This post has turned into a bit of a lengthy post, but should give you some insight into some changes going on at Distilled.
Over the last 4 years Will and I have had the challenge and the pleasure of growing Distilled from just the two of us working out of my front room, to where we are today. We deliberately decided not to take any funding, and have bootstrapped our way through 5 offices to our current situation with 15 staff and our fantastic new offices.
Today I’m going to talk about some of the challenges of growing a small company, and give a bit of an insight into where we are going from here.
Setting up and running a company has been a dream for Will and I pretty much ever since we met all those years ago (17 for those of you who are counting). In March 2005 we finally decided to swap the (relative) comfort of our (relatively) secure, (relatively) well paid jobs for the thrill of starting a company. In the early days our goal was survival. Could we make enough money to pay the rent and buy food for the month? Luckily the answer was yes, and we were on our way. Life in the first few year or so was all about survival. Our goal was simply to still have a business.
The next two years the goal switched from survival to growth. The business was still young, and the growth was somewhat haphazard. It was growth in the sense of “see what sticks” rather than growth as part of any defined strategy. Will and I are incredibly ambitious, and we found that we simply couldn’t stick to a strategy. We often found ourselves creating a 6 month strategy, only for 2 month later to have done something slightly different that was much more effective. When you are a small and growing business it is very easy to change course to fit with the market, and to follow what feels right at the time. We became very good at subtle changes to make the most out of the situation in front of us.
Will and I were reminiscing about this just the other day. The first three years can be summed up as massive growth whilst “flying by the seats of our pants”. This is what we, as entrepreneurs thrive on, the uncertainty and the ability to change course and follow a different path. It’s exciting, exhilarating, but it’s a nightmare to even start to put into a strategy.
Where are we going, what’s the exit strategy?
Over the years we have spoken to a number of business advisers in various guises. Will and I have never been afraid of taking advice from people who know better. In fact I’m certain that our biggest success to date is in hiring people that are better at their jobs than Will and I ever could be.
Of all the business advisers we have ever spoken to not one has failed to ask us about our exit strategy. Up until now the flying by the seat of your pants feeling, and our ever changing business has meant planning, and more importantly sticking to a strategy has never been possible. Not to mention the fact that at the moment, we are enjoying the ride, and want to take Distilled as far as we can go. In my mind, thinking about our exit feels like it goes completely against what we have spent the past 4 years building.
Changes at the coal face.
The last year or so at Distilled has seen subtle changes from the previous three. It simply isn’t possible for 15 people to thrive as we have in an overly entrepreneurial environment. 15 people going from day to day and seeing what challenges are thrown their way doesn’t lead to the incredible results we have achieved for our clients. The change has come in creating processes around our day to day tasks to ensure that our work is consistent. We have a fantastic team at Distilled and it has been a struggle getting the balance right between ensuring that we have consistent and repeatable processes and giving enough freedom for people to get on with what they do so well.
Despite trying to formalise more of what we get up to, we are keen not to lose all of the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in so many small businesses. The challenge is to keep that feeling, and to allow everyone at Distilled to express their creativity, whilst ensuring that we continue to strengthen and grow our business. Despite managing to triple our revenue last year, and move into our new offices we can’t help feel that something was missing. Will and I are outrageously competitive, and despite doing really well last year somehow it doesn’t feel as satisfying as it perhaps should. A lot of the entrepreneurial feeling is based around constantly being challenged and more often than not coming out on top. Even the subtle constraints that the processes put in place are enough to lose that feeling of being challenged, and without challenges it’s very easy to lose the winning feeling. This feeling of slight disappointment is what drives us forward and is a big part of what makes Distilled so successful. It’s that feeling that will drive everyone next year to bigger and better things.
When we were a small company, we tried new things, and were able to see what worked. As any company grows it’s natural that they lose some of that ability to try things. We have built a company that is incredibly good at what it does, but a bit of the fun of running or working in a small business is the ability to try new things. There are a lot of challenges facing Will and I but ensuring that Distilled remains at the top of the game, whilst encouraging creativity amongst our staff is one of the greatest.
After a long introduction it’s time to announce the changes that are happening at Distilled. Will and I are going to ensure that we take at least half a day out of the office each month talking about the long term strategy. We have had a handful of these meetings in the past and have found each and every meeting energises us and gives numerous ideas for the future. Where we have struggled in the past is to take these ideas from the early stage into something that will help our business.
For this reason my role is now CEO. This is to ensure that there is one person accountable for driving our strategy and ideas into changes for the business. Historically our day jobs got in the way of the non urgent but important changes that came out of our strategy meetings.
Those of you who know me will know that I’m not the most outgoing of people - I’m firmly in the introverted techy camp. The reason Will and I work well together is that he isn’t quite so techy at heart and is firmly in the extrovert camp. This split has always worked well and the split will remain. Will’s roles will continue to be looking after the public facing roles of a traditional CEO. This means evangelising Distilled, and continuing to build our network.
To help this more strategic focus Sarah, our COO will be taking on even more of the day to day tactical management challenges.
Getting to where we want to be.
The competitive nature of Will and I means we are never satisfied with the way things are. We are always looking for ways to improve and better ourselves. Historically, with our lack of strategic focus we have been restricted to making incremental improvements to our business. The next challenge, and my major role as CEO is to look at where we want to get to, and implement any changes necessary to get there. This should result in Distilled getting further, and ending up stronger than if we continue to incrementally better ourselves. Given how proud we are of where we are at the moment, this is exciting times indeed. This subtle change, and the fact that we are giving ourselves the permission and the structure necessary to get to where we want to be, means that once again Distilled feels exciting. For Will and I it feels like (once again) we are setting up a new company. The entrepreneurial feeling is back, the excitement of thinking where we can push ourselves is once again getting the competitive juices flowing.
Stay tuned to watch where we can get to. For those of you not already subscribed, now would be a good to sign up. You don’t want to miss out on something good.