Staying true to the source of Helpful

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.

Quiet ambition

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.


Understanding time and productivity in an agency

For a number of years we’ve been using timesheets in our team.

We do this to keep track on how many hours we put in to client projects and to measure our margins on particular pieces of work.

When we first started using timesheets, I really struggled. In fact, I’d say it was one of the most difficult parts of a transition away from public service life and back into the private sector. I understood why it is a good idea, but I felt uncomfortable laying my working hours open to colleagues.

This was mainly because I could see others racking up huge numbers of hours each week, whereas some days I might struggle to record more than 4 hours of focussed work. I’ll return to this point in a moment.

My other worry about timesheets is that I have seen them create anxiety among the rest of the team: who is measuring what and why? In a world of Strava and Fitbit, measurement equals performance and league tables.

Wind forward 4 years or so and I don’t know how I’d get by without a timesheet. It’s the single best productivity tool I have and I get loads of satisfaction logging time each day. Sad but true.

In order to get to this point I’ve learned a few things about timesheets at Helpful.

Record meaningful time

Timesheets are a record of focussed, productive time, or ‘committed’ time. By committed I mean time you have to spend on something, such as travelling to a client, or a meeting. They should also record holiday and L&D. But timesheets aren’t there to apportion a regulated 8 hours you spent in the office, or to justify long days that may not have been necessary.

For example, some days you might leave the office late and have only recorded a few hours. That’s not great, but it tells you a lot about the projects you’re working on, the tasks within those and how easy or not you might be finding the work.

Be comfortable recording a variety of hours

Timesheets only work from a business management perspective if they are accurate. We don’t want to bill clients extra time because people feel they should be recording 8 hours a day. Equally, we need to make sure we understand which tasks and projects take the most time.

Timesheets work really well if you have lots of small tasks and meetings to deal with. Great if you’re providing client support or have a busy day of meetings. Terrible if you’re thinking about a new business strategy or seeking inspiration for a project.

Realistically, I don’t think a typical day equates to 8 productive hours. It might be 4, 5 or 6 hours, depending on the tasks you have or how focussed you are feeling.

Busy periods, travel or hard projects might equate to many more hours.

Daily timesheets are more useful

I maintain the timesheet daily. It’s the only way I can keep on top of it and I like to use it as a way of understanding my productivity. I don’t believe records of emails or calendar entries can ever give an accurate picture of time spent on projects. Completing a timesheet little and often also helps to bring a natural break between tasks throughout the day.

Use your timesheet to change your patterns

Most important of all, after working this way for a few years, I think I’ve developed a good sense of when I am at my best for different types of work. For example: admin first thing to get me started, creative stuff mid-late morning, but pretty useless 11am – 2pm (so ideal for things which ‘lead’ me: lunch, calls, meetings, travel). I’ve even used it to tweak my diet, with some success.


We use WorkflowMax right now. It’s clunky, but does lots of clever things with our accounting software.

I preferred Freckle, which we used to have.

I turn off desktop notifications most days.

I make hundreds of to-do lists every month, mainly in Trello and also in my notebook. There’s something satisfying about ordering, reordering and crossing off.

I’ve recently started using Forest. A very neat app that makes a game out of staying focused.

A whopping year

Here’s a download of a few thoughts I’ve been meaning to share online, from the past 12 months. Not quite a review of the year, just an opportunity to reflect in no particular order.

Working with engineering companies

Engineering is a broad catch-all term for a group of huge, high profile organisations we’ve found ourselves working with in 2017 and 2018. This has been by fate rather than design, but whether they’re energy, aerospace or pharmaceutical they all have very similar challenges – and they have all been utterly brilliant to work with.

Two things I’ve come to realise, from these projects:

  1. These are all deeply technical companies. Their staff want to understand how stuff works, and they are in the habit of sharing new things with colleagues. They don’t need an innovation lab, or any of that nonsense – they just do it every day. So, building capability around social media can be fun, iterative and well supported internally.
  2. When a big brand asks you to pitch for something, don’t panic! Yes, their online advertising may look spectacular and far outstrip our creative and technical experience. But, more often than not, so much of this work has been largely outsourced. The appetite for digital skills, particularly within corporate comms and operations teams is huge, as they feel increasingly left behind by the agencies whom they commission.


I keep coming back to this word when we’ve been talking about the past 12 – 18 months as a team.

I’ve loved the variety of work we’ve been involved in. By any measure, be it sector, country, type of project, value or overall demand, the hypothetical pie chart is a feast of slices and colours.

More importantly it’s challenging us as a team. Challenging us to keep on top of skills and knowledge that we should already be sharing in our training courses and the technology we build. And giving us confidence when we deliver something new, and it works well.

In hindsight, in previous years we’ve been slightly stuck in 1-2 markets and with a fairly strict menu of offers. It now feels like we are *everywhere* and with a much more blended offer.

Sticking to projects with purpose

For a long time now we’ve talked as a team about striking a balance between generating income and making sure that all the projects we take on are purposeful.

None of the team really want to undermine our client capability mission by delivering tick box digital. That includes vanity websites and crisis simulations that end up being more theatre than learning.

The difficulty is, we can all argue a purpose for the projects we love. But I think we’re starting to build a picture of the types of projects that ring alarm bells early on. This really needs solving in 2019, because too many of the ‘wrong’ projects back-to-back could leave people fed up and disenchanted.

Delivering on capability as one team

While we still have a team who are focussed on building and maintaining websites and our online platforms, there have been more projects this year – both for clients and ourselves – that have been delivered by both the build and social media teams. I really enjoyed working with Katie and Steph on a digital planning project for the General Optical Council, for example.

I think more and more of our clients get that we do lots of digital implementation and training, but internally we’re still a bit hung up on brands, rigid platforms and labelling of projects. I’m hoping we’ll win more work next year that fits comfortably in both Social Simulator and Helpful Technology buckets.

Building our team

I think we’re now in entering the hard yards of building a team. We are trying to build a diverse, collaborative team while at the same time continue to offer some democracy about the type of work we do.

Our approach to recruitment has come on a along way since 2017, and we’ve started to try a more consistent approach to helping people develop their roles. This is as much about everyone staying on top of key skills in their areas, as it is about having every role contributing something to the overall running of the business and our capability building mission for all clients.

But, it’s hard to keep a team energised about internal development and improvement during a busy year.

Building confidence in a digital world

On a sunny day in Brighton 2 years ago Steph, Chris and I, with input from the rest of the team, made quite an important decision to put capability building at the core of all our client work.

Instead of building websites that sometimes go unloved or are born out of ‘launch and forget’ briefs, we’d challenge clients to do more continuous improvement of their sites, through testing, looking at data and careful crafting of content. Luke was already helping clients do this very successfully with their intranets.

Rather than tentatively help companies do paint-by-numbers social media, we’d push them to actively engage with customers: front up to the things they’d done wrong, listen and acknowledge complaints, and generally be more credible online.

And rather than deliver strategies that depending on a few good people in a digital corner to deliver, we’d focus clients’ attention on the skills and confidence of individuals in the business, from the CEO down. Or in many cases, from the customer service centre up.

Now our strapline says ‘building confidence in a digital world’.

We decided on capability building because:

a) it’s more rewarding to deliver the right thing once, than win repeat business year after year that ends up being the same set of unresolved challenges

b) we wanted to work as one team and have a shared appreciation of each other’s crafts and experience

A range of skills and experience

We were, and still are, a real mixed bag of skills and experience. From back-end web developers to front-end designers, user-obsessed project managers to former comms people delivering crisis response training.

I believe this gives us the right spread of skills, expertise and interests, to help a variety of clients build their confidence and experience, in-house. It also means that we can talk with authority about the link between, say, dark sites and crisis response, or social media engagement and how this fits with users’ wider online behaviours.

Clients haven’t baulked at this approach and we’ve delivered a few really interesting projects that combine a number of different skills from across the team. For example digital strategy reviews, which encompass owned web estate as well as other earned channels.

Building confidence internally

However, I’m not convinced we’ve actually sold the range of things we do to anyone, yet. People find us through one of a few ways, and usually because they already have a specific need, or are interested in one of our training platforms.

That makes it a tricky shift for everyone on the team. I’ve learned that colleagues like to work for a brand or product, with a specific deliverable. Trying to start each project with a cold, hard assessment of needs, rather than a menu of products or services, can be strangely overwhelming.

It takes a dose of brave pills to stand in front of a client and say:

‘you’ve asked for an intense, advanced crisis simulation, but actually we’ve looked at your current work and feel some more basic classroom training is required, first.’


‘we could close up that white space, but we think it might be more beneficial for you to join us for some user testing, so you can see where the design is performing well’

But if we’re to build a diverse business that is Helpful for clients, then we need to be flexible about the products and services that we deliver.

As a team of 11 it’d be easy at this stage to start falling into awkward silos, but this is exactly the right time to be avoiding all of those and continuing to shape a Helpful proposition for our clients.



The 5 stages of proposal writing

We’ve had some interesting opportunities come our way just recently. They’ve all required a formal proposal with strict word counts and very specific details, which isn’t always the norm for us.

I enjoy it, but for me these types of opportunities tend to be a bit of a rollercoaster of emotions and productivity. There is, however, a pattern:

  1. False dawn
    The brief I thought I was getting isn’t quite the same as I anticipated. Between that cosy chat with the client and publication of the official tender, other people have had sign-off, and now the scope is less liberal than I hoped. But who cares? The show is on the road!
  2. Procrastination
    A bit like writers block. I want to give this one 110%, but that means finding a moment to start writing where all the stars are aligned: coffee, headspace and inspiration.
    I’ve learnt that it doesn’t have to be like that, if I remember one simple piece of advice from Dave Trott.
  3. Confusion and fear
    As I get deeper into the proposal, I start to wonder if maybe I have completely misunderstood the audience and aims. The client’s language becomes a blur and suddenly I’m not sure if they’re asking for training or admin support. What if we have the entire premise of this work wrong? Cue furious reviewing of the opening letter and summary.Phew.I (think I) was right all along. Keep going.
  4. Denial – not letting go
    The substantive portion of the proposal was complete weeks before deadline, but that was only in draft. Now comes the self-induced pressure-driven tweaking and tucking, honing words, checking what we’re committed to and second guessing what the client will think.
    We’ve still got a few hours left to give this another polish. Let me have one more read, just to be sure…
  5. C’est la vie
    It’s in. Submitted.
    Yeah, whatever. It’d be a nice project to have but if we don’t get it, well, the brief wasn’t what it should be anyway. Or, we have better things to do.It’s not like I’m going to be refreshing my inbox every 2 minutes for the next fortnight. Not at all.


Getting better at training

From a recent proposal I wrote for some training projects:

We practice Collaborative Communication (based on Non-Violent Communication), to ensure that we make time to listen to the needs of participants, without making judgements, and are clear with our requests of them.

I think the client were mainly looking for information about our track record, handing out sweets to participants and what we’ll do if someone oversleeps. But I was keen, and proud, to include this too.

Training can be boutique, tailored, 121. Call it what you will. But it’s never personal unless we make the time to listen with intent, to what people need.