Six practical lessons for new entrepreneurs (hint: you’ll never be ready)

Here we are at the beginning of 2018 and I’m astonished that nearly six years have passed since we started Thwaites Communications. The company was ‘born’ in February 2012. The vision was to create a company that would work brilliantly for clients while also providing an environment in which colleagues can thrive. Working on a flexible model, with a dedicated core team supported by expert associates and partners, we provide clients with the assurance that their brands are in safe hands. Running the company has been an amazing experience so far. There have been some great lessons to learn along the way – too many to mention – but here are my ‘top six’.

1. You’ll never be ready so get on with it!

In the aftermath of the banking crisis, in 2012, my Dad told me that if you can make a business work during a recession then you can do it at anytime. Armed with his vaguely reassuring fatherly wisdom, that’s what I set out to do! The economic nosedive made it an interesting time to leap into the unknown. Yet, in contrast to the economic uncertainty, for the first time, I felt really confident about my own skills.

I think it’s quite common for women not to feel this sense of confidence until they reach their 40s (or, 20-odd years into a career). I can’t speak for the whole of womankind of course but I have observed that innate confidence (and maybe willingness to take risks) is not as common as it is among male colleagues and friends. If you are confident in yourself and your abilities, you know you can take on anything that is thrown at you and for a lot of people, that doesn’t come until a bit later in life. In hindsight, I wish I’d taken that leap of faith earlier than I did. I’m always learning anyway, so if I had the chance to do it all again, I’d start my business sooner. My daughter has just launched her first ‘company’. She’s 11 years old and I hope it’s the first of many.

2. Create a brand that is meaningful to you

When I formed the company, I didn’t know what our USP would be. This contradicts a lot of the advice that’s out there, which says “don’t start a company until you have a USP”! I knew that our value would be in areas that are policy-rich and potentially technical. And that’s where our offer started to resonate with clients. As time went on, we were able to refine our ‘pitch’ and now it feels like second nature: we work with people and organisations doing extraordinary things to help them share their complex ideas, products and services in a clear and accessible way.

The visual expression of our brand has been through several iterations but the spiral motif was always a given. I’ve always doodled similar things and been attracted to the shape. Having researched the meaning, I discovered it’s been used by different cultures to represent reflection and rebirth. We take a thoughtful approach to our work and our clients often expect us to apply some critical thinking to our own ideas, as well as theirs. So the shape seemed appropriate in lots of ways. I feel uplifted every time I look at it and I now have it in various forms in my home as well as on our office walls.

3. Design a company that borrows from everyone’s best bits and the places where you’d love to work

As a company, I think we are quite unique. Our model is unusual but of course, we are not the only agency to run with a blend of staff and associates delivering for our clients. Associates (and partners who provide specialised services, like graphic and web design) make it possible for us to work on diverse briefs, no matter the size and scope.

When it came to building the team, I deliberately sought people who wanted to work flexibly. For many, this coincides with big life events, like having children or combining work with a course of study. A lot of agencies can’t or won’t support home working or flexible hours. This creates a pool of available individuals with years of experience and capability, and an opportunity for us to offer our clients a highly skilled team without the day rates often charged by larger companies. When I started the company, there is no way I could have afforded to employ people of this calibre on a full-time basis.

I don’t believe in always sticking rigidly to the traditional nine to five. You have to trust people: as long as the work is delivered to a quality and time-scale that delights the client, why should it matter where or when the work is done? This philosophy allows Thwaites to be extremely flexible, as well as utilising the skillsets of people who are often excluded from more traditional workplace environments. We make our approach very clear at the outset – quality and value are at our core – and if there is ever any doubt over these things, it is quickly addressed. To be honest, I have more difficulty getting people to switch off from their work than I do with underperformance!

4. Decide what matters to you – and live and breathe it through your working practices

We are an agency with a strong set of values, which helps in decision-making. We do work that tends to have a social and environmental significance on the innovation side of STEM. Our clients’ work tends to influence policy, which in turn shapes the future. It is an exciting, grown-up space to work in. In the world of data, for example, by working with our clients – who are often advising governments around the world – we’ve developed a level of expertise that I haven’t seen replicated in any other agency. Aside from that and as far as I’m aware, we are the only data-specialist corporate comms agency in the country.

ODI 5 Years On party

Image by Freya Hellier via ODI Flickr

5. Be ethical

By the time I started Thwaites, I’d seen both highly ethical and unethical work in the corporate world. For me, strong ethics are about creating a workplace where people want to be, and practising what you preach. We tend to find ourselves working with people who believe in equality, openness and social purpose. We’ve worked with many organisations like the Open Data Institute, the Centre for Public Impact and The Open University. Alongside having strong missions of their own, they share our vision to create a ‘better informed world’. We’re lucky enough to work with those who are concerned with solving some of the globe’s greatest challenges and who are doing it with compassion, invention and honesty.

However, it’s important to recognise the underpinnings of what we are here to do. I don’t want to run an ethical company that’s not very good, which is why we also have an emphasis on intellectual rigour and quality of delivery in our approach. We want to be problem-solvers for clients. When we make mistakes, we’re honest about it and we act quickly and effectively to put them right and learn from them.

6. Have a plan

It’s so important to know where you’re heading, even if you have to change course midway through. With the current uncertainty surrounding Brexit, this is even more the case now than it was six years ago.

A key change that’s emerging in our own market since 2012 is that tech companies are starting to borrow language, design techniques and motifs from the arts sector. They want to present themselves in a more approachable manner. Creating an intersection between art and technology is one way to begin that process and something we did recently in our work developing the Energy Systems Catapult brand and visual identity.

Another aspect of the business that we’re really committed to is building our own in-house talent. This is a core goal of ours for the year ahead. In 2017, we recruited our first intern, Alex Vryzakis, and we are optimistic that this marks the start of an exciting new phase of growth and development.

2018 will be a year of great opportunity and great challenges for our company. We are excited to continue working with many of our most established clients and to welcoming new ones. If you’d like to find out more about working with us, including how we can help your company or organisation, please email me or my colleague Keir Fawcus and we’d be delighted to have a chat. In the meantime, here’s to a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year!