeed in that area/industry. It was during this secondment that I was given some genuine responsibility which in turn forced me to better manage myself. This would benefit me later in my career as this early education of self management would ultimately pave the way in which I manage people/clients.

At what point did you realise that you might need some help or advice in this area?

Having spent six months in the web development team at Volkswagen, I witnessed areas of business that before were not so visible before. I saw first hand genuine department structure, from the top management through to the bottom. I witnessed the roles of project managers and so it was an early baptism of fire in regards to keeping a ship well oiled so to speak. But after being asked by a local digital agency to join their company as lead web designer on the back of my time at Volkswagen, it was only then that I knew my responsibility would stretch beyond just designing and developing websites.

I was quite literally a human sponge at this point of my career, and any advice which was passed down from the managing director was welcomed and gratefully received. I was now personally meeting with clients. I had a responsibility to set realistic deadlines, manage expectations and project manage some very large contracts.

This was all new to me. So I was never afraid to ask for advice from the managing director. In fact, I was intrigued to know how he had managed to build a successful business. This intrigue meant that I opened up to his advice, his stories from experience and to learn from my own mistakes.

It was only after I left the business two years later to start up my own digital agency that the skill of management and leadership was something I needed to take just as seriously as my primary skill set which is web design and web development.

The first year of starting the business was messy. I never had to employ the services of an accountant before. Corporation tax, what’s that? I never had to manage invoices and receipts. The role of project manager was not something I ever had to contemplate as much as I did in this first year. I was no longer just a designer and developer, I was now a managing director of a business. I wasn’t at a stage where I could employ anybody. So I had to lean towards others in the industry.

The creative/digital industry is a close knit community. And its because of this I was able to reach out to managing directors of larger agencies who were now well established and take on some really great advice. So where as before my bookshelf contained well thumbed books on HTML, CSS and graphic design principles, they were now in competition for space with books on project management, business startups, finance and business strategy. Amongst these books were biographies – Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Tamara Mellon… Any insight to not only running a business but managing people, be it clients or freelancers, was absolutely invaluable to me. It truly opened my eyes and painted a much bigger picture.

How old was the company by then, and how many people did you employ?

At this stage and after the first year, the business consisted of just myself. I had managed to, through trial and error, establish a good collection of freelancers who I could rely upon and who shared my own philosophy towards work, to work with me in the small office I had leased here in Milton Keynes. This would prove to be another chapter in my education, as I was no longer having to manage myself and be my own leader, but I now had to manage between four to six individuals. This is when I knew I had to once again take a new approach and the advice provided to me before would really come in to play.

What sort of staff management challenges were presenting themselves, and what impact was this having?

My ‘dream team’ as I referred to them were all massively talented in their chosen skill. Be it, web developing, copywriting, designing or programming. But they were not employees. So where as within an organisation of employees who have a contracted commitment to arrive each morning at 9am and sit through appraisals two or three times a year, not one freelancer I hired had to commit to the business on this type of level. I couldn’t just call a meeting via an email and expect them to be there, cup of coffee and notepad in hand, ready to discuss the month/year ahead. No. I had to manage them as individuals whilst being respectful that they too were working independently.

This is what I found to be the most time consuming aspect of running the business. It was myself who was responsible to my clients. It was myself who had to make the long journeys throughout the UK for a 30-minute meeting and then not having time to work on a project whilst sitting in traffic. It was myself that had to manage my clients solely. There was no account manager, no project manager and no receptionist! So whilst having to manage clients and their expectations, I was also having to manage freelancers.

Phone calls at 11pm between myself and my ‘dream team’ were now common. If there was a deadline looming or if a project brief had changed, I then had to pass this information down. With each individual freelancer, there came a different personality. Some were thick skinned and I could call them out if I thought they were falling behind. Some were not so thick skinned, so I had to take a soft approach and offer encouragement rather than deliver criticism. Some individuals thrive on encouragement, some thrive on proving others wrong. So I quickly learnt how to approach situations with varied management and leadership tact.

All of a sudden my stress levels were sky rocketing. I had just become a father for the first time, so not only was I having to seriously manage my personal life, I was having to manage my career as well as being ‘forced’ into a project/account manager role. This was the most challenging stage of my career.

What kind of help did you get and where from?

Running a business can be a lonely experience. But the key I found to managing a business is to surround yourself with individuals who have been there and got the scars to prove it.

My father in law has for over 30 years run a very successful steel business in the midlands. On the odd occasion we had the opportunity to discuss business, in between family get-togethers and weddings, he has passed down to me some brief but ultimately invaluable advice. Right through from managing a business through to managing people and clients. This kind of support from my peers is single handedly how I have managed to stay on top and stay sane!

The real challenge I found was financial. Managing finances coming in and out of the business. A good accountant firm are worth their weight in gold as the saying goes. Having this burden lifted from my shoulders allowed me to regain focus on the level of service my business offered, the standards of work delivered and keeping the ‘dream team’ happy and motivated.

It was at that point that I also joined such organisations such as Buckinghamshire Business First. Being amongst like minded individuals and attending meetings on business and innovation in the area was a far cry from the early days of answering calls on a service desk.

How has this helped you?

There is a quote from Steve Jobs that reads:

“My model for business is The Beatles. They were four guys who kept each other’s kind of negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.”

I’m 100% convinced that great leadership and management skills are a natural hybrid of advice passed down and lesson learnt through personal experience. Of course, a percentage of this can be learned from research and the route of education. But it’s my mistakes which have made me a better leader. My mistakes have taught me how to not to do something the next time a similar situation arises. Even then it may not be prefect, but its another step in the right direction.

I’m still a human sponge to this day. Any success the business has had, be it winning a large contract with a university or within the NHS through to being recognized locally and within the design community for the work it produces is quickly brushed to one side.

Complacency is what kills many companies and although my approach is far more focused now, six years after starting the business, I still have that fear factor and I’m never afraid to ask for advice. Success should not create an ego. What success should do is allow any leader of manager to remember why something was successful in the first place. Correctly managing those who work for you, motivating them and supporting them accordingly is the benchmark for any business in my view.

I still actively seek advice from my peers and at every oppurtunity pass this down. I’m now being asked for advice which is I take just as seriously as those I have asked in the past did when I approached them.

Finally, where is the business going next in its development and what further support might you need as you take it through its next stage of growth (in terms of people management)?

What does the future hold? Hopefully further growth. I’ve witnessed first hand the pitfalls of rapid growth so I take a cautious approach towards this.

It’s been a steady approach.Business is not a race; it really is a marathon. All it takes is landing a large contract which enables a business to take on additional staff. It really is a fine line and a challenge to balance the books and to expand. There is no sure thing in business. So the approach will still consist of patience, perseverance and being diligent. As previously mentioned, surrounding yourself with likeminded individuals is one key factor, but one thing I have learnt in all this time is that it’s not always what you know, but who you know.

The combination of advice, experience and networking will only help develop the business further. It’s essential to never think ‘you’ve made it’ or that you know it all. I’m a lot wiser now, but the drive is still exactly the same as it was when the business made it’s very first pitch.

About
westfourstreet is a digital agency based in Milton Keynes, specialising in web design and web development, mobile apps and social media campaigns. Six years old in May 2016, we have quickly established ourselves locally as a digital agency recognised for delivering outstanding online marketing and design solutions.

In it’s six years of business, westfourstreet has gone from humbling beginnings through to working on web projects for organisations such as the NHS, The Open University, Bucks New University and for high profile individuals such as the critically acclaimed fashion designer, Ben De Lisi.