09 June 2021

This much I’ve learnt – a co-founder’s perspective one year after launching an agency

Nick Ford-Young

It’s one year since the launch of Boldspace.

A year defined by such extraordinary global circumstances that had anyone tried to tell me in February 2020 what lay ahead, I would have probably suggested it was time for them to call it a night.

It’s fair to say there have been a few learnings. About growing a business, building a team, about myself, and about helping craft something I care about.

Here are 10 of them, in no way intended as advice as every journey is different. Perhaps simply an early-stage perspective.

1. Momentum is everything

I am often reminded of a quote that says when you lose, you lick your wounds, have some drinks and reset; when you win you come in even earlier the next day, hungry for more. This year I have found this to be 100% true. Rhythm. Timing. Bounce. Whatever you want to call it, it’s everything – a necessity that if one week it can’t be found, it’s a feeling (both internally and externally) that must be manufactured.

2. Hiring when you’re nobody

It’s something you don’t think too much about before you set up; but it’s certainly deflating when someone great interviews and then turns down your job for another. How do you persuade great people to come and work for you when you are nothing but a vision? I think the answer is to have a very well laid out, extremely strong-minded vision. And clear values carved in stone to hire against.

Finding ‘your people’ and being unwavering about who joins and who stays is a not always comfortable; but has been an essential discipline for us. Boldspace is built on hiring a lot of unbelievable people that fill skillset gaps we know we don’t have, things we can’t do, championing these incredible skills, people and understanding their vital role in our team.

3. Clash politely and often

It’s one thing to internally actively encourage ‘challenge’ but it’s a much harder thing to constantly push for more, often on detail that might not even get noticed. This one might be completely personal, particularly as if I haven’t had the courage to say my completely honest view then I feel haven’t done my best. But, skirting the edge of being critical and encouraging, always pushing for better, means getting comfortable with clashing politely and often. And being completely willing to be proved wrong, which is also fine, and often.

4. Extra hours mean competitive advantage…

Probably not the most popular of notions, but as a founder in today’s world time is never on your side. Extra hours before people are up or after they have finished for the day means competitive advantage. When you have your chance, you have to make it count. The enforced WFH conditions thankfully meant seeing the kids on tea and coffee kitchen runs, 5pm quick family dinners and twenty minutes of CBeebies before bed was possible and invaluable for all of us.

5. BUT the best ideas have come when we stopped

I used to find my morning commute was 10x more useful for my career if I read books rather than emails. That has been harder in Covid, but still, the best ideas and dial shifting moments come walking, reading, running, sleeping or on the Christmas break. They have for us. It’s hard to not feel guilty for not working when it’s all on the line but sometimes it’s a brave and productive decision to not work too.

6. ‘Play with a straight bat

I’ve always been keen to at least try and witness the pinnacle of great creativity, leadership, strategy, insight and learn from the best. This is of course harder as a founder compared to within a large, famous agency but our broad advisory panel of amazing people, and chairman Simon Sherwood, have really helped us with this, and exactly why we asked them to be involved.

When threatened early on with a legal battle over our name, and considering different strategies, Simon simply said ‘play with a straight bat’ – with complete transparency, acceptance and move on. Within two weeks we’d turned the rebrand around and could focus on what’s important again. Without that steady head, we probably would have spent time spinning it a touch more.

7. The kindness of strangers

OK, so not exactly all ‘strangers’ – but it’s amazing how many people, almost unexpectedly pop up to offer support, advice, referrals, understand the cliff you’ve just jumped off and want to help.  Our two biggest clients have been won through kind referrals but also in a belief in our ability that we will not let their recommendation down – but make the referrer proud. It’s also a massive lesson in working life to be an empathetic, friendly, kind person throughout as if you’re ever going to head out on your own, that kindness and empathy will repay you later down the line.

8. Lose sleep over people; not money

An English teacher once told me ‘Never cry over things, only cry over people’ – a lesson I have always intended to teach my kids, so perhaps I am slightly plagiarising – and I’m not suggesting cash is not king – but personally, those times I have gotten something wrong with people, being too harsh, too quick to reply, not considered enough – I’ve really lost sleep.

9. Empathy breeds results

One of our values, ‘empathy’ reminds us to create the best possible environment for people to work as hard as we want them to but also be free to manage their own time, holiday and choose the place they want to work each day. Only hiring people great enough for us to trust implicitly, knowing they’re great, and telling them often, has been good for us.

10. The world was ready for change

Covid and the uncertainty of 2020 could really have flung our business in any direction. It would be a lie to say we didn’t have quarterly risk planning sessions – but luckily for us our working model, Covid aside, was tech-infused and designed for complete remote working from day one. This same approach in our model – a focus on great creativity alongside transparency and visibility through technology meant our model resonated, de-risking investment and meaning worst case scenario we offer some very important learnings for our clients. Complete transparency as a clear differentiator. We learnt the world was ready for this.

As we move into our second financial year, I fully expect another set of ten varied learnings to smack me right in the face as hard as our 1st birthday cake did (view here) – and may this exhilarating rollercoaster continue.