10 lessons from 15 years.
Running a consultancy is never easy. As we hit another big milestone, here are some of the key lessons we’ve learned over the years.
This week Wilson Fletcher celebrated its 15th birthday. We’re obviously very proud to have made it this far: not many make it through their first few years, let alone their first fifteen. It has been quite the rollercoaster ride at times. But here we are. It seemed a good time to reflect on and write down some of the key lessons from the 5,460-ish days we’ve been running for.
The why, what and how of WF.
A little context first. Steph and I originally founded Wilson Fletcher for two central reasons, and many of our lessons relate to those motivations — and should be read in that context.
Our first reason-to-exist was centred around our work. Fifteen years ago, the internet was a very different place but we believed that digital services would eventually underpin every aspect of daily life, both professional and personal. And as a result, they would be fundamentally important to the future success of every organisation. We wanted to focus on helping those organisations figure out what those services should be, and what the experience of them should be, so that they could be successful in the coming digital era. This was, crudely, our ‘why?’.
At the time, pretty much everyone else in the sector was focused on digital marketing, and that’s certainly where the money was: it was the time when the digital marketing giants were getting started and growing fast. We weren’t marketers, and we wanted to focus on shaping the services themselves. We never wanted to create a banner ad, a microsite, or any other form of temporary marketing campaign. We wanted to focus on the strategy for and design of functional services that had meaningful utility, and probably had a direct commercial impact for their owners. This was our ‘what?’.
The second reason was much more personal and centred around culture. By the time we founded WF, I’d been exclusively focused on digital design for over ten years and Steph six. We had more experience of what would now be considered service strategy and UX/UI than most, but we’d both come from traditional design disciplines (architecture and graphic design) and were fortunate to have been exposed to some great studio cultures in those worlds.
We had formed a deep-rooted view that a great team culture was critical to delivering the best work. We decided that forming our own company was the only way we could guarantee to work in the way we wanted to work, with people who shared our values, and that we genuinely enjoyed working with. This, along with a set of principles about our work and working methods, formed our ‘how?’.
So, when you boil it down, we wanted to help organisations create world-class digital services, and we wanted to enjoy how we did it. Simple.
Between then and now are a thousand ups and a fair few downs. I’ve tried to distil all of that into what I’d consider to be the most important lessons we’ve learned. Hopefully, they’ll benefit you if you run (or want to) a company because it lets you do what you’re passionate about.
1. Know what you’re not.
Although these lessons are not in any particular order of importance, I’ve started here because I think, overall, this one is the most important. Pretty much every misstep we’ve taken over the years has come from extending what we do too far away from our core skillset — and more importantly from what we really care about. In our case this included everything from adding full development capabilities to creating our own services and founding startups: all things that are not inherently in our DNA. Focus on doing the things that you can be better at than anyone else and don’t get tempted by peripheral things: they’re just a distraction.
2. Behave like you.
Everyone is different, so it’s naïve to believe that the same formula of will work for you, either as an individual or a company. Some people love to be in the spotlight, some don’t. Some are extrovert, some introvert. A well-respected business leader told Steph some years ago: “You don’t need to be something you’re not to succeed; you need to use what you are to best effect”. It’s sage advice and well worth paying attention to. In our case, the more we try to do what others do, the less well we do. Don’t assume that someone else’s approach will work for you if you adopt it: it’s better to figure out your own formula and try to constantly improve it. If people want something else, let them go elsewhere.
3. Hire the person, not the skills.
We’ve always had a mantra that we want the same person in the studio and the bar, because you wouldn’t choose to spend time in a bar with someone you didn’t like or didn’t trust. That demands that when hiring people, we hire a great person first and great skills second. Every person we’ve hired over the years that didn’t work out (fortunately not too many) can be traced to hiring to the skills more than the person, or to hiring with too much urgency and compromising on the person part. Don’t compromise here, ever: the right person will always grow their skills, but the wrong person with the right skills will never grow into the right person.
4. Put the work before the company.
When we’re really disciplined and focus on our work, the company does fine. In those times when we’ve focused on the company (like the time we did a 5 year financial projection), the company has had its worst times. Put the work first every time: I can’t count the number of times we’ve over-spent on a project because we weren’t completely happy with it and it has paid off in stronger relationships, more work or new referrals. Since day one, almost all of our new work has come from referrals and that is completely down to focusing on our work. The company isn’t your product: the work is. Focus on that and the rest will (largely) follow.
5. Ignore your peers (mostly).
This one is a real biggie for me. It’s all-too-easy to look around you at your peer group and be influenced by what they’re doing, or what they’re offering, and it’s then really easy to be distracted from doing what you do best. I’m not saying don’t pay any attention to your marketplace; just don’t let what others appear to be doing overly influence what you do, not least because what they appear to be doing probably isn’t what they are actually doing. The time we came closest to not being here can be traced to undertaking a strategy based on an analysis of ’where our market is going’. The people who matter — and the people who should influence you — are clients, not peers.
6. Methods don’t make you different.
This is one of the biggest myths of the industry. The methods used across any number of companies vary very little. What you do is not the way great work emerges, it’s always how you think. Methods are ingredients: they can never guarantee a great meal. It’s philosophy, knowledge, experience, values and principles that make you different. So don’t rely on methods, rely on brains.
7. Know your principles and how to use them.
Principles are a fundamentally important part of both how we work, and of the work we do for our clients. They’re wired into us. They do adapt over time, but many of them are the same now as they were on day one, and will likely remain so for as long as we’re able to do what we do. I’d encourage everyone to write down their principles and to review them frequently. They’re a critical guiding force, but they’re not a purist religion. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, you may need to compromise on them in some way: if they’re clear you’ll know how and why you’re doing that and can make a decision whether to or not. Without them, you’d just veer progressively further off course. Make sure you have well-defined principles: they will help you maintain a focus on what is most important to you.
8. Take time to think.
Whatever the nature of your company, set aside time to think about it properly, in whichever way suits you best, on a regular basis. It’s easy to be so swept up in day-to-day activities that you miss important patterns or opportunities to improve what you’re doing. I think this is especially true when you’re busy and things are going well, because it doesn’t feel like there’s anything much to think about: the formula is working and things are good. In our experience, any difficult times we’ve experienced had their roots in good times, when we simply didn’t take enough time out to think about what we were doing and what we needed to do next. Take time out to reflect and think, especially when things are good.
9. Talk to people you trust.
Perspective on your own company is incredibly hard to maintain, if not impossible. Much of what we have always done for our clients is to bring a perspective on their organisations that it’s impossible for them to retain themselves. So make sure you talk to people you trust — and respect — about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. Listen to them and consider their opinions in a balanced way alongside your own and those of others. Inputs from people we trust have helped us make some of the most difficult and important decisions we’ve had to over the years. Don’t be afraid to talk to people: I really don’t think we’d be here if we hadn’t.
10. Listen to your clients.
One of our key principles is ‘it’s theirs, not ours’. It sounds like common sense coming from a consultancy but I’ve seen many people forget that over the years, and I’ve come across many agencies who really work to fulfil their own agenda rather than that of each client. The basic formula for any agency or consultancy is really very simple: the success of our company is a consequence of the success of theirs. Our clients’ interests are — even when they don’t behave like it — fully aligned with ours. Many of our clients over the years have become great friends and trusted sounding boards, largely, I hope, because we’ve always put their interests above ours. Remember, your clients are the experts in their domain, as you are in yours, so listen to them and trust them in the way you expect them to trust you.
The shared rollercoaster.
There are of course many, many more than the learnings listed here but I think these are the big ones. I asked a good friend of mine who runs a technology company a few months older than us, and very similar in values and size, to read a draft of this. He said “it’s like reading about my last fifteen years” and we discussed how similar our respective rollercoaster journeys have been over that time, despite being, in theory, very different businesses. When it comes down to it, if you sell your expertise via people, no matter what the focus of your company, the challenges are likely to be very similar to those we’ve encountered. I’m hopeful that these lessons will help you avoid some lows and enjoy more highs.
It’s been quite a ride for Steph and I, and I’m sure for many of the people who’ve worked with us over the years. We’re far from perfect today, despite, I hope, learning something from every one of the lessons above: all we can do, and all you can do, is keep learning and keep trying to improve. We’re certainly not going to stop trying new things: quite the opposite. Alongside some hard lessons, some of the greatest highs of our last fifteen years have come from the risks we’ve taken along the way. There simply is no progress without risk.
It’s easy to forget when things are tough what a privilege it is to run a business like ours and to work with the people that we do. We can’t thank our amazing team, our equally amazing clients, and a whole bunch of friends and colleagues enough for all of their hard work and support over the years.
Here’s to whatever comes next. We’ll keep trying to walk the tricky line between focusing on what we do best and adapting constantly to help our clients achieve their potential in one of the most fluid, changeable and exciting times to be in business. I’m sure we’ll learn a whole new set of lessons along the way, so pop back here for an updated list in 2033.