Just like starting over
My journey to starting a small strategy business and building it up has been pretty smooth, and pretty low-stress. (It helps of course that it’s a very small business. Of which more later.) But there are moments of confusion…and at the outset, there were quite a few.
Part of the reason I’m writing this is to capture some of them before I forget about them, because that learning is super-useful – to me, and maybe even to others who might do something similar.
Here we go:
What is this thing? (June 2019)
Having decided to leave the well-worn groove of a corporate hierarchy with the all-conquering business plan of ‘be yourself’, it’s fair to say that I was aware of one or two gaps in my professional strategy.
But then finally, the proposition. What was this business I was building?
Having spoken to many people over the last few years, I’m aware that this is a vacuum that can pull people right in – towards the creation of complex brands, propositions, processes, elegant IP – and whilst I’m sure that works for some people, I’m pretty convinced that the better path is trying to ‘get the big calls rights’, and then get going, and work it out on the road.
Having toyed with the idea of building an enigmatic brand name (which being a strategy brand would have probably ended up sounding like an Apprentice team name), I lighted very rapidly on Hook Strategy as my name.
It says what it is, it says who I am, and puts me in a corner where I am very happy – my reputation, my craft, and my brand are one and the same thing.
I did a fair bit of thinking about the problem sets I was interested in, and what joined them together (strategic clarity), but resisted the temptation to build any arcane IP to launch my new venture. Even though building process IP is one of my very favourite things.
I committed myself to building the business and then working out what it was afterwards.
And I did a lot of swimming.
The Yawning Void (July-August 2019)
In this period of underlying gentle palpitation, I was extraordinarily fortunate to have hovering in the background a recurring fairy godmother in Tracy de Groose, who throughout many years has been a great friend, a trusted advisor, and a great boss. She was soon to become my first client.
Tracy is a person of incredible generosity…and someone who has an unerring attraction to knotty strategic issues. She’d got my excited about the issues in the publishing industry, and through projects with Newsworks, and the Ozone Project, I knew that the void wouldn’t be truly empty.
I felt I had a psychological safety net (which I strongly recommend to anyone following a similar path.)
Secondly, I had a network – accumulated over seventeen years of good collaboration with all kinds of interesting people, who had since scattered to the winds. As soon as news of my rather gnomic career change spread, the network responded, and soon I was having all kinds of interesting conversations about potential projects.
By the nature of gardening leave, all of this had to sit on ice for a while…but it sure was nice having something on the ice.
The Overheat (October 2019)
When the autumn of 2019 came around, I had a terrifying amount of energy.
The rebound from a couple of years of under-production and frustration gave me an incredible appetite for work.
In addition, three months of wild swimming and almost pristine living had given me a totally different mindset (and, I say with a sense of loss, quite a different physique, now sadly a historical footnote.)
And suddenly, the world was infinitely rich in strategic problems that I could help with.
The result was a marathon sprint of meeting people, starting up projects, delivering projects, setting up processes. And pretty much anyone can tell you that you shouldn’t try to sprint a marathon.
Many years of epic pitch processes have given me a slightly misleading sense of my own endurance…but from roughly six weeks in, I had already hit my first wall of illness and exhaustion.
Ridiculous really, in retrospect – and totally unnecessary. But I can’t honestly say I regret it. It felt good to get some miles in the legs. To try as many different things as possible as quickly as possible, and double down on those that worked.
And to very quickly get a sense of what could go wrong!
The Company of One (January-February 2020)
2020 started on a highly positive footing. I’d established recurring clients, repeatable project models, and started building a reputation that was based on what I was doing now, not what I’d done before.
I felt ready to go, and ready to grow.
This was really my first fork in the road. More and more I was feeling the lure of growing something bigger than just ‘myself’. Maybe it was time to start really building something. Which probably meant hiring a couple of people.
And maybe an office. I’ve always wanted an office.
But at the same time, I was beginning to learn a lot more about the emerging dynamics of a diverse and diffuse practitioner landscape. I already knew that being smaller made me more flexible, more cost effective, more agnostic in my decision making. And the compromise of smallness felt less and less all the time, because I was gradually accruing an active network of brilliant people who could gang up together on problems without needing to be on the same payroll.
Working closely with the amazing people at BeenThereDoneThat.co, and reconnecting with freelance guru Matthew Knight, was opening my eyes to different ways of working that were less grounded in my agency-career hang-ups.
So, I stepped back from the precipice, stopped note-taking around speculative job descriptions, and decided to dedicate myself to building the most impactful one-man business I could build in my sector.
Which, given that we were two months away from a total national pandemic lockdown, turned out to be a very good decision.
Second Thoughts & Starting Over (Ongoing)
Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good life, that I’ve been able to turn pretty effectively into a vehicle for most of what I want to do.
But on some days, when sometimes the appeal fades a little.
Sometimes, it’s because I miss the easy camaraderie / overflow capacity of a traditional team.
Sometimes, it’s because it gets a bit wearying being in charge of new business and client management and strategy and design and creative and research and invoicing and IT and legal and marketing.
Sometimes, it’s just because someone approaches me for a really good job and I think how much simpler that might be.
But the great thing about running my kind of business is that when these thoughts occur, there’s very little stopping you from changing…well, pretty much everything.
In fact, I now rely on these waves of irritation. They tend to be where my new products come from…where I decide to build new partnerships…when I rethink what I’m doing and how I do it.
It led to building this website, and the rather fabulous brand design that undperpins it (thanks Ian)…and will hopefully shortly lead me to updating it with some of my work from that last two years!
When you’ve got freedom of movement, having second thoughts is healthy, and constantly starting again gives you the essential energy that keeps you going.
The Future (2023+)
We’ll come back to this one later.
If you’ve got this far, you might be interested enough to read some more. To hear more about what came before…read about the End of an Era here…