As we sat in Anne’s living room in the early months of 2003, planning our escape from corporate life, we could hardly have imagined where we would be in 20 years. The four founding Directors knew we wanted to work together, and that we wanted to create a different type of business – one where people actually looked forward to coming to work and were able to be their best selves. We brainstormed what type of business we could be – we rejected a wine bar, an events company, and many more, settling on being a Change Management Consultancy, using the many and varied skills we had all accumulated through our very different corporate careers. Alison Maxwell and Mal Tanner, as the creative pairing in the business, went for a walk round a lake to come up with our company name, and the andpartnership was born – denoting our intention to add value, be neither just ‘human’ or ‘task’ focused in change but both, and coincidentally, appear near the top of training directories, a bit like ABC taxis!!
We signed the paperwork in September 2003, two of us working full-time in the business while two of us stayed in employment as ‘silent partners’, until the business could afford to pay us all. All of this seemed so hard at the time, but this was the easy bit – the hard part was getting and keeping enough clients and navigating our way through external and internal problems, to still be in business 20 years later! I thought as we approach our anniversary, I would share 10 top tips to surviving and thriving in business over time.
1. Stay humble and ask for/accept help from others.
Never think you know everything because you worked as senior leaders in corporate life – running a small/medium business is a completely different proposition. Nobody cares who you worked for yesterday or how important you have been. They are only interested in whether you can help them solve their problems and whether you are a person they trust and can-do business with today. This requires humility, listening and spending time to build the relationships.
Also don’t reinvent the wheel – one of the pillars of our success has been Future, Engage, Deliver, which was created by one of our associates, Steve Radcliffe. This was so close to our beliefs that it made no sense recreating something similar, so we worked with Steve to learn and deliver this very simple but powerful approach to leadership.
The full list of people who helped us, especially in the first few years, is too long to mention but you know who you are, and we thank you from the bottom of our hearts – we truly would not be here today without your selfless advice and guidance.
2. Hunt where the buffaloes roam
This was a piece of advice from one of our associates, Jess Long, who had been in business longer than us. We were spending a lot of time going to Chamber of Commerce meetings, local business networks and having coffees with fellow developers. Whilst there was a lot of interest in what we were selling, they didn’t have the budget to spend. Jess’s advice helped us to focus our marketing activity on being at events where our potential customers (the buffaloes) were, rather than attending events with ‘warthogs’! This required a large investment initially, attending specific marketing events, but paid massive dividends in the long term.
3. Help clients to imagine what it would be like to work with you.
The advice we received here, which we still follow today, is to demonstrate what we do and how we do it rather than simply sending out e-mails or flyers. And so the full day Tasters and Casesters (a taster combined with a case study) were born, plus an annual seminar to explore hot topics with existing and potential clients. These have evolved in the virtual world into 1-2 hour Zoom events on a multitude of topics that we can help clients to address.
The other advice we received was to find opportunities to speak anywhere – someone will always make contact with you at the end, whatever the topic. This also proved true and helped to convince people (and ourselves!) that we had something to say and were experts in certain areas.
4. Have a clear and succinct ‘elevator pitch’, which describes your main USP
This was one of the hardest things to do, as we all had lots of experiences and interests and to narrow them down to one felt impossible. Also we had nothing unique to sell, only the way we delivered it. However, we persevered and took the advice to become known for something – overcoming resistance initially, then engagement when we realised people didn’t buy resistance! Finally, this has evolved into helping individuals, teams and organisations to be at their best, more of the time. And make sure you are passionate about whatever you settle on!
Avoid the temptation to try to be all things to all people – the Kinder Egg of your trade (I can be anything you want me to be!). Become known for something and then people will ask you if you can do other things.
5. Keep in touch with industry trends and be prepared to adapt and flex your offer.
Read journals, articles, LinkedIn posts etc to see what the hot topics and trends are in your industry. Be prepared to flex your offering to take advantage of these. We have regularly added products into our ‘stable’ and dropped products that have become outdated or no longer relevant. We have also changed products to incorporate current thinking, such as inclusivity and diversity, and are always on the lookout for new areas that can fit neatly into our USP.
A great example of this is Mental Health and Wellbeing. It is a topic we all felt passionately about, but we didn’t have anyone formally qualified to deliver workshops. One of our Directors had a particular interest, so we invested in them getting the appropriate qualifications and it is now a highly popular product, really helping people to be at their best.
6. Turn problems into opportunities.
This sounds like a cliché, but it really is the key to staying in business. We include in our leadership training how to be in Playing to Win mode rather than Playing to Avoid Losing, and this is what we realised quite early on. It is easy to play it safe, not take risks and keep doing what you have always done, but this doesn’t lead to growth and sustainability. It is also more exciting when you are Playing to Win rather than just surviving!
The biggest example of this was when the pandemic hit – within three days we went from the best start to a year we had ever had to a completely empty diary (and I mean completely empty – everything was cancelled). This was an incredibly scary time, and it would have been easy for us to think we were ‘all doomed’, as our main delivery style was face to face. However, we identified how we would get our unique style across virtually and within four weeks, thanks to the dedication and commitment of the whole team, we had put all of our products on-line. This enabled us to have the best six months in our history at the end of the year, when companies were having to turn to virtual training, and ensured that we broke even at the end of the year. It also enabled us to bring the trend of ‘blended learning’ to life, with a genuine mix of face to face and virtual training going forward.
The final part to this is when asked to do something you haven’t done before, say yes and figure it out later! When asked to do some in depth Strategy training, it would have been easy to say that we didn’t do this as part of our offer. Instead, we pooled our considerable knowledge in this area, researched what we hadn’t got experience of and produced a highly successful Strategy programme.
7. Keep a close eye on cash flow/future business and ‘pull levers’ early.
All businesses go through peaks and troughs – the secret to staying in business is to see the troughs coming (pandemics aside!) and take action before it is too late. This requires good financial reporting and harsh decision making to protect the core business. This is not just about flexing resources, although we have had to lose some excellent people in lean times. It is also about speculating to accumulate, investing more in Marketing when everything is telling you to cut back. Also ensuring your business model has the ability to flex, whether it is associates/contractors, Director’s remuneration packages or office contracts.
8. People – hire slow, fire fast.
This well-known phrase takes focus, patience, and bravery. When recruiting, if you don’t get the response you had hoped for, avoid the ‘anyone is better than no-one’ philosophy. And if appointments don’t work out, avoid giving too many ‘benefits of the doubt’ – they seldom come good. Cut your losses, follow your instinct and move on.
Also, recruit to values – skills and experience are of course important, but they can be gained/trained. If the values don’t match, you won’t change those and you are likely to have to take the difficult decision at some point which will take time and possibly money.
Finally, as you are building the business, use the opportunity to create the culture you want. In our case it was vital to us to create a place where people looked forward to coming to work, enjoyed being part of the team, had a good work/home balance and brought their whole selves to work. These were all things that we had experienced the opposite of in our various corporate careers and knew how de-energising and soul destroying they can be. We celebrate our anniversary day every year, doing something fun together as a team. We’ve hit the high rides at Alton Towers, cycled around Rutland Water and a mad hatters tea party in London. We have also always held monthly team days to keep the team connected and understand how the business is doing, and to give a chance to hear the futures all of our team want to create for themselves and their families.
9. Acknowledge failures, celebrate successes.
Things never go right all of the time. We have had some epic failures over the 20 years – the secret is to acknowledge these early, learn from them and move on quickly. We sent Easter Eggs in our early years to our clients as a thank-you. However, it was a very hot Easter, and many were left on doorsteps in the sun, resulting in our clients finding them in a soggy, inedible mess when they got home from work! We also sent some mugs with ampersand shortbreads as a 10th Anniversary ‘thank-you’ present. With hindsight we should have spent more money on the packaging as over half of them arrived with one or both mugs broken.
It is also important to recognise your successes and use these in future marketing. These include putting your products and services in for awards as soon as you get feedback and positive results. Collect soundbites and individual quotes at the end of pieces of work. We saved all of these under the heading of ‘lights out from under the bushel’ to reflect that we weren’t necessarily good at blowing our own trumpets! And consider what you want your CSR strategy to be – ours was to support our local hospice, Beaumond House, and we have given time, donations and sponsorship over nearly 15 years, including me being a Director there since 2010.
10. Resilience & Sense of humour
Both of these are linked and vital to surviving 20 years in business. Bouncing back from setbacks quickly and keeping the whole team motivated and together is so important. Having a good sense of humour helps this – we do an annual review every Christmas where we flip up the successes, failures and funny things that have happened to us all over the year, so we can own up to errors, laugh together and learn lessons where we need to.
Many of these may not be known by our clients and it may be unwise to share too much! However, I can own up to one of my worse moments with an unnamed client. We had to take the early plane to Scotland, and I had a bad bout of ‘man-flu’, so was feeling terrible. The room we were in had no natural light, was very warm and had a low ceiling, so in the middle of our ‘Sea you are swimming in’ activity, where active listening is required, illness, tiredness and medication took over and my eyes closed! I was woken up by my co-facilitator talking in a very loud voice to attract my attention! Not my finest moment.
We also had a dog run into the room in the middle of a workshop, and in its excitement squatted down in the middle of the room and relieved itself! Hopefully it wasn’t giving me feedback on the workshop. And there are many, many more which will be in the book they say we all have in us!
Although I started by talking about 10 tips, I couldn’t finish without adding a ‘bonus’ tip. That is to ‘Pay it forward’, which is what this blog is trying to do. There were so many people who helped us in the early days that we committed to doing the same to people who came to us for help. We have always had an abundance mentality rather than copyrighting and licensing all our materials and this has hopefully helped our clients to sustain the learning.
I hope these have been useful – we have managed to survive a pandemic, three recessions and had our best year ever last year. We have had 9 Directors, 6 Shareholders, and 15 deliverers and admin staff over these 20 years, worked with dozens of associates and have done work for several other businesses as their associates. We have been privileged to work in some fantastic locations all over the world including America, Middle East, India and Europe, with a whole variety of venues from massive sports stadiums to local village halls. I couldn’t be prouder of our achievements, and I thank everyone who has been involved in the business and got us to this milestone. Here’s to the next 20!