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.

 

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.

Variety

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.’

Or,

‘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.

 

 

Can you help us build digital capability?

We’re recruiting a Head of Digital Capability here at Helpful towers.

As a team, we’re agreed that building skills and confidence among our clients, makes work rewarding for us. We like helping teams to use the Web more effectively, for communication and engagement. You won’t find us running other people’s marketing campaigns, writing ghost blog posts or publishing big strategy documents.

The Head of Digital Capability role needs a special sort of person: someone who is confident enough to remove the mystery around digital, help others overcome their fears and call out misguided ideas when they see them.

Having lots of first hand experience of doing digital in different organisations helps confidence, but more important is an ability to listen and clearly reflect what you hear. That’s because when it comes to digital capability, there’s usually a bit more to the challenge than teaching people. Our clients have outstanding staff who need a more challenging digital brief, or staff who’ve tried to be innovative and had their fingers burnt. Maybe their business model or purpose is struggling without digital, or established processes are holding them back.

Every week is a busy mix of workshops, classroom courses, online learning, writing, pitching and planning. I’ve found it physically demanding, by the time you add travel on top. A full eight hours delivering training in London, then a train ride to Scotland or Wales that evening to run a workshop the next day, is a typical 48 hours.

That said, we’re fully committed to flexible working, and giving people the tools to do their job wherever they are. The current team work a mixture of part- or full-time, from home and the office. We work to meet deadlines, rather than to be seen to be busy.

Action plan dashboard

If I haven’t put you off so far, good.

You’ll need to be able to stay positive about the potential of your work. Winning new opportunities is only the beginning: when organisations ask for help with digital, they still need lots of convincing.

Back at the office you’ll be responsible for our overall approach to capability: developing the Digital Action Plan platform, the content we use to motivate, explain and inspire, and managing the people who help us deliver.

If this sounds like something you want to do, please get in touch.

Good morning Clerkenwell

I’ve always been a morning person. Coffee, breakfast, jump on the bike or on the train, and get going for the day ahead. Partly this is due to the way I was brought up, and partly reflecting the energy of some of the inspiring people I have worked with in the past 15 years.

Since joining Helpful I’m even more of a morning person. I am generally pretty excited about getting on with a to-do list that never seems to get any shorter, but is packed full of interesting and varied work. Mixing the challenges of growing a small business, winning new work and delivering projects (training, web builds and strategic support) seems a pretty perfect mix of activities to me.

It isn’t without challenges though. I’m on a steep learning curve when it comes to project management, having spent five years dealing with work that has either felt very reactive, or extremely drawn out. None of our projects come with the luxury of protracted timescales, or rarely with the immediacy of ‘just get it done’ – clients want to be involved, and make decisions. Honestly: I wouldn’t have it any other way.

In fact, the pipeline of new work has been so full at times that we’ve made some tough choices about only working with clients who want to be involved and learn. Providing endless routine support or maintenance to organisations that don’t really care about their own capability isn’t a business I or any of my colleagues want to be in.

A new job is also a great time to make some tweaks to working habits too. I’m working even less in email than ever before, which is brilliant for me and probably frustrating for everyone else. The Business is GREAT itch finally won and I bought a Brompton. London has opened up for me in a way I never thought possible. I’m a little more fit and much of the aggravation of public transport has gone. And with such a mix of sectors and types of project each day, my reading has changed for the better. I can dip in and out of the echo chambers of old, while freeing up time to find out how digital works in all sorts of other organisations and territories.Scotrail sleeper from a moving window

Crucially, as well as learning a lot, I also feel able to apply lots of experience and put a few old ghosts to rest too. In particular, digital in press office. More on that another time.

Finally, I couldn’t write about my first six months at Helpful without mentioning the sleeper train. We’ve been working in Scotland at various times and used the sleeper to make the most of busy schedules. I am a total convert to the faded glamour and practicality. Rubbery egg and Euston station never seemed so appealing as they do now.

Image courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/simonvarwell/