When you work closely with the founder of a business, it can feel tricky at times. I’ve worked with 4 founders in my career. Two of these were the old-school type of founder. They were motivated by the prospect of earning a large amount of money and, to a lesser extent, building teams and contributing to the economy.
For the past 5 and a bit years I’ve been working at Helpful, directly with Steph. He’s very generous, works incredibly hard, is clever, astute and good fun to be around. So, pretty much the ideal founder to work with.
There are still tricky times, primarily because having lots of responsibility in a successful business like Helpful means I am paranoid about not messing things up, for myself or the rest of the team.
I feel very protective of the ingredients that drew me to Helpful in the first place:
Helping people do digital for themselves
There are lots of agencies delivering products and services for their clients, having identified a gap in the market. I genuinely believe that we continue to push our clients to do more for themselves, by responding to their opportunities in creative and practical ways.
Success is judged as much by the quality and variety of work we are delivering each year, as turnover or profitability (although it’s essential that we are hitting some modest profitability targets too).
Occasionally we get caught up in planning for headcount or other types of scale, and this will become more important, but hopefully not at the expense of any of the values listed here.
Being generous to ourselves and others
When I first joined Helpful I was struck by how neat everything was for a team of 6 people. Nice kit for everyone, a comfortable, clean working space and loads of opportunities to work flexibly.
In addition Helpful supports all sorts of great causes throughout the year. Some of these are related to our work i.e. sponsoring unconferences or donating to charities nominated by staff. There’s no agenda here. No culture strategy or sinister plan to lock people in to the team, although I’m sure it helps retention.
An open minded approach to clients
I love the fact that we work with such a diverse range of clients, by sector, country and profile. We’ve developed this partly through accident rather than design, but fundamentally we’re not brand snobs.
Sure, it’s exciting to land a contract with Global Hyper Mega Corp PLC. However some of our most rewarding work (in every respect) still emerges from the niche or little-heard-of organisations – provided they have a need to communicate well online.
What’s in, what’s out, what’s next?
Tom Nixon wrote a great piece about the ‘source’ of founders, and taking forward a business by identifying What’s In, What’s Out and What’s Next. I think the values above should always remain in the ‘What’s In’ category, regardless of what happens.
We don’t always get all of these right, all of the time. As the business continues to grow in different ways it’s getting harder to maintain Helpful values consistently across all projects.
The What’s Out category is easier: the opposite to all of the above. For example, scrimping on time and kit to squeeze every drop of profitability from a project.
As a team we’ll talk more about What’s Next through 2020.
Staying true to the source
I’m not the founder, so I end up feeling a bit like a values policeman. Often interfering with work that would be acceptable anywhere else, but with good intention: to ensure we’re staying true to the values that make Helpful a little different and true to the source of the business.
However, I’ve never felt more invested in a business or vision before now. I am excited to see how we maintain these values throughout all our work.