Dissident Spin Doctor: How to build a business you love
by Emma King (@EmmainSA) Since starting up, without necessarily planning it, a set of business beliefs have organically formed over the years, and they’ve become a set of guiding principles that govern the way we work on a day-to-day business. Perhaps they don’t suit everyone but they’ve created the kind of business that I look forward to going into every day, and one in which, I believe, clients want to work with, and one that people want to work for.
Founding, and then running a business, is not for sissies. The stories you hear of sleepless nights, stressful staff issues, eking out the cents to pay the bills in the beginning when cash flow is pretty much non-existent, and the general need to be ever enthusiastic and energetic, even when you feel like throwing it all up and running away, aren’t an exaggeration. And as much as the highs — the winning of business, the accolades — are invigorating, they aren’t enough on their own to make it all worthwhile. For me, it has always been about building a business that I love.
When I made the (some would call foolhardy) decision to start my own business several years ago, I didn’t set out to be the biggest or to create an empire. And I still don’t; I would still rather have a smaller business that does really good work, with really good people, than oversee a behemoth, reporting into a faceless global network, with a million people rushing around beneath me. I had a pretty idealistic vision that was driven as much by want I didn’t want to do or be as by what I did. I didn’t want to work in a business full of assholes and big egos. I didn’t want to have people crying in the toilets and who were expected to work late every night and all weekend. I didn’t want to churn out shitty work I wasn’t proud of, spew lots of fancy marketing jargon with death-by PowerPoint presentations, or have to suck up to horrible clients.
1. Don’t work with assholes
Ever. And this means clients, staff, suppliers and anyone else whom you deal with.
I had an encounter with an almost-client recently that reinforced this belief. Within days, they were WhatsApping me at 6am, demanding I change other client meetings to fit in them at the last minute, and sending obnoxious and abusive messages. This was before we’d even met in person, and certainly before we were on the payroll. Imagine how we would be treated once we had been signed up and having to report into them? Anyway, it gave me a certain satisfaction to turn that work down — no amount of money makes being treated like rubbish worthwhile.
The same goes for people who are hired. Obviously, we want people who can do the job and who are dedicated to the company. But I also want to work with people who are fun, have an open and eager attitude, and who are friendly and enjoyable to be around.
Tip: I also believe that the best client relationships are built on friendship and mutual respect and, in an industry where your employees are the face of your brand, when a client loves you and your employees, this only leads to strong relationships and ongoing work.
2. Be careful and passionate about anything you do
Some people look to take short cuts and take the easy way out. I prefer to only do work that I am proud of and, for me, this means attention to detail and craftsmanship — whether that be a simple email or a massive campaign. I have worked in past agencies where any old shite was sent out or presented to clients, and it’s demoralising and embarrassing.
Tip: Doing good work is strangely pleasing and doing stuff that you are proud of keeps you in love with what you do.
3. Throw money at the problem
This may sound odd, especially for a small business or one that is starting out, but it’s one that I stand by. And it doesn’t mean wasting money, and being silly, but rather outsourcing or delegating jobs when you can.
When we start a business, we often try to do everything to save money and grow margins, but it frequently means stretching ourselves too thin, and exhausting ourselves by doing everything from hand-delivering boxes in the small hours of the morning instead of using couriers (she says, speaking from experience) or spending hours logging invoices instead of using a bookkeeper. It’s exhausting and wears you down. Instead, spend your time doing what you do well, and get other people to do the stuff they do well.
Tip: Work those costs into your operating costs or fees to clients — if this is done well, it won’t leave you any poorer.
4. Make your working environment a reflection of the life you want to live yourself
Considering we spend five days a week at work, every single week, isn’t it mad to spend those hours being miserable or working in a terrible environment?
Make that workspace somewhere that you love coming into, and which reflects the values that you want the business to have. Of course, it needs to be a professional space that functions well, and I’m not suggesting a Google-esque office full of pinball machines and bouncy castles. But make it somewhere that feels nice and where people enjoy coming to. For me, that means good coffee, an office dog wandering around now and again, a comfy big daybed that people squash up on to work from when it’s rainy outside, and a fully stocked bar so people may chat over a drink at the end of a long day.
It also means the little things — I know of businesses that proclaim they are premium, world-leading brands which have cheapo one-ply toilet paper in their loos; and others that proclaim they have inclusive work environments but which only allow directors to use the posh coffee machines while junior have to sip on Ricoffy.
Tip: This point also ties into point 1. Make sure that the space is full of pleasant, happy people, not bullies, nitwits, egomaniacs and psychos.
5. Live a good life outside of work
For most of us, work is something we do in order to enable to do the things we want to do in the rest of our life. So set the business up so this is possible, and so that your “real” life is not taken over by exhausting late nights and working every day of the week (apart from the odd occasion). Again, good financial planning allows this: ensure that estimates and invoicing are well-planned so that funds cover the amount of staff needed to do the job. When I see agencies where it is the norm for people to work to midnight every day and every weekend, I don’t see one that is hard-working — I see one that that has not managed its business model or client billing well enough to resource the work that needs to be done.
Tip: On that note, pay your staff members well for the hard work they do. It’s not only the right thing to do but it keeps the good people wanting to work for you.
In creating this utopian version of a business that I’ve wanted to work in, the greatest learning has been that it’s possible to do good work, surround yourself with amazing and inspiring people, have fun along the way and still be financially successful. These things don’t need to be mutually exclusive, and I would bet that they play a part in creating a solid and attractive business — to work for, with and alongside.
Emma King (@EmmainSA) is the owner and MD of The Friday Street Club (@TheFridayStClub). She is allergic to bad grammar and ampersands, but likes working her way through piles of novels and travelling the globe. She contributes the monthly “Dissident Spin Doctor” column on PR and communication issues to MarkLives.com.