March 3, 2022

Chapter 1— Be Difrent

Well, here I am: the end of an era, and at the beginning of a new adventure. It’s an absolutely huge I did it moment. I grew and sold a digital business and want to share a series of chapters and podcasts with you about my journey.

Being totally honest, I wanted to write it as a means of catharsis and part of letting go. I knew I was leaving Difrent. I wanted to mark that in some way and give myself the opportunity to get it all out of my system. I also wanted to publicly thank the people who’d been on the journey with me, without whom it wouldn’t have been as much fun or as much success.

It flows in a similar way to how I did it: I see it as headings on a whiteboard, part checklist, part step-by-step guide. It’s the story of how I got there, the processes I went through, my takeaways, and any useful business tools I found helpful along the way.

It’s very much written in the way that I speak… with the colourful language to boot. But hey, it’s toned down. It’s all good. It’s not intended to be a perfect text book by any stretch. That just wouldn’t be me at all.

Before we dive into chapter numero uno, I wanted to say a heartfelt thanks to my girlfriend, Yvonne, who has supported me through the entire process: from the concept, through the running, the sale, and the earn-out. I’m more than a little bit of a workaholic, so I appreciate the space she has given me to make this happen!

If I was whacking all these chapter titles onto my whiteboard, I’d have to start with Be Difrent: it’s how I live, and it starts us off on what it’s like Being Difrent.

You’ll hear that it’s about the journey, not the destination. So, strap yourself in, and let’s get going…

Chapter 1— Start your story

Chapter 1 Start Your Story, the audio

Deciding where my story, or my journey, actually did start is the thing. Everyone’s story starts somewhere. There are snippets that I think back to where I know they were definitely the building blocks for growing a business later in life, so let’s start with the Murphy Corporation. It seems like the best fit.

As kids (there are three of us, I’m the eldest), we were always doing crazy things like everyone else, but the Murphy Corporation had a slightly more formal edge to it. Every time there was a money-making scheme the Corporation got in on the action. I grew up in Camberley, where one time we set up a car washing ‘business’ to make a bit of money. I must have been around 11 years old — one of the youngest Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) around! It wasn’t that structured and didn’t involve a huge amount of planning and board meetings. We were just a bunch of kids thinking of easy ways to drum up a few quid, just so we could buy things we probably shouldn’t have been buying! Looking back, I think it was definitely more about independence and not having to ask my parents for pocket money.

It was a boiling hot day in Camberley, perfect weather for washing cars and making a bit of cash. We got to a house where I knew they had a swimming pool in the back garden. Swimming pools sound quite alien to us in the UK, but this really was a posh part of town. This street was strategically chosen because the people who lived there usually owned a few motors and could easily afford to have them washed. Matt and Luke Goss from Bros lived there. They were a world-famous band at the time, so it gives you an idea for our earning potential. I knocked on the door of the swimming pool house and gave my usual sales pitch — only this time I offered a discount if we could have a dip in the pool when we’d finished. It worked! We probably broke a record for the quickest car wash in history. It really put smiles on our faces and is one of those memory snippets that I can look back at now and think, Oh yeah — negotiation skills! Good times!

I think my drive to succeed comes from our parents. My mum is a lawyer. My dad worked in national sales roles and was latterly managing director of companies like Duracell and Gillette, before going his own entrepreneurial way.

Caption: Mum and Dad (Karen and Roger)

There’s a fair bit of healthy (and probably unhealthy) competition between me and my brothers, Conor and Ross. I don’t suppose I realised how competitive we were until more introspection when putting this story together. I can see now that my brothers and I all have that same drive and passion — once we get an idea, that’s it! Whether healthy competition or not, it’s just how we are.

Caption: Conor and me

Caption: With Conor and Ross — the grown-up Murphy Corporation

We moved down to Camberley when I was ten. This was because of my dad’s work, enforcing that it was normal to move to where the career took you, rather than the other way round. From that age, I went to a number of different schools and managed to cause drama wherever I went. That’s probably not so surprising to some people reading this. My folks took the drastic measure of sending me to an all-girls convent school in Ascot to straighten me out (no pun intended) partway through my GCSE years, which was tricky for me academically. The school was on another level — a totally different world. There were security blokes on the door, but not to search you for weapons, it was because the parents were so high-profile that their kids were at risk of being kidnapped. It was a massive headfuck! I adjusted quickly enough and soon realised you could get away with a whole lot more at a school that wouldn’t expel you. They’d never do such a thing when the parents were paying so much to have their kids attend! Massive result!

I passed a dozen or so GCSEs with As and Bs and scraped through my A levels (Computing, English, and History). My goal was to study psychology, but I didn’t get the grades I needed to get into university. I was gutted, but as much as I wanted to prove my academic worth, I don’t think I was at the right point in my life to do so since my main interest at the time seemed to be clubbing and partying. Maybe it was a bit of a blessing that I didn’t go to uni, as there were some things about me that are typical and some not so. The thirst for knowledge has always been there and always will be, but the wild side is always lurking and could sometimes take control. My late teens happened at a time when hard house was huge and raves were taking place in fields in the middle of nowhere, it was an amazing time to be young. I didn’t lose the plot, but I did discover a different side to life. I think my parents had instilled enough drive and ambition in us as kids and that would never change.

My contracting journey — wow, there’s 22 years of it. I’m not going to go into detail about every gig I had. There’s been quite a few over the years, but I think you’d appreciate hearing about the highlights and some of the lowlights, rather than the nitty-gritty of every one of them. I suppose it’s more about how I got into it and how I progressed through the ranks, as it were. I always knew I’d been soaking up knowledge for something. Contracting, intermediary working, gig culture — call it what you will — seemed to be a bit of an extension of moving from school to school for me. I attended quite a few schools over those last few years and was never a wallflower. I was always able to make friends and get talking to people quickly and contracting was no different. It was all about arriving and just cracking on. Contractors will relate here, each and every job presents a new set of challenges. And that’s the beauty of what we do. Sure, we’ll all have a moan, but we’re in it because we love it!

Here’s how it played out:

I was 19 when I took my first interim position for Klynveld Peat Marwick Goerdeler (KPMG), in Amsterdam. I really wanted to travel, so this was the perfect opportunity for me. Being young and earning decent money in Amsterdam is as dangerous as it sounds. I didn’t actually do very much travelling, other than being out and enjoying life. I mean, who wouldn’t? You may know of my battle with alcohol and it’s really no coincidence how this came about. It was largely through amazing music, amazing times, having a disposable income, and absolutely having that more, more, more personality. It was a dangerous thing — when I realised it was a thing — and when it stops being amazing, you need to put it right. I’m someone who can’t just have one of something. I don’t know where the off switch is. We’ll go into all that later.

While Amsterdam didn’t play out exactly how I’d planned it, it still played out very well. I started out doing third line network support, which was really like flying a kite because I’m just not that technical. I talked a good game and got my foot in the door. Saying that, I was promoted to Team Leader three months in and never looked back. I didn’t have to do any hands-on technical work from that point, but until then I’d had to train myself enough to be able to get by and handle anything that went wrong. ‘Fake it ’til you make it’ is true to an extent. Luckily, we only had one Priority 1 (P1) outage where all 138 global servers we were looking after fell over (absolute mare!) but I dealt with it and showed that I could cope under pressure.

Amsterdam was a 12-month gig that I’m pleased to say I survived. I was living with a girlfriend in a really cool flat in Dam Square and we were both contracting and living the high life — and what an introduction to that lifestyle! We still had our feet on the ground though. She had a little boy who was six months old, so it wasn’t a party every night… just most of them.

Towards the end of that KPMG contract, they started a big Software Application Processes (SAP) implementation and I saw a project team from PricewaterhouseCoopers land and lead on that. I’d never seen anything like this before. I was hooked — how the team operated and worked together was amazing. This was a global rollout of SAP, which I knew nothing about, but was just in awe of how this hit squad landed and started running the project. I spent my last few months working alongside some of this, with no SAP experience, blagged it… and was ready to return to the UK armed with my now-expert (ish) SAP experience!

On my return, I walked straight into Global Crossing doing some SAP support work. Okay, before I start sounding like Leonardo Di Caprio in Catch Me If You Can, you have to know I was blagging my way into positions because I was good at blagging and knew I’d quickly pick up the knowledge. It’s not like I was rocking up to a hospital in scrubs and concurring my way into brain surgery. But the Team Leader did come across like she didn’t have the knowledge. Any time there was a P1 she just sat with her head in her hands and I’d end up stepping in to help her out. I was there to support her anyway, but not to actually do it for her. It wasn’t a great situation for either of us and needless to say, pretty soon she was out, and I was in.

I think this was where I realised that knowledge meant more than a degree — certainly for me, at that point. It’s not a recommendation by any means, more an observation. Being armed with a degree would have eased my imposter syndrome and opened doors a lot easier, but I was determined to find my own way around the problem, albeit in my own non-traditional way. It worked and didn’t hold me back or limit any opportunities.

The Global Crossing role saw me work between Holland, Germany, and the UK, so I was loving being on the move again. And from there I had a stint with Computer Science Corporation, working in Torquay before I was offered contracts in Canada and the US. They didn’t need to ask twice! I had an absolute ball before it was back ‘home’ and into local authority work and the first web-based social care implementation for the UK.

That wanting to make a difference mindset had always been in me, and this was an opportunity to put it into practice. The system was called Corelogic and I was working for London Borough of Waltham Forest. I had an all-female team, which was a tricky experience. The mix was wrong — or more like, there just wasn’t a mix. The problem was that although they were all brilliant experts in their field, they were a team of social workers who were seconded over to configure a system (which was great), but they had next to no IT experience (which was not so great). The atmosphere was all over the place and it didn’t feel like a team at all. After a week, I pulled two lads in to see if that would dilute the atmosphere. It worked, and it showed that you need a diverse team in order to get anywhere.

One positive to come from all of this: it really was the catalyst for a number of projects stemming from that piece of software, and I actually built a bit of a business around it. We assembled a team of contractors to implement Corelogic and we did £1m in that first year. But it was a recruitment company, even though we were masquerading as being a bit more than that. For the next few years we worked on the implementation, then I built out an academy and an e-learning solution for the software. At this point, I’m around 24 or 25 years old, living in London… and met my future wife while on this gig (spoiler alert: we’re not married anymore. I can’t confirm or deny that there was a curse on that team).

I was earning my stripes and growing all the time. I moved into program management and then into running business units, departments, and ultimately departments the size of normal businesses! I took promotions in a fairly steady climb and learned how to manage. I know I’ve always been good with people and known how to communicate, but I actually have an interest in people, their opinions, and who they are. You’d be mad to not want to learn something about the people who are around you every day. Key to all this is that management is not ‘telling people what to do’ — as some people mistakenly think.

I was also learning about how businesses worked. The further up I climbed and the more responsibility I had in management, the more I wanted to know. I think importantly, I was building up international experience as well. There are all the life skills that go hand-in-hand with living overseas and it certainly helped me grow up. You can’t be a kid anymore when you’re doing that.

With my story started, the knowledge building, and the steps progressing, it seemed inevitable that I was on a certain path. And I may have been — to an extent. But I was the only one navigating and it wasn’t an easy ride. As we know, every story has conflict, as I was about to find out.

My takeaways

  1. The degree I desperately craved in my early twenties wasn’t actually needed in the end. I managed to get where I wanted to without one.
  2. You don’t need to conform to succeed.
  3. Being a natural wanderer, the interim lifestyle made me realise I didn’t want to be in one place for too long. I enjoyed the freedom that contracting provided.
  4. Competition is healthy.
  5. My drive to succeed was instilled from an early age.

What helped me start my story

I’ll add appropriate business tools that helped me at each stage of the journey. The only one to add here is about working hard. It’s not a tool, but it is a fact. Despite the partying, I always put a serious shift in when it came to doing the work and getting it done.

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