2019 was a big challenge personally. By the start of the year, the business had really started to slow down in terms of growth – partly down to the economic and political climate, partly down to making key decisions too late and more significantly not drawing on the things that had made us successful for the previous nine years.
We celebrated ten years in 2019 and having set up in bleak times (during the worst recession ever), we had had a pretty good run to be fair. We had some steady growth, followed by heady growth, followed by consolidation. It’s probably not untypical for a lot of businesses to have this kind of cycle, although accepting that the order and cadence may fluctuate somewhat!
Reflecting on it at the end of last year, was quite tough. I had made quite a few personal sacrifices and followed the proverbial “sleeves rolled-up” approach – good northern roots and an “I’ll fix it attitude” was my go-to MO. I am not a serial entrepreneur – unless you count taking things from skips and reselling them when I was 12, to make a few quid as business number one – but I kind of figured that its all part of the journey. It feels very bumpy, with very little suspension to say the least.
One of the key lessons I learnt, and I hope sharing will open a conversation, is that it is really easy to manage a business downwards. When things are not going how they used to, or how you want them to, I found it easier to navigate solutions in a more pragmatic way to avoid the risks, playing safe. The problem was that the whole management team start focusing downwards. It was about what / where can we save, what can we stop doing, who is to blame…..etc etc. It felt like the right thing to do at the time – that’s grown up business isn’t it? Make decisions, be prudent, look after the pennies. Well I can honestly say it probably cost us 12-18 months in progress!
And it took me about six months of 2019 – after some structural changes - to realise what had been happening for the previous two years really. I am an upbeat, high-energy person, but found myself quite deflated on the drive home from the office too often – very “un-me”. I am not 100% sure what triggered it – maybe I just got fed up on myself being in a negative mindset - but something changed.
Whatever it was sparked a significant uplift in my mood and my energy levels. I suddenly had that incredible buzz back into my work – like a relentless pursuit of something a lot bigger. I had a new confidence and found myself being creative, imaginative, more provocative in our approach. I was loving being with clients again – after 3 years off the road. I was learning new things, I was meeting loads of new people, good stuff just kept happening.
I talk about the laws of attraction a lot and I felt like I was living that theory. I was creating momentum and it felt like the company was following – suddenly an organisational confidence started to appear. Even writing this now makes me think about how I’d go and make a brew and had told 10 people about my trip to London, speaking to clients, the projects that might be coming up. Confidence inspires confidence.
The second half of the year was still tough – don’t get me wrong. There is no magic wand to business, but we had started to earn some luck. We had started to feel that every opportunity was ours to win and that every client probably wanted to work with us. You could argue partly delusional or dramatic, but the difference in mental approach to meetings from “why would they work with us” to “why wouldn’t they work with us” is very subtle in words but absolutely fundamental in practice.
We changed the way we operated as a management team, adopting a new methodology with a high accountability focus. We became quicker and clearer with decision making. We focused energies in the right areas – focus on growth and long term, rather than just quick fixes.
It meant we had a whole new look at what we do for clients and sparked seven new service offerings and accelerators that we’ll be launching on LinkedIn over the early months of 2020. We secured some fantastic new clients – with an incredible win ratio. We have started to build a healthy pipeline of opportunities and conversations, and once the economic pressures of the country settle down, we will hopefully see a real spike in growth. It feels like 2020 is going to be a good year, with 2021 likely to be a belter.
I guess the reason for writing this piece is that I like to share things. I have no issues being transparent – whether it’s good news or bad news. I suspect that lots of business owners have gone through similar journeys; some will have oodles more wisdom than I ever will, but I like to create discussion and would be interested to hear others’ similar journeys and the lessons you have learnt.
I have learnt a lot about myself in the last 12 months. I figured out what role suits me best – and therefore hopefully the company. I have had a “growing up” moment in terms of business and I am absolutely delighted to come out the other end. Probably wiser, certainly more resilient, and definitely mentally stronger. And even my football team is winning every game!
To conclude the piece, I guess the one obvious lesson, that I think is really important, is that the energy of the leadership is literally the organisations battery life. If it dwindles, so does the organisations. You need to keep plugging in and recharging every day and make sure you pass it on. It will be hard at times, but the rewards will be significant.
Stephen Johnson - Co-founder and Director