3 years, 10 lessons
By Christopher Graham
Today marks our third birthday.
It seems strange to write that, since it seems like only a few weeks ago I woke up with a mild hangover the day after I stepped down from Scottish Renewables and thought to myself: Right. This is it. You’re now the CEO of The Marketing Department.
Recently, a friend turning 21 asked me “What are your 20’s like?” I told her that, from my experience, it’s all about learning who you really are and what really motivates you. What you want. And what you don’t want. I also added: “You won’t be the same person at 30 as you are now. Time and experiences will round off the rough edges and you’ll evolve.”
It turns out, it’s not just the passing of a decade that will make you evolve. Having my own business has changed me in so many different ways that I have struggled to write this article because it’s almost impossible to quantify everything I have learned in a relatively short space of time.
I’m a list-maker. I make lists for everything, from what I’m trying to put into a marketing campaign, to what I’m going to do with my weekends. But this list was the most difficult of all: here are my top 10 lessons from the first three years. If you’re just at the start of your business journey, or if you’re thinking of setting up on your own, I hope you find some of this useful.
1. Get used to doing everything yourself (at least at the start)
It might seem obvious, but at first I miscalculated how different it’d be working by myself compared to working within a larger organisation. No longer did I have people to assist with things like answering calls and setting up meetings. This meant that my days were filled with wildly varying tasks, from issuing invoices one minute to sketching out designs the next. Which reminds me…
2. Get a good accountant and finance software
At the start I thought I could handle all of this myself. We were about a year in when I realised that I had no idea what was happening financially with the business, though I knew it was doing well. That’s when I appointed an accountant who insisted we move away from my Microsoft Excel spreadsheets to a proper book-keeping solution - and I haven’t looked back since. I dread to think how much time was wasted that first year.
3. Think ahead and get the right equipment
The business started on a Saturday, and our first client meeting was on the Monday. As I stood up from my couch to leave I thought I’d better print this agenda. And then realised I didn’t own a printer. And then started to worry about the cost of printers. It can be really useful to think ahead and make sure you have everything you need before getting started.
4. Set up a comfortable working environment.
Long hours are the norm at the start of any business but I didn’t realise just how long I’d be sitting for. I confess - I tried to save money by not buying new furniture at first but within two months I was seeking professional help for my back and was sternly told to invest some money in a proper desk and chair. Setting up my first office, in the spare room of my flat, actually made the business seem more ‘real’. And it meant getting all of my work papers, books, sketches etc out of my bedroom and living room!
5. Leisure time is not only allowed, it should be encouraged.
And so should exercise.
I’ve always been a bit of a workaholic but that first year, looking back on it, had next to no breaks in it apart from a 7 day holiday in May 2016 that I took at the insistence of my parents. It wasn’t until we got there that I realised how exhausted I was and how tense I’d been feeling. This work-at-all-times attitude also meant that I cut out almost all exercise, which was a mistake. It got to the stage I was feeling so tired all the time, and was sick of being so fat that none of my nice clothes fitted me any more. Now I’m one of those people who gets up at 5am to go to the gym and records everything I eat in MyFitnessPal. Not taking care of yourself can do terrible things to your appearance, and in evidence I offer you these two selfies. The first was taken a few months before I started the business. The second one was taken as 2017 drew to a close.
6. Build a business that can last without you
In the beginning, the TMD team consisted of just me. But as we started to grow, I started to wonder what would happen if I was unexpectedly incapacitated or in some other way unable to do my job. So I started to make sure everyone else had the ability to take on my workload - and act on my behalf - if this ever happened. I’m glad I did - this summer I took nearly three weeks off when my mum passed away and I came back to find everything running like clockwork. At the risk of sounding morbid, there’s also a letter in the safe in case something should happen to me; my responsibility to my team and to our clients doesn’t end if I get hit by a bus.
7. Flexibility is key to getting the best from people
I’ve never been able to understand employers - especially in our industry - who demand people come in for 9 o’clock in the morning and then expect overtime to be worked when workloads are large. Maybe I’ve never been an early bird, maybe I’m a stereotypical millennial who expected flexible working from the start, but I knew when I started TMD that it was not going to be a 9-5 sort of place. By giving everyone flexible working, we get the best out of our team.
To quote Steve Jobs: “… but innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realised something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.”
8. Make sure everyone gets a response
This is not only good manners, but good business sense. Everyone who writes to us - whether they are looking to engage us to execute work for them or asking us if we have any open positions - gets a response. I remember looking for my first jobs and being so disheartened when companies and agencies I’d written to didn’t even bother to write back. It’s soul crushing. Our reputation for reliability and delivering is key to our brand so it wouldn’t do if people thought we were an agency who didn’t reply when reached out to.
9. Use power for good
Even back at the start I was clear that TMD had to give back to the community in some way. This will evolve as the company grows but we often do work for charities at substantially reduced rates, or even gratis. I am also Vice Chair of Stepping Stones for Families, having been asked to join their board after we executed their rebrand. I enjoy volunteering, and it also gives me something to contribute to aside from TMD.
10. ‘Thank You’ is so underrated.
Actually I always knew this but running TMD for three years has reinforced the importance of it for me. When I look at all of the work we’ve created for our clients - the mind-bogglingly large amount of it - I feel very thankful that all of these businesses, these charities, these people with an idea, trusted us to help them. And I can’t think of anything I am more thankful for.