July 18, 2023
April 21, 2022
It’s no exaggeration when I say I’ve lost count of the number of events we attended over Difrent’s journey. There were the ones we attended, the ones we hosted, the awards ceremonies, parties, networking events, expos, seminars, webinars, interviews on TV, radio, dozens of podcast interviews and the ones we blagged an invite to… an almost endless list across every medium. All our escapades did have a point to them, whether subtle or more obvious. The usual intention was that they’d showcase us, and complement the work we were doing. In short, I’d say we were looking to get our name out there by any means necessary. But only if it was free!
Sometimes, what looks like a harmless three syllable word such as net-work-ing can be the most terrifying. But, we saw networking events as exciting opportunities to unwind and get to know people. It’s not like you can just drop in on people at work and start talking to them about what they’re up to, so we were all over any event where we could make friends and influence people. Or do I mean infiltrate? As new kids on the block, we wanted to be the established kids. The message and intention may have appeared secondary, and some probably thought we just had a fondness for canapés, but we were always there with a plan. Remember, nothing was ever left to chance — it was our way of constantly growing as a business. This is who we are, this is what we do, this is what we’re going to do.
About half an hour after we built out the business, we ran a very public event with a star-studded (from our world) cast and set of attendees! It was testament to the network I’d built up from previous gigs.
I’d previously worked at the National Archives, so we managed to negotiate a decent rate and convinced Janet Hughes to do us a big favour and arrange an Un-Conference for us! This was the launch of Agile Procurement 1.0 (#AgileP) something David Kershaw and the Curshaw team picked up and ran with a couple of years later.
This event was about providing a platform for friends and colleagues across government to get together and debate Procurement and what could be done to move towards Agile Procurement. I also blogged about Procuring Digital Outcomes on LinkedIn.
The key objective for Agile Procurement 1.0 was signalling to the market we had landed. It cost us about £3k and we managed to have the ‘who’s who’ in our world in attendance. It was the first in a series of Agile Procurement events that ran over the next couple of years. As a result, we formed strong relationships with Crown Commercial Services and a number of central government departments, as well as being back with friends at the National Archives.
Do more at each event
Jo and I rocked up to our first UKGovCamp having sponsored the thing. For us, sponsorship got the brand out to the right people in a ‘captive audience’ way.
At one of the sessions, participants were given one minute to introduce their company without trying the hard sell. We decided to completely rip up the rule book and give our own interpretation of the doorstep scene from Love Actually with a unique twist. It was memorable and we didn’t even say a word! In fact, it was a first for UKGovCamp and definitely a first for us… 60 seconds and no talking? How?! It was all very lo-fi, a bit guerilla, and very quick and dirty. It really worked for us. We communicated our brand and we engaged with people. The laughs and applause said it all — the instant metrics.
Giving the hard sell at events has never actually been our thing. We knew that as soon as anyone thought we were there to ‘just sell’, we’d lose them. People are wise to that and the first rule of communication is you’ve got to know your audience! Of course we were there for ‘some-sort-of-sell’, but the story mattered more. And the subliminal subtlety of the t-shirt I was wearing during Love Actually helped to reinforce our message. There was some Brand, PR and Engagement overlap to our pitch, but we had heaps of fun, and got our name out there exactly how we wanted. Looking back, it was the first time that we’d consciously — or even subconsciously — worked the room. We connected with the room and, by not talking, it spoke to people. Nearly five years on, the video still regularly does the rounds on social media and always enjoys great feedback!
The key outcome from UK Gov Camp was lending our financial support to the event and creating a memorable way for colleagues across government to recognise the brand of Difrent had landed with a rather tongue in cheek. We didn’t realise any specific new business from this event rather profile raising.
Create events: the Difrent Summer Retreat
We loved our summer retreat! All perm and interim staff were invited, along with their partners and families — the more the merrier (or muddier)! It was all a bit hippie. Camping out at Wild Forest, a 20-acre mud obstacle race venue in deepest darkest Essex, with a big barby and drinks.
It feels like a distant memory now, but certainly one to cherish. To see everyone having such fun and taking part in the madness was brilliant. The aim, other than just having a great time, was ‘team-building’. I say it that way because I know it puts people off as much as the dreaded ‘networking’. We just wanted it to be relaxed and informal with the same people you see in the office, but in a different context, and no us and them to it. You don’t get more informal than rolling around in the mud. We had drinks and food in the evening, sofas and fires to create the ambiance, and rounded off the weekend perfectly. We were in the middle of a field, away from civilisation, so the setting was ideal for when conversations grew chattier. Needless to say, there were a few sore heads the following morning. Ultimately, it was great to see people, phones down, and having that atmosphere to cut loose and talk. Well, once everyone found out that they couldn’t get a reception, it was phones down!
Sadly, we weren’t able to repeat the event due to the pandemic hampering plans every time we tried. But let’s never say never.
Ceremonies sound like they’d be very formal, and some of them are. It’s an excuse to dress up, or you have to dress up to get in, depending on which way you look at it. Awards ceremonies, events, happenings — they’re just parties, really. And that was fine by us!
We had a table at the 2018 Women in IT Awards. This was the first awards party we attended and I’d only gone and got shortlisted! The nomination was for work while I was at NHSD, but we weren’t going to let that minor detail get in the way!
Attending events became standard practice over the next few years, whether it was us having a table or a couple of us pitching up in a shits and giggles capacity. I should add that we didn’t just treat it like we were Mötley Crüe in the ’80s, and maybe rocking up in all that hairspray and leather was a bit OTT. Anyway, we took the business of having fun very seriously, and with purpose. We went there to play it like we were bigger than we were. This is where having a more front than Sainsbury’s approach got the company noticed, and just being there was good PR. We invited a bunch of people to Women in IT awards: Rita, Anne Cooper, Russell Sloan, Charlotte Jee, Beverley Bryant, James Findlay, Juliet Bauer, Mark Chillingworth, and Alan Morgans. Literally eight days later, we attended the FDM Everywoman in Tech Awards. Just like the Beastie Boys, we were rockin’ this party eight days a week!
I’m not going to list every nomination Difrent received over the past four and a half years, but I will pull out some of the key ones that really put us on the map. The next logical step from attending is winning. And yes, every time you hear someone say it was great to just get nominated when they didn’t win… well… we all know what that grimace emoji looks like! Just like the nerves with public speaking, ‘close-but-no-cigar’ is the reality of awards nominations. Make sure you practise your gracious runner-up smile!
Here’s a rundown of the top 5:
This is one of my faves as it recognised one of our team for the exceptional work he personally led in designing the COVID Home Testing product back in 2020. Kudos to Rand — well deserved!
To say I was proud to be placed in this would be an understatement. The Inspiring Fifty awards exist to spotlight women excelling in technology careers across the UK, who actively encourage more girls and women into tech, and inspire future leaders and entrepreneurs. Attending this event in person and actually meeting Hilary Clinton was truly a once in a lifetime experience! And being dubbed ‘One of the most influential women in technology in the UK’ is a real humbling experience too.
This is my all-time fave. It really showcases our partnership with the NHS for the work we have jointly done in building the NHS Jobs platform. To say there are special memories of the Jobs team would be an understatement! This one was for all of the team, past and present.
This cemented our healthcare credentials with a clear recognition of our work in Healthcare and Digital, not to mention it being in such a tricky year.
If there was ever a year where you wanted to win an award for CEO of the Year, it really would be 2020! I was juggling the potential acquisition, responding round the clock to the NHS, building services 24/7, and dealing with the first three months of shielding at my parents’ place. In a time where you can joke about deserving a medal, I was given an award!
My lead-in to discussing awards was a bit blasé, but there’s a seriousness behind that. I think they fit perfectly with my view that it’s about the journey, not the destination. You don’t always have to win, but it always looks a lot better on paper to sell an award-winning company, eh? Whether you’re for or against awards, they certainly do strengthen your pitch in business. The knock-on from awards and recognition builds your track record in a particular space, and your professional reputation. Winning is great, but year-on-year nominations show your progression and consistency, and being there — being part of the glitz and glamour — gets your name known and lets the industry know you’re a force to be reckoned with.
I’ve spoken and blogged a lot about my struggles with learning to speak publicly without wanting to either puke or break a limb, rather than get up there and crack on! It seems like being nervous is such a throwaway comment, but it never is. You’re totally out of your comfort zone, it’s unnatural, you’re in front of X amount of people and it’s on. When I first did it, I felt all the same anxieties as everyone else: the butterflies in the pit of my stomach, the feeling of nausea before going on stage or in front of an audience, as well as having to deal with, Why the fuck am I doing this to myself?
You can either crumble under pressure, accept it’s not for you, and vow never to put yourself in that position again. Or you can work on your technique, accept the challenge, and keep on going. Your voice will always be sketchy at first. You’ll always be nervous, but you’ll feed off it and learn to channel the energy. It’s not only the buzz of talking to an audience — it’s the buzz of talking to an audience about your chosen subject.
I’m so proud that my name has become synonymous with Health, Delivery, Transformation, Leadership, and Diversity. I feel like my future is heading towards beign an entrepreneur, addiction and the more controversial treatments and therapies I’m learning about. And so the buzz continues.
A huge goal had been to get to the Lesbians Who Tech stage in San Fransisco and, moving towards that goal, I was invited to speak at the LWT London event held at the Facebook offices in late 2018. The event was titled Old School to Startup, and it had so much energy. One thing that’s never happened before is someone laughing before I’d even delivered a punchline! I wasn’t sure whether I was being heckled or if it was just someone being over-excited, but I kept my cool and never lost track. Ironically, the woman who laughed ended up joining Difrent and was still working for me when I left! The world never ceases to amuse!
In early 2019, I was invited to speak at Silicon Slopes in Utah’s Silicon Valley. I took this one as an honour. It was my first time speaking to an audience of 2,000 people. Big audience, big deal, but it was also an international audience. My session was Tech for Public Good and Nate Walkinshaw was very much instrumental in making this happen.
Silicon Slopes was a different kind of event to what I was used to. Firstly, I was in a different country. Secondly, the audience was primarily Mormon, so I had to tone and edit my usual patter. About 30 seconds before I stepped on stage my bloody slides failed! Cue my blood pressure going through the roof… I mean, come on. Seriously? I was waiting in the wings, all set, but I managed to not freak out and make it happen!
I talked about the Tech for Good work Difrent had been doing across central government and the NHS. It also just happened to be my five-years-sober date, so I took the opportunity to talk about that in a public forum! It’s quite a humbling thing. I got a hearty round of applause from the crowd. That was just unreal and meant so much. It all went according to plan and we managed to get someone to record my session. Hopefully, the panic in my voice subsides as my heart rate stabilises.
Another massive highlight of this event was meeting Arlan Hamilton in person! She was as authentic and down to earth as I imagined her to be — right down to her trademark hoodie and purple shoes! Arlan is a bit of a hero of mine. She was living on handouts and food stamps in the US seven years ago, and has now built a successful VC agency investing in under-represented founders. She really is inspirational!
We knew the power of word-of-mouth and used it to our advantage. We never had a budget as such for any of our PR — the aim was to do what we could with as little spend as possible. It was probably a bit of an ask: Get us everywhere, but don’t spend any money! But that was our trip, that was how we worked, and it worked for us.
Each event was about engagement, looking at how we could get in front of people and talk. With me as the USP, I’m generally a bit different to many other speakers: you know, the bold, outspoken, chatty, but without that in your face mindset. I don’t think I’d keep getting asked to speak at events or do interviews if I was known for being a bit of a tool.
You get more creative the less you spend. You have to, and I think it’s a valuable lesson. Likewise, the more you spend the more you expect — you want more return on investment and will be forever frustrated, and looking for bigger and better and spending more at each turn. We did start spending more on these activities over the years but, it wasn’t with that, We must get whatever return from whatever investment. Being Agile and it being an iterative process, we could have changed our way of thinking at any point. If necessary. It was doing it by spending conservatively and getting business through the event further down the line.
There were things we could have done differently here. We would have had a total rethink if our approach to maximising our exposure was going south, but that never happened. It’s totally correct and ok to plan your marketing strategy, and there’s always a fine line that you need to apply. Speculate to accumulate exists because it’s true. Don’t overspeculate and, actually, don’t underspeculate either.
Who’s to say what we may or may not have achieved by doing things differently? I was probably too fearful of getting anything wrong to take those bigger risks when there was so much riding on it.
If you’ve been affected by any of the content on these pages, then hit me up and let’s have a chat. The business mentoring services are there, the public speaking is there, or if I can tailor something for you, it’s all up for discussion. What’s stopping you?Get in touch