5 years of Manifesto
Around about 5 years ago, and about a year after I’d first brought Simon and Curtis together to talk about starting an agency (12th March 2012 to be precise), I took the plunge and went full time at Manifesto. In that time we’ve gone from 3 people who each put in £500 to a 45-person agency which is on track for a £5 million turnover this year. In many ways, my role has changed a lot over those five years. In many others, it hasn’t changed at all. While thinking it all over this Easter weekend, I came up with the following advice for anyone looking to start their own venture.
You worry about a lot of things that turn out to be fine
Looking back, there are an awful lot of things I spent a lot of time worrying about disproportionately. When we leased and refitted our first big (1,200 sq ft) office the cost seemed huge. A lot of collective worry went into this process, and at the time it also looked like we’d lose a big customer. The truth is, in this period I just worried a lot. Afterwards, when I really looked at the data, I realised that as you scale your office costs become relatively smaller. Proportionally, the worry over that was more than it warranted.
Similarly, I found the point where it cost more than £50k a month to run Manifesto quite freeing. It was the moment at which I accepted no matter how hard I or the original founders worked, we needed the team to work together and work well to be a success. That was the last time the fact that the number had become ‘big’ bothered me.
This meant accepting that it could all go wrong and committing to spend my time focusing on the things that make success more likely, rather than worrying about a number. I imagined standing in front of the team, telling everyone that Manifesto couldn’t continue. This made me realise that I want to be able to look at everyone with confidence. I want them to feel that working at Manifesto has improved their career and opened up new opportunities for them.
Businesses like Manifesto are nothing without the people that work in them. So, if you’re going to worry about anything, making sure you’ve got the right team, knowing who you’re hiring next, looking after people, and parting ways with people that aren’t right, are the things to spend your time on.
People change; learn to work with it
Work is a major part of most people’s lives, but plenty of other things are going on too. People start new relationships, end relationships, start families, get older, follow new ideas – the list is almost endless. One thing is for sure: over a period of several years, what people want will change.
Dealing with this kind of change as a group of founders has been particularly difficult. Desires around pace of work, growth and geography have all been discussed. At times it’s been hard to see a way forward. We built personal goals into our business planning a couple of years ago, trying to factor in the personal, but also looking at it from a business perspective, with Manifesto as a separate entity with a separate discussion about what it needs. So far we’ve managed to find a route that works, but sometimes we’ve leant on our non-exec directors to help shape the conversations.
For the wider team it’s important that there’s an open conversation about people’s plans, hopes and dreams. There’s a lot to be gained from helping people achieve the things they’re interested in. When passion is part of someone’s everyday they’ll make a greater difference. Sometimes though, it doesn’t fit with the ambitions of the business and you have to be able to say ‘that’s great, we totally understand why you want to do that, but we can’t see a way to make it happen, here, now’.
Stringing people along or having them carry hidden resentment will kill a people-driven business in the end. So, make the most of how people change and, if you can’t make it work, part on positive terms.
The first two years are tough
I didn’t really think about it at the time. In the first two years we aimed to work on client projects all day and run the company in evenings and weekends. The aim was to build up some cash reserves that we could invest in growing the business. The strategy worked and I thought nothing of working 80 hours in a week.
Towards the end of this period my health had suffered noticeably. I’d put on weight and didn’t look healthy. I started training three times a week, and gradually got fitter, but still worked too much. Some of the most fraught conversations, and worst decisions, happened in a haze of exhaustion.
I think you should expect to work really hard, but sometimes you stretch yourself so that you really feel like you’ve worked hard, and I did this for too long. Towards the end of our third year I took three and a half weeks off. A total break without email. I sold myself on the idea that this was a measure of success of the company. If it could survive without me for that long it was a ‘real’ business. I think this was another turning point that helped prepare me and the business for the next phase of growth.
Towards the end of 2014, we were coming to the end of the period that we’d created any plan for. In the very early days we’d come up with a three-year set of goals that described at a high level how big the company would be, the types of projects we expected to be doing, and a target for turnover.
The headline goal was to turnover £1.2m in our third year (we fell 50k short). About half way through that year we realised we didn’t have a plan for the next stage of the business. But I also recognised that we’d been so close to the running of the business, so down in the detail, that perhaps some additional perspective was needed.
All three of the original founders attended an event called ‘building a £1m agency’, where Spencer Gallagher was speaking. Through this we were introduced to Cact.us and started working with Adam Graham (he’s now CEO of TMG). Adam became our non-exec director along with Adam Hall. Together we built a plan for the next three years and the two Adams joined Manifesto’s board, providing an outside perspective that spans most aspects of running an agency.
They’re not the only help we’ve had along the way. Whenever we’ve spotted something that’s fundamentally holding the business back, we’ve looked at who can help us solve it. This has involved training, coaches and even another business becoming part of Manifesto. As we grew in 2015, I noticed how we were losing some of the bigger projects because our creative story wasn’t compelling enough. At the same time we were looking to build a leadership team to grow us to be a 50-person agency. It was through an introduction from Adam Graham that we got to know Creative Cherry who, at the start of 2016, became part of Manifesto. This supercharged our creative and content capability and also added amazing experience to our leadership team.
I know this series of events has made a major contribution to where we’ve got to today and kept our current growth plan on track.
Take breaks and reevaluate
I mentioned previously that I was three and a half years in by the time I took a proper break from all Manifesto work. I waited too long. I now try to have at least a long weekend every three months where I switch off, think about what’s important to me, and also reevaluate the direction of the business. Often this just validates what we’re already doing, but sometimes it’s the catalyst of a major change.
As we move towards the end of our second set of three-year goals, and start work on the new ones, the reevaluation is more important than ever. There are so many questions to answer: how big do we want to be? should we open more offices? In this process, I’m going to try and listen to my reflections on the last three years as well as the whole team.
At Manifesto, we set out to create a company that we’d like to work for. There was (and is) a real manifesto about doing great work, the right way, and not just for the sake of it. I feel immensely proud of the careers we’ve contributed to, the people we’ve met, the events and parties we’ve had, and all of the great work that’s come from our team. We’ve always been a business that follows opportunities and we continue to love looking for them.
What I’ve realised in trying to create a company I’d like to work for is that you can never truly have the experience of working for it. It was that reflection that made me make sure that I enjoy the process – the good, the bad and the ugly of creating and running Manifesto – as much as possible. A fair few people have told me the journey is the best bit. If that turns out to be true, I’m pleased to say I’ve been making the most of it for a while now.