March 24, 2022

Chapter 4 — Devise Your Plan

So, the Strategy bit really started between me and Steve when we were over in India hooning around Mumbai on Royal Enfield motorbikes. I mean, not exactly during the biking, but when Steve came out to join me in India we agreed that this — Difrent — would be a five-year journey end-to-end.

Yvonne, Steve and Rachel at a laundry in Mumbai, smiling at the camera
Yvonne, Steve and me at a laundry in Mumbai

I always describe the whole ‘this’ as being about the journey, not the destination. Looking at it now, the motorbike journey was a great metaphor for us kick-starting (b’bum-ching!) the whole thing. There was madness, high speed, adrenaline, uncertainty, danger, huge laughs, wobbles, near hits, near misses, shaky knees, rough terrain… you get the idea. But it fits, and I am so glad I embarked on that journey — it was a rough ride at times, but an amazing one all the same.

A five-year plan is not one to be taken lightly. Bearing in mind that the longest duration of any one of my contracts over the last 22 years had only been around 18 months, this commitment was a huge deal for me. I’d just done five years in the healthcare sector and three in central government. Part of me was thinking five years might as well be a million, and part of me was thinking that I already had long-term commitments under my belt, so I could do it again.

Steve and I came up with a strategy. It was a pretty loose strategy, but something we could work to. To start with, we agreed that people would always be at the heart of the brand and that would never change. It was a great ideal to build the business around. We’d use the existing recruitment company’s trading history, invoice discounting arrangement, and existing entries to government frameworks, to create a delivery business. It would be quick and aggressive.

My own experience and personality would be brought into the mix. It made perfect sense to utilise my expertise in User-Centred Design (UCD). We’d also approach known markets and networks across central government and healthcare. We knew we could really drive our margins by delivering outcomes and taking risks, if and when necessary. Our aim would be to build from an industry standard of 10% in recruitment closer to 40% in the world of delivery.

Building out the more formal strategy was a three-dayer, spent locked in the Westfield office that Rita and I worked up! She’s a long-time friend and business acquaintance who I’d worked with as far back as my time at the Department for Education (DfE). Rita’s got shedloads of strategy experience in her back catalogue from her time at Canon Europe, Virgin and Lloyds Register.

We weren’t actually locked in the office. Rita was free to leave if she wanted. Honest! Those three long days consisted of poring over Wardley Maps, Business Canvas Model, Operating Model templates, with a cauldron of coffee to keep us going and more Post-its than WHSmith (other stationers are available)! As someone who often says she struggles with strategising, this was quite a challenge for me. I’d much rather get going than sit around talking for too long. I understood the importance of planning, but I was just itching to get cracking… Let’s kick the fucking doors in and do it!

After working through a process of mapping the competition and making sure there was space in the market, we considered each unique selling point (USP) and focused on:

  • how we would tackle the cultural differences between our staff who’d worked as interim staff and those now working in an outcome-based delivery business
  • ensuring the systems and processes we had were fit for purpose (they weren’t, so that was almost an entire rewrite)
  • how we were going to measure the success of the people in our team by assessing what they were doing and how they were doing it

With that bit done and dusted we started to think about how we would assemble the Avengers (so to speak)!

We worked backwards from five years, so we could work out what that would consist of. The initial thought process was around three key functions: Delivery, Design and Leaders. Because we knew we’d be hitting that five-year mark, we knew we’d have to start fishing for a sale around the halfway point. Things like that could sound surreal and I dare say daunting to many, and drawing it out on a whiteboard doesn’t necessarily make it happen. But here, we were creating reality and looking to sell after two and a half years was mind-blowing.

I had spent years fixing other people’s functions and businesses, I’d done so alone as an interim. There was no way this could be a solo effort. Having Rita’s help was invaluable. It was like having an angel as well as a devil on each shoulder throughout. I mentioned assembling the Avengers earlier, but to go over to the dark (DC Comics) side here, Rita was like Wonder Woman. The one thing I’d learned about Rita was that challenge was always incoming — this was and still is something I have always welcomed. I don’t subscribe to the HiPPO model of believing I know it all, far from it! When attempting something as big as this, the last thing you need on your side is someone nodding along, agreeing and telling you you’re right. We’d never even hit the halfway point at that rate!

Having a strapline of Digital is about People not just Technology (borrowed some time ago from Tom Bryant) meant we were open about the direction of travel for Difrent. We wanted to create a real home for everyone who joined us and encourage them to truly be themselves. This was key to our Strategy. The team at Difrent frequently describe themselves as a dysfunctional family — I’ll explore this further in Chapter 10 — I wanted the right atmosphere, the right culture, and to create opportunities for our people to thrive. You know when you have those favourite places you’ve worked that you look back on? I wanted to bring that same essence into Difrent.

Once the Strategy was in place, we quickly established an advisory board of proper adults (which Rita subsequently joined) to help us kick the tyres. This was all a pro bono agreement because we couldn’t afford to pay. Fortunately, I was comfortable asking for help and had a network that was keen to assist! We roped in the services of Paul ShetlerDuncan Knight, Rachel Dunscombe, Caroline Carruthers and Simon Wardley! I was lucky to already know most of this team when I came into Difrent, but recognised that I personally was lacking the necessary expertise around scaling and selling. We applied to join the Mayor’s International Growth Programme to support this and were assigned a mentor to help us. Duncan had sold a number of businesses circa £10m and he played a key role on the advisory board. For the first 12 months, the board worked alongside us, initially challenging how we dealt with the absolute basics. This included things such as getting a set of management accounts, which took nine months! Later on, they scrutinised areas like competition, our approach to bidding and whether we were being true to our values.

Difrent’s Advisory Board

Delivery really got out of the starting blocks first and we picked up outcome-based work for a couple of private sector businesses — Venture Capital (VC) and Construction. Not necessarily our target market, but it was work we knew we could do in our sleep. And it certainly helped from a cash flow perspective while we were getting the party started. It helped us breathe and realise who and what we were. We had to tread a fine line here because we were telling the market we were moving away from doing this!

Design and Leaders were much slower out the blocks than Delivery. I think this was because we had no experienced dedicated heads in place who could really drive these functions forward. The reality was that we couldn’t pay to bring in the expertise they actually needed. Ultimately, we decided to fold these functions back into the core business.

Strategising is a daunting part of business planning. Another thing I emphasise as part of my journey and personality is the ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ aspect. Of course it’s all for show. Or is it? I like to keep people guessing, but I couldn’t have achieved what I did on a wing and a prayer alone. No one’s lucky enough for so much good to happen by chance, are they? I knew I needed the right foundations from the start and I had some great people advising me at every step. The personality side always shone brightly and was undeniably one of the driving forces behind what I was building.

My takeaways

  1. I know this is not technically a takeaway, but people are part of this journey I’m describing. Paul Shetler was a dear friend and amazing to have around. I knew that at the time, but realise it even more now. RIP Paul.
  2. We devised the operating model around our people to emphasise our Digital is about People not just Technology strapline.
  3. Having an advisory board of the calibre we created free of charge was incredibly special.
  4. Being able to test my thinking and ideas for our Strategy was key.
  5. We initially went too wide and too grand with multiple service offers across central government and healthcare.

What helped me devise a Strategy

  1. Assessing the competition in the market with Wardley Mapping. It’s an incredible tool — used here for mapping out an initial Strategy. The situational awareness mapping gives you a unique set of data. I would urge anyone, entrepreneur or not, to spend some time adding this skill to their toolkit.
  2. Documenting plans for a new business with the Business Model Canvas. It’s a concise one-pager for workshop purposes.
  3. Roadmapping. Seven questions for building a roadmap by Jamie Arnold is the best tool I have come across.
  4. Knowing the HiPPO model. With the caveat that this could be useful for some, and not so useful for others. Not taking the highest paid person’s view sits better with me.

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