10 Years, In the Blink of an Eye

Apple PowerMac G4

The first thing I bought when I started my own business…

I wrote a song in 2000 called ‘5 Years in the Blink of an Eye’, about how my band, formed in 1995 was now 5 years old. Now I’m writing a blog with a similar title, about my business, started in 2001, which is now 10 years old.

But back in September 2001 I never heard of a ‘blog’. No-one had broadband (I dialled up and downloaded emails and the  switched it off again quick). My Apple Powermac G3 had a 6Gb hard drive.The first Lord of the Rings film wasn’t out yet. I drove a Volvo 240. I didn’t own a DVD player or a mobile phone but still made use of my cassette player. I didn’t have a TV or TV licence in protest that Doctor Who wasn’t on.

Today my day consisted of a Skype call to a client in Saudi Arabia (I’m publishing his book), then I went into town to my favourite bookshop to write 1600 words (on my MacbookPro) in 90 mins for my own products. Then back for a video Skype call with a colleague who’s organising my appearance on his radio show in America next week. Then a bit of other client work on their books, follow up some arrangements for future speaking appearances. Once I’ve set up my newsletter it’ll be time to get back to put my three children to bed before getting ready for the final episode of Torchwood. What a day. And all unimaginable 10 years ago.

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10 Years in business and the problems of working for yourself

Tigerlilly disrupts work

On 12th September 2001 the world changed forever. Or at least my world changed. Because of a decision made that day I would never go to work again.

I decided to work for myself.

Having a boss. Commuting to work. Being late. Being early. Having to be somewhere at the same time each day. Looking forward to lunchbreaks. Getting stuck in traffic on the way home. Office politics. Feeling naughty or odd to be in town during the week. Having to make do with out-of-date equipment. Naff coffee. Poor seating and lighting. Head aches. Bad back. Having to cope with co-workings odd habits. Watching the clock and noticing time slowing down in the afternoon.

These are the things I certainly don’t miss.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. There may not be office politics but there’s plenty of relationships with clients and suppliers that need careful handling. I have plenty of meetings, conferences and seminars to get to on time and often that means coping with traffic.

I don’t have a boss, but by having hundreds of clients I have hundreds of bosses. ‘Working for yourself’ is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more accurate to say I’m actually working for everyone, or anyone.

The fact that anyone could be a prospect, lead, supplier or advisor is an interesting concept. It means that the self-employed/entrepreneur is always ‘networking’. There’s never really a time when I’m not ‘on’. I always carry my business card and notebook (you never know when ideas may come) and I’m always dressed appropriately as my personal brand has to be consistent, you never know who you’ll meet.

Working for yourself or setting up your own business gives you freedoms you couldn’t have imagined when being an employee. (I’m writing this is in my favourite coffee shop on my MacbookPro at 11.30am on a Thursday). But some are taken away. There is no scheduled lunch or coffee breaks. Sometimes I don’t bother with them at all. There is no scheduled start or finish time: the division between work and home life becomes blurred.

Some people say, ‘Oh, I could never work for myself. I’d stay in bed or watch TV all the time’. The opposite is often true: early mornings, late nights, sometimes are taken up by work projects. You have to learn your own time management and project management  methods fast. After all, up until you choose to work for yourself, timetables have always been provided, by parents, at school and colleges and then by companies.

There’s the knowledge that if I don’t perform well, there’s no money coming in. A salary is not guaranteed. This is the main difference in attitude that I’ve noticed over the years. Employees can usually afford to be complacent, ignorant or snobbish towards money, after-all it arrives in their bank every month. That pay cheque becomes a divine right and a pay-rise is thought to be compulsory. A lot of people feel that their pay is just for showing up and gracing the company with their presence. This leads to a disgruntlement if they feel they’re not being paid enough or appreciated enough to why not take a few pencils and envelopes from the stationary cupboard? After all, you deserve it.

There’s no such luxury when you own the business. It’s all your money. You’re suddenly responsible for every penny that comes in and every penny that goes out. You become aware very quickly that your job is to provide value. The more value you add, the more money you can charge. Doing a good job is not good enough, it has to be exemplary.

There have been ups and down over the past decade but one thing is certainly clear: I wouldn’t change it. I would never go back to employee status. In fact many people who do work for themselves feel that they become in many ways ‘unemployable’ due to the attitude changes that have to take place to be successful working for yourself.

I think they’ll come a time when almost everyone is working for themselves, or at least realise that that is actually what they’ve been doing all along.

When more people realise that they are responsible for their performance, training and education and that they can decide when their pay rise will be, we amy see a paradigm shift from victim and blame culture to empowerment and positivity that would not only benefit individuals but the economy and country as a whole.

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10 Years in Business – How I got it wrong

Ayd Instone Waterstock

One of my early promo photos... One of them looks a bit wooden, with ginger hair and the other one's a rocking horse.

There are many things I feel I’ve done right:

• Investing in the right equipment to speed up processes and quality.

• Not employing people but having strategic partners and suppliers to provide extra resources and skills as and when I needed them.

• Not wasting money on advertising but heavily investing in networking and teaming up with numerous people and opportunities that came from them.

• Outsourcing certain processes and marking up some of them as added services to clients.

• I’ve kept the business flexible and specialised in what I offer but not been too restrictive on the sectors I’ve worked for. This has paid off recently as some clients have seriously reduced their spending but other have not. I’m still here because I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket.

• Investing in personal business development to make me better at all aspects of what I do from the technical skills, to business skills to people skills.

But there are a fair few things I’ve done wrong:

• Not thinking big enough. There have been times when modesty should have been replaced with confident assurance. Opportunities were missed.

• Staying too local for too long. Today we can be either super-local and have that as a USP (Unique Strategic Positioning) or we can be global. There is no such thing as semi-regional or semi-national. It took me a long time to realise this. I’ve since worked with companies that are walking distance away as well as ones in Africa, America and Asia.

• Getting bogged down within projects and letting my own marketing slip and be too sporadic. It’s the old trap of the rise and fall of looking for work, then doing the work, then having no work so starting to look again. Marketing should be continuous and we all need to create systems to ensure that.

• Not being consistent in collecting testimonials. I’ve had some big name clients who I’ve worked for who’s endorsement would have opened up similar doors elsewhere. Sometimes I simply didn’t ask so didn’t get.

But the biggest mistake, which in effect encompasses all of those above is one that is so hard to get right as all instincts fight to prevent it happening and that is to say no to somethings so there’s more room to say yes to the right things. When you run you’re own business, especially at the start or when things get tight, we tend to say ‘yes’ to everything and anything. This has been the cause of most stress and the cause of reduced profits. Annoying clients, fiddly time consuming low grade jobs, unclear briefs and in some cases inappropriate jobs slightly outside of my expertise all take their toll on confidence, time, your brand and your profits. We often forget that we’re in control and can say no when it’s right to do so.

So there you have it. Hopefully you won’t make as many mistakes as that, but if you are working for yourself or embarking upon it soon, take heart that it is the most rewarding and exciting journey and I wish you every success.

Perhaps we can even work together on something one day.

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Change, and not a moment too soon: How I started my own business 10 years ago

My first business card, front and back. The grey part was actually metallic silver.

I started my own business on 12th September 2001. That’s right, one day after 11th September 2001. On that fateful day I was flying back from the Caribbean after a two week holiday and had just landed at Heathrow when the first plane struck the North Tower. The next day I went back to work to find the company I worked for had gone bust (unrelated to 9/11). It was a very strange, unnerving and memorable couple of days.

I was creative director of a multimedia firm. Don’t let that title throw you, I wasn’t on the board and I had no insight into the accounts or general finances of the company. My job was mainly to manage and do the jobs in the studio. I did know, however, that the value of the work coming in couldn’t possibly cover the salaries going out, which had been propped up with loans secured against the boss’s house.

The company had been set up ten years earlier to build bespoke PC systems that were used for multimedia presentations. Most of that market had disappeared due to the advancement of PCs and the availability of straightforward software like Powerpoint which virtually did the job for you. Why spend thousands on a bespoke system when you could pay hundreds for an off-the-shelf one that was probably better?

As creative director, I saw my role as attempting to guide this outmoded offering into the much richer vein of design-led graphics. The company could easily pick up branding, print design and of course web design as well as still doing high-end multimedia such as CD-ROMS which were still in demand. My team created a new identity and marketing campaign along with a brilliant website, mostly due to the talents of Michael Reading (now running http://www.hello-design.co.uk) that I was sure could have attracted press attention, if not awards, had it been properly launched.

But the boss had put the brakes on. He just wasn’t comfortable with ‘creativity’ and ‘design’. He wasn’t comfortable with newer technology, especially things like the new Apple iBook that Michael has just bought and amazed us all by editing video on it. It was able to do exactly the same job that the bosses hot-wired custom-built three tonne editing suite could do, except that it was a lot faster and didn’t take up half the office. The boss would really rather be fiddling with PCs with their cases off and discussing servers over a pint of ale at lunchtime than creating better and more profitable ways of doing things. He was a great guy, but in the wrong role.

While I was on holiday I had come up with more marketing ideas and the concept of a ‘sub-brand’ that could be used to sell the new design portfolio without appearing to impact on the more traditional technical image the boss wanted to cling onto. I did a lot of thinking about creativity and how it can be used to solve our potential clients marketing and branding challenges and came up with ideas for names such as ‘Ideas Workshop’ and ‘Ding!’ (which I later put to good use).

So, although shocking, it wasn’t exactly a complete surprise that the company was no longer in business when I got back.

The next day I started my own company and began to put all the ideas I’d come up with into practice, except this time, for myself.

Many people have started their own business in this way: because they had to. Sometimes you need a kick in the teeth to actually take action and get on with things.

So why did that multimedia company fail? To an outsider it could have appeared to have everything going for it. All the ingredients were there (Except for clients of course.)

Inflexibility, stubbornness and fear of change were characteristics of the boss. He yearned for the good old days of 1990 when it was just him and his mate building custom PCs. He saw the market was moving, but couldn’t or didn’t want to follow it.

With all it’s imperfections, that business helped give birth to mine. To start with all I did was the exact opposite of what it did and hit the ground running with the rejected ideas I’d come up with that my gut instinct felt would work, and it did.

But all the time I was aware that it’s oh so easy to fall into the same trap that my old boss found himself in. He loved doing part of his business. But it became the part that no-one needed anymore. His business had become a comfortable slipper to wear, but the terrain outside had transformed into a rough and dangerous landscape.

Over the last decade, I’ve tried to keep my business flexible and in many ways it’s completely different to what I started doing on that day in 12th September 2001. My old boss has found his feet too, finding a role within a technology business where he can at last do what he does best.

So here’s to the next 10 years. Who knows what we’ll all be doing then!

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