April 7, 2022

Chapter 6 — Getting the business going

When I first landed at Difrent back in November 2017 things really were… well, different! Steve had built a 10% margin recruitment business, which was turning over around £2m. It was already delivering people into central government, meaning we had a real head start because we were already on the frameworks of both G-Cloud and Digital Outcomes Services (DOS). The five years of trading history and factoring of invoices meant that cash flow was much less of a challenge — another huge positive! These were massive factors, and kudos must go to Steve. The successful foundations were in place and we were ready to boot the doors in!

While our Strategy was to deliver outcomes from a user-centred perspective, we were realistic enough to know we needed to bring business in while we found those dream deals (spoiler alert: I’ll discuss in future chapters some of those strategic deals and the big impact work we carried out). But for now, in getting us up and running, we pulled in a couple of outcome-based pieces to help us along in the first six months. The first was for a construction company I’d worked for previously, and Mike Clay was their Chief Information Officer (CIO). He was really pivotal in helping us secure this one. The other was for a VC business a mate worked for. This really highlights the need for positive relationship-building and not burning your bridges. You never know when you’re going to need to call in a favour or just put the feelers out. These early jobs were to deliver outcomes in the service management and programme governance spaces.

It meant everything to us to get the work under our belt and go for it.

The work for the construction client was to deliver a service management outcome that had some very clear targets. We needed to increase a first-time fix on the service desk, therefore reducing the backlog of tickets sitting at the third line. This was ultimately a six to nine-month piece of work. Following the first outcome, service management pieces were added, including implementing Problem Management and the full Change and Incident Management process. We brought in contractors who’d worked for me previously. This did impact our margin, but it was absolutely essential that we got out of the starting blocks with the best of the best (Sandra Lewis and Lee Barnard).

The work we carried out for the VC was around Program Governance. This involved really kicking the tyres on a complex global implementation of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, making sure the right structure was in place around governance reporting, risk management and capability mapping. This was a short, sharp piece of work. Again, we staffed with known quantities and I had the pleasure of being back on the tools for this one.

They offered us a follow-on gig, which would have been much larger and worth around £1m in revenue, but we turned it down. It was a seriously hard decision to make — no one wants to turn that kind of money down and we certainly weighed up the pros and cons several times. Unfortunately, the cons outweighed for us with this one. It was obvious the culture of the VC was at odds with how we wanted to operate and, if our seniors found it challenging, then we’d risk our junior staff struggling in that environment. The problem was around the user-centred and business change approach. Although the client was investing heavily in tech, there was a distinct lack of investment on the people side. We felt there were issues ahead and, if we couldn’t convince the VC of what was on the horizon, then it made sense to us to opt out early. We made the right decision in hindsight, as a lot of the programme team members ultimately stepped away for similar reasons. We’ve all been there, maybe staying for the money, maybe ‘just to see’… and our gut feeling was always right. Yep — we’ve all been there and got a drawer full of the t-shirts. As a new organisation there was a lot of responsibility and people depending on us, so we didn’t want to start compromising our mission from the off.

As much as turning work away never sits well, it makes sense when you know it’s the best decision for your direction of travel. And once we started to realise this, we began getting more of the ‘right’ contracts coming in. An important thing to note (particularly for those who don’t work in the public sector or who wish to get into it) is learning how to navigate new business in this environment. You don’t get to pitch for jobs in the same way you do in the private sector. It’s a lot more formal with hundred-word answers, and writing proposals in the same way as you would for a dissertation for uni. While we were on the frameworks, we really had to earn our stripes in bidding for work and refining how we did this. Everything is a learning exercise and this one is a constant learning curve. To this day it remains a dark art and a challenge to consistently hit the target first time! The frameworks of DOS and G-Cloud are exceptional in how they have been established, but there’s still an element of having robust networks to really make an impact and land business!

It was around this time that we hired our first salesperson into the business. This was a chap who’d been hounding me for years as a recruiter for a meeting. His persistence paid off and I’m pleased to say, (although he no longer works with us) we remain mates and in contact and he is absolutely flying! Ben Cooper came from recruitment and joined us to start learning how to sell outcomes into central government. We utilised his recruitment experience to bring in £1m to £1.5m of revenue (recruitment business) during that first 12 months — this really helped us from a cash flow perspective (shout out to that high-flying mate Ben). The party was growing and more guests were arriving — we’d have to start upping our party venue game!

Dan Leakey, Jo, Rachel Murphy, and former team member Zo Gould, with Ben on the right
Dan Leakey, Jo, me, and former team member Zoë Gould, with Ben on the right

By this time we’d been through a number of bases for the Difrent HQ. When I joined we had access to meeting space in Windsor in a Regus office. That relatively quickly became London-based when we rented some desks in Westfield. It wasn’t like a scene from Bad Neighbours by any stretch, but we got a bit rowdy from time to time. I don’t think the owners of Rentadesk had entirely planned on such a rapidly growing delivery business dominating their space. Actually, while the space there was really cheap, coming in at £125 per desk per month, we were so much about watching the pennies that we devised a cunning plan. We were renting four desks, coming in at £500 a month, and wondered if we could sublet the desks on an out-of-hours basis to reduce our overall spend. It was more to distract us from the terrible atmosphere than a serious business proposal, but shows how we were always considering ways of reducing our spending. We were convinced it would work though! But that atmosphere was serious and quite repressive, and definitely not the right fit for our people. There’s no way that I’d start becoming the ‘fun police’ at work. If you can’t have a laugh and some banter along the way, then I don’t think you’ll get anywhere.

Rachel Murphy playing ping pong in the office
It wasn’t all work and no play #OfficeBants

We were a business finding our feet and encouraged our people to talk openly and become a community. In that sense, it felt like we’d outgrown our welcome, rather than outstayed it, so we packed up and moved out of Westfield. Our next move landed us in Chiswick — a fabulous loft style office that we rented for 12 months. This one was properly researched for a longer stay, knowing that we’d bonded well as a team. It was the perfect fit for us, and came along at a particularly busy time. We’d generated lots of new business, and were moving from recruitment to outcome delivery.

Team collaboration work in Chiswick with Zoom

In Chiswick, everyone became super close, with a strong work ethic and ongoing party ethic! We were going from strength to strength and felt like we could walk on water. It was an amazing feeling. We made a big investment in the offices, with our core back office team based there, and a 50/50 split between perm and interim. We began using the space to do more and more events like teaching Wardley Mapping, or holding client meetings and workshops, as it looked cool enough to bring visitors in. It was on point, minimalist, and said as much about us as it could the second you walked in.

Debbie Laird, Nic Carney, Dan Leakey and Jo Brown lounging on the sofa!
Debbie, Nic, Dan Leakey and Jo lounging on the sofa!
David Pierce putting a postit on a whiteboard
David Pierce preaching about procurement

The space cost around £40k a year and at that time we were turning over around £7m. It seemed a far cry from the days of rentadesk, which was only hours ago in reality. With a click of the fingers, we’d found that missing piece. It hadn’t exactly been plain sailing, but it would have been boring if it had been. We wanted to build character on our journey.

There are thousands of workspaces available, but finding the right one is key. It wasn’t until Chiswick that we truly felt settled. I think that’s where we started to feel more like a company and had found our home. You need the right atmosphere to be yourself and work out who you are. People loved coming into work — the banter was just amazing. I hope we’re all able to look back on those early stages and know that we achieved something special together. The photos speak for themselves anyway. I mean, there’s Dan Leakey rocking up to work looking like he’s on a Hawaiian holiday — you don’t get more casual than that.

As part of the overall Strategy, I’d wanted to create a favourite place of work for our team — and I think this was it. The next step would be to get the right deals in and generate business while striving to nail down our ethos and maintain our integrity around it. Sometimes it’s easier said than done.

My takeaways

  1. You may be in your startup period, but don’t chase every deal. Not all of them will be the right fit for you, regardless of how much they pay. Think about who you are, what you do, find your speciality, and carve your niche.
  2. By watching the pennies you’ll make them go a lot further. Think of it as your own money and you’ll certainly not spend unnecessarily.
  3. If I was doing this again (in the same market conditions) I’d have hired more permanent billable staff than contractors. It makes more commercial sense.
  4. I should have been braver with paying for a salesperson earlier on — it would have taken the burden off me.
  5. Co-working space is a great thing — we were just a bit unruly.

What helped me get the party started

  1. Having access to those frameworks. They’re a massive ballache to set up, but once in place, they act as a springboard.
  2. Knowing the interim landscape inside out meant we had playbooks for the service management work and the programme governance piece for the VC.
  3. Bringing someone in who could write over a £1m in new business was amazing from a cash flow perspective. Especially as we were only just moving into selling outcomes.

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