17 years in business: a reflection

We turned 17 years old in September, so I thought it would be interesting to write about the changes that have happened in the business, about where it started and how it's going now.

Initforthe started life as a protective jacket around me, and to make me come across as more "professional". This would be the second business I'd have set up (the first was me as a sole trader, and it lasted a year before I'd decided it wasn't one to pursue), and I felt that setting up as a Limited company would give me some of that kudos that I perceived as being needed.

I had been asked to build a virtual learning platform for a language school based in the South of England - a friend of a friend's parents ran it and needed a way to communicate with, teach and mark the work being done by their students who were often not in a face to face environment (we didn't call it remote back then, but that's what it was).

And with that, Initforthe was born in September of 2004. I was at university at the time, and as I moved into the world of work, the business was really just a bit of additional income from time to time and so I moonlighted as a software or web developer while I worked a "proper" job. I didn't realise the value that those proper jobs would add to my later taking the company full time and flying the nest of security that having a job gives you. Those jobs included being an estate agent, an investment broker and finally a web developer once again.

Fast forward to 2008. I was working as the head of the development team at a small agency in London. The agency used to outsource some of its work to other companies (they were called "production houses"), and one particular supplier was delivering particularly poor quality work. Not only that but they were trying to steal clients from under the nose of the agency by going direct to them. Unethical, much?

At the same time I was starting to feel "stuck" in my job, and the company started to treat the people around me in a way I disagreed with. I really wanted to have my own business, so I resigned. I put myself through a PRINCE2 project management course (on credit card of course!), went on holiday, and came back to the daunting task of building something from the ground up. I had a mortgage and a credit card with enough runway on it to last me 2 months. It was literally do or die.

I set up as a production house - the idea came to me while I was on that holiday - I could do a better quality job, and run an ethical business at the same time; one where we would white label for other agencies and do their work, but sit quietly behind the scenes. I found just enough work to get me started, and then it started to pile in! I hired my old team from the agency, and we were off to the races. Or so I thought.

Here comes lesson 1: don't give away your equity too early. I was lucky that I was able to get myself out of a bad partnership. I'm not going to go into the detail of it to save the embarrassment of others, but suffice to say it was stressful.

Over the years, we started to build some really interesting systems and tools for our clients, often consulting with them on their briefs to make sure that what the end client received was a real return on investment and we had some really major successes for brands such as LG, EasyJet, Jaguar Land Rover, Nintendo, Cadbury and many many others. At the same time, I was getting a little frustrated with how fickle the industry was and how planning more than 2-3 weeks out wasn't possible. Another stress I eventually decided I didn't like. We were however starting to work for clients directly, and building some really amazing platforms, apps and websites for them. And we were growing, but that in itself proved hard when you didn't know whether the work you were pitching for was actually even going to happen!

I nearly sold the business at this point (and not for very much money), but a good talking to from those close to me gave me 11th hour jitters and I pulled out of the deal, only to discover a few months later that the company I was planning to sell to had gone bust.

2014 came and I moved to Manchester to set up family. Moving a business today might look like childs play - we have so much enabling technology. Even then, everyone used to say "you can work from anywhere with WiFi". In business though, whilst the doing of the work and doing it well matters a lot, getting work to do matters more. And at the time, people just didn't have meetings over video! In 2015 my daughter was born, and following a particularly toxic project I realised I had to make some changes. No more websites, no more white labelling, no more agency work unless we were named partners and had a direct financial relationship with the client. Instantly, that was 70% or more of our business. Gone, overnight. What to do now?

Sometimes in business you need to hit the reset button. We kept the clients we wanted to work with - those that matched our ethics, our morals and our values, and for whom we were building tools that made a difference to the people who used them. We had some difficult conversations with some others, who we said farewell to. And we started to build again, solely focused on building business automation systems, but for people.

We've been growing steadily ever since. We're picky about the clients we take on. We have hard and fast rules about the kinds of businesses and people we want to be involved with, and those are baked in. We've had to say goodbye to clients when they breach those rules in the past, but these days that doesn't feel as difficult as it once did.

On the other hand, the clients we have today are just wonderful. I wake up (mostly) free of stress, because I know our clients are here for the long haul with us, and I know that we strive so hard to deliver the best possible value for them.

The adjectives I could use to describe various parts of the journey so far would be frantic, dangerous, scary, stressful, exhilarating, blissful and exciting. I've learnt how to communicate, work with others, lead, listen and make difficult decisions in the face of an uncertain outcome. My team today are amazing and we're only just getting started. And in the last year or so, we've won no less than 5 awards for that work, including Best Bespoke Software Consultancy twice in a row.

They say it takes 20 years to build an overnight success. Today I feel successful, looking at where we've been and where we've come to. This is by no means the final destination though. There is more to come from us, and more work to do. We're here to change the world, and that takes time.