April 2, 2021

Don’t bother with an MBA….. build a business

I’ve always been fascinated with business for as long as I can remember and I’ve spoken many times before about setting up ‘Murphy Corporation’ when I was about 5 or 6 and rigging up old filing cabinets of my dad’s, answering the phone and bossing my younger brother around! A few years later a car washing business was created and my mates were all ’employed’ needless to say I was found not putting a shift in but chatting to potential clients and rustling up more business ūüôā

I built Difrent 3 and a half years ago, it was a recruitment company that was heading in the wrong direction truth be told when I arrived but it had trading history and that made all the difference! I had come in after the period of payday loans and not knowing if people could be paid, I came in with two permies and about 20 interims so you could say a soft landing! But it was scrappy and I just loved that, albeit at the time it was my first permanent role ever and I was pretty damn terrified! We didn’t have a brand, we didn’t have a story, but we did have more front than¬†Sainsbury’s¬†and we got cracking from there!

I’ve always been super tight on spending while we built out Difrent, everything has been on a shoe string, when we first got started our marketing team of 1¬†(JoJo)¬†worked a couple of hours a day for us and we slowly built up from there. I think we have still spent a total of about ¬£400 quid on paid marketing in the last 3 years. Some of this bootstrap approach does and is noe changing but its a damn good way to run a business, rinsing money on PR just isn’t a goer for a start up/scale up. We now have a formidable brand that reaches over 100,000 people across platform and is well recognised and respected across Healthcare and Government. Of that I am incredibly proud!

We fought so god damn hard for the first few deals at Difrent and that persistence, drive, focus and damn right push with everything we have is absolutely still here. I will honestly never forget landing our first big deal with NHS BSA that was initially a 140k disco over 14 weeks and a full business case to look at transformingt NHS Jobs. Fast forward 3 years and last night we won the Overall Winner award at Leading Healthcare Awards for our work with NHS BSA! I cannot even describe how proud I am of the joint team on this achievement, Mind blowing, truly.

We still fight hard for deals; super hard, we are looking now at how we change what we do with bidding and we will only go after things where we have a relationship and where we get to help shape and influence before the opportunity comes out on a framework; this is the sort of work we really excel at but that’s a blog for another day, hopefully a joint one with¬†Emilia Cedeno

Back to the scrappy startup and why it beats doing an MBA!

Convincing people to join a startup at the outset is a tough sell, you are small, you may be here today and gone tomorrow, there are so many things you don’t have in place and people come in and work an entirely flat structure and muck in, often doing 5 different roles and this suits some and not others, and then as things grow and change people struggle not getting access to you in the same way and feel a little bereft in not being involved in every decision, it is such a balancing act but a super charged and exciting one. That time, that energy, that push is addictive and just pure magic!

Then you start winning bigger deals, you start putting processes in place, hiring people who can do the do while you start to actually run the company and shift focus to thought leadership and strategy rather than being on the tools. The last time I did client billable work at Difrent was 12 months ago now; its something I will want to do again especially if its a juicy national NHS drama!

But back to the point of the blog

This learning, this experience of doing is just amazing. It truly was for me was a dream come true and it is hard to describe how much I love the people in the business for helping me make this a reality!

But the real icing on the cake and the real learning of my business came when I sold it, ironic eh! We were lucky we had three suiters who wanted to buy Difrent and 12 months before we sold I had put together a ‘sell pack’ this was pretty much cobbled together from an blog and shaped up; it was a reasonable effort but it was a serious learning curve going through formal due diligence. Now I whined about this a lot but this was the real start of me learning my business inside out and back to front; my focus till then had been on growing it, filling the gaps myself and diving back into the doing when I saw a gap and putting out fires where necessary. For the first time this was pretty black and white, data orientated and heavy going as detail, detail and more detail. Whilst I enjoyed the negotiation side of this the potential three buyers and then DD took me away for probably 6 months and this is a huge commitment when a lot of your role is new business. However it was a cracking way to truly learn my business and understand what was going to be expected of us when we landed in an AIM listed business.

So we sold to the¬†Panoply¬†and then another intense period of flash reporting every 5 days, introducing time sheets across all staff and forward planning formally what we were going to be doing business wise 12 months out (fair bit of a punt still) but a detailed plan a quarter out. We just hadn’t done this before. We had closed the years before with a swing of 500k one way or t’other and I seriously struggled getting my head into this. I knew it made sense. Whilst I would never say numbers are my forte I have always been very fluent with my day rate, and I have always understood the operational impact of numbers (my role as an interim for 22 yrs) I definitely had not grasped them in this way. However fast forward 6 months, some great feedback from¬†Neal¬†and¬†Olly¬†support from¬†Jim¬†and¬†Nic¬†(legend!) on getting closer to these and I know exactly where we are; whats coming in, whats sitting in the bank, where payments are outstanding, and perhaps more importantly whats coming down the pipe and how we will hit our 20% growth target for the next 12 months.

So I would say to anyone don’t do the theory, if you fancy learning how to build a business get on and do it. You are going to make mistakes, loads of them, you are going to lose your nerve (partner up with someone who compliments you) and hire a shit hot team as soon as possible, get a mentor, one who will not hold back on challenging you, ask for help but for fuck sake do it and it you really want to accelerate your learning curve in this area sell to a listed company. Genuinely 6 months on almost to the day of selling to Panoply I know more about running a business that I could have learnt in many, many years of learning the theory!

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