Starting on the right foot – how to get your business set-up right

Written by: John Scarrott
Published on: 17 May 2015

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I’ve been speaking recently with Natasha Chetiyawardarna, creative partner at Bow&Arrow about the strong sense of belonging that bonds her team together, where that comes from and how it is sustained. In an earlier article I looked at how Bow&Arrow worked to create a sense of “belonging” in their business.

This follow-up article is the second in a four-part series that will break down the story of the business that Chetiyawardarna and her business partner, Ben Slater, and their team, have created. It’s an inspiring journey, and a useful road map for creative business owners who are just starting out, as well as those that want to change direction.

In this article, I’ll be looking at the lessons Natasha and Ben learned when they set up their business.

It starts with you, the owners of the business
The starting point for creating belonging at your consultancy starts with you, the leaders of the business. It’s about what you choose to do, and not do, in the very early stages of setting up. These decisions are the very foundation stones of the business and determine the future shape of what is built. Here are the key insights from Natasha and Ben’s early steps:

“Know what you don’t know and address it early”.
Bow & Arrow adopted a mindset of humility from the outset. In Natasha’s words, “We weren’t idealistic. We knew we didn’t know everything. We didn’t know anything. We asked – what can go wrong?”

When thinking about the business, in Natasha and Bens’ minds there were three clear early realisations:

  1. “We knew we didn’t know everything ourselves.”
  2. “We didn’t know each other.”
  3. “We knew we needed outside help.”

It was about finding the right mix of advice that was both right for them, and what they needed. They looked for a chairman early and appointed Richard Jolly, who Ben had worked with in the past. They knew that Richard was right for them; he’s a Professor in Organisational and Psychological change at London Business School. He understands how organisations work, the pitfalls that can arise, how integrated they are and how Bow&Arrow would need to work with them.

Bow & Arrow’s clients are at c-suite level and Richard brought an understanding of the c-suite mindset – that of the CMO, CFO and the CEO – to the business. This enabled the team at Bow&Arrow to put themselves in their clients’ shoes from the outset.

“We didn’t know each other”
Creative consultancies are often started up by two people, and this was true in the case of Natasha and Ben. The difference was that Ben and Natasha had never worked together before and, in fact, they didn’t know each other at all. They were introduced by a mutual friend, Cindy Gallop.

For Cindy, these kind of introductions are about instinct and timing. She knew from talking to Ben that he was planning to launch an innovation consultancy. Around the same time, Natasha confided in Cindy that she was tired of working for agencies. A light bulb went off in Cindy’s head. She has a “connector’s instinct”, about the type of people who should be talking to each other. She knew Ben needed a creative partner and that Natasha wanted to do more challenging and strategic work. Bingo!

“Ask questions of each other.”
Natasha and Bens’ lack of knowledge of each other at the outset led them to ask two questions of each other:

  1. What are our real strengths?
  2. How are we going to agree?

Having this conversation really helped them and, as it happened, they had completely complimentary skill sets. This meant that Natasha and Ben were able to learn from each other; they grew during the process and informed each others’ skills. They discovered that they shared the same work ethic and both wanted to make things happen.

“Adopt a feedback mentality”
If you start having open and honest conversations as business owners, it eventually becomes second nature. In the beginning it is really important, as Natasha says: “Start-ups move at a mile a minute. Starting a business is intense. You can get irritated at the smallest things and you need to knock these on the head early. The relationship between two business partners is like a marriage. You’ll be spending loads of time together. You need to talk, take time to work on your relationship. It affects how happy you are at work.”

Having a neutral person, such as a chairman, on board helps you to stop and pause every month for three hours. This time is vital as it gives you the space to analyse what’s going on. Having this person in your set-up makes it easier to get into a feedback culture.

“Leave pride at the door”
You may start your business, or be running your business, with the belief that a lot of pride rests on what you do. You may think that you can’t ask for help, because you should make your own mistakes. Ben and Natasha had a different view and they took action to support it.

They sought advice with people they knew and made good connections early. They knew they didn’t know everything. They were trying to establish a more comprehensive notion of an innovation consultancy, one that was strategic, creative and commercial. Their notion was different to the conventional unilateral approach to innovation adopted by agencies that focus on just one of these three areas. With this in mind, they deliberately didn’t make a big song and dance of their launch. They wanted to work out how to do things and make any early mistakes quietly under the radar. At the beginning they adopted a position of “conscious un-confidence”. They said to themselves: “This could go wrong. Let’s start small. Let’s borrow offices. The business is not about a load of money. We know we are taking a risk but let’s be pragmatic about it.”

What can design business owners take from the story of Bow&Arrow?
Firstly, it doesn’t matter whether you started up last week or ten years ago. It’s where you are now, where you want to get to and how you cover the ground between the two that is important.

Here are one or two things to consider doing, based on Natasha and Ben’s experiences.

Get to know and un-know each other
The chances are you’ve probably set up with someone that you know, and that knows you. But do you really know each other? Get back to the start and ask each other the following questions: “Where do your skills overlap, where are they different? And how does this translate into what you are doing on a day-to-day basis?” Cast off your assumptions and have an honest conversation. And repeat.

Get “open” early
There’s sometimes a problem when people with non-complimentary skill sets get together. The skills they don’t have, but need, are sometimes not brought in early enough. Doing the “getting to un-know you” exercise above can help you recognise your strengths and highlight your skills gaps. Where there is something missing, you can then set about filling in the right skills and experience.

Find your connectors
Find yourself a Cindy Gallop. Cindy’s philosophy mirrors the strong base on which Natasha and Ben have built their business. Her advice is to “be your own filter” when it comes to attracting the right work and people. Ask yourself if you are spending too much time pushing against closed doors when going after what you want. And consider the alternative approach of putting “what you are” out there, working hard and letting things flow naturally towards you.

For this to work, you need to know who you are and what you believe. And then project this out there into the world. More on this in part three of the series, coming soon.

John Scarrott is membership director at the Design Business Association. He Tweets at @DBAScarrott.