As I type mid-lockdown from my spare room on our thirteenth anniversary, the irony that Pitch started from a spare room with nothing but a laptop, phone and high ambitions to thirteen years later being in another spare room is not lost on me.
But, strangely, in 13 years of running this business, Covid-19 seems like just a moment in time and the latest challenge sent to test us. We’ve seen the credit crunch, Brexit and everything in between and during which I learned business is tough and you’ve got to roll with the punches.
Any birthday or anniversary is bound to spark up nostalgia. But in these crazy times my nostalgia has turned to excitement. The buzz of going against the grain, the challenge of standing out, of survival against all odds.
I know that from those badly affected in their jobs, some will decide that it’s the moment they have been waiting to go it alone – set up a business and take on the world! And there is a part of me who is envious of the buzz of the start-up.
So, in 13 years of running a humble SME, here are a few of my mistakes and sign posts for those sat in a spare room thinking of making something out of nothing.
People will make or break you
We struck lucky. Our first employees were outstanding. They were utterly unqualified, there were much better candidates out there, but none believed in our mission like they did. Because of them, clients instantly felt connected with our brand. Ollie, Rebecca, Paula and Charlotte, thank you for those early years.
That said, we have had our fair share of bad apples. Those who came in and had little regard our mission or our culture. Too often I was too slow in taking action and my lack of leadership only exacerbated the problem. The only one who will pay for your inaction is you. And your bottom line. Seek those who believe the same as you and you will create something you are proud of.
Telling people what to do is stupid
If you’re paying someone and then micro-managing them, you’re waste time and money. But micro management isn’t where I went wrong. I tried to help by telling people the answer, by wording emails for them, picking up difficult conversations and shielding them from the consequence of their mistakes – like an over protective parent.
It came from a good place, but it made colleagues stop thinking for themselves and feel undervalued. It was bad management and a bad use of company resources. Phil Knight, Founder of Nike said “Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results”. I should have listened to him.
It’s never personal
Staff will blame you and attack your character. So will customers. Competition will bad mouth you. If you’ve made a mistake, fix it. If you didn’t, accept you won’t please everybody, but you must never take this personally.
For me I’ve previously found it difficult to maintain the line of being “the boss” out of a want to be accepted as a team member. Balancing work friendships and employer/employee relationships is a very precarious exercise.
I’m not saying you have to be a robot, just that sometimes being the boss can be extremely lonely. Accept that’s the decision you made when setting up the company. It’s not personal, it just comes with the territory. Seek connection with a network of other business owners and entrepreneurs. You can relax and be ‘you’ in that setting without blurring any lines.
Survey friends and family as to whether they think your business venture is a good idea. Some will tell you it’s risky, that you don’t have the experience and that being a recruiter (in my case) is very different to running the business.
And they are right. You are not qualified for this. No matter how good you are at your current job, if it’s your first time starting a business from the ground up, it will push you so far out of your skillset.
But that’s ok, accept it and seek advice and educate yourself. I wasted too much time in the early years hellbent on proving those people wrong and I was too concerned with portraying the image that I knew everything. I didn’t and still don’t know everything now. I’m ok with that, but I should have got to this conclusion sooner.
Don’t let others make your decisions
I have in times of crisis or when feeling overwhelmed turned to my advisers and network and asked them what they think and what they would do. You should always be the last to speak, listen to others and seek perspective.
But don’t let direction become instruction. Ultimately it is your call, your ship to steer. I have in the past compensated my lack of having a boss by blindly following other people’s advice. Only to suddenly realise that the business had ended up going in the wrong direction. I have since learned to listen to advise and then take time to process in order to decide the best course forward. I have taken financial decisions against the advice of Financial Director’s, I have taken big commercial decisions against the advice of Non-Executive Director’s. Sometimes I was right, sometimes I was wrong. Both are ok.
Make sure you fail a lot. And quick.
The biggest problem in the early days of Pitch is how well it went.
Our first few years could not have gone better. I made blind assumptions that “the only way was up”. And then things went wrong.
The first time we launched our temp division, we failed to get the infrastructure right. We launched into Manchester without enough planning, we employed “bums on seat” and not Pitch champions. Failure came in all shapes and sizes. Don’t ever get complacent. Be humble with your wins and learn a lot from your failures. Failure is great data. I have accumulated some pretty awesome data in 13 years…
It's your fault
Totally, 100% your fault. You are accountable for the lot. Every mistake and bad call is yours. But every win and every milestone is your making. It’s both the scariest but most rewarding thing ever. You are 100% in control.
Stop living for the “exit strategy”
As wonderful as selling up and retiring sounds, constantly thinking that achieving a specific level of sales or headcount will make you happy is as vacuous as thinking a pair of £400 Gucci loafers will make you a more fulfilled person. It won’t.
This is probably the only trap I can honestly say I’ve never got wrong. I love my job and taking on whatever challenge the world throws at Pitch. Sure it’s hard and as the numbers on spreadsheets get bigger, so does the risk, so does the pressure. Apart from the occasional moment of wanting to sell cocktails on a Mauritian beach, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I don’t look for happiness in a finish line, I take joy in every sweat breaking mile I run with Pitch. Even sat here in my spare room my deflated feeling of being mid-lockdown facing into a recession (there I said it), I just need to look at the great team around me, our brand and reputation we have built over the years to fire me right back up. Because all of it isn’t about me, it is about Pitch.
Whatever you do don’t focus on the end and enjoy every day, especially the tough days. Those are the ones you feel the most proud of when you’re looking back after 13 years.