’There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.’ (Donald Rumsfeld)
Running a business can be exciting, but also scary. You are constantly on a learning journey, where only you as the leader can really make the tough decisions about where to go and what to do next. One of the real challenges is that sometimes you don’t have the answer.
I started Think Public when I was 23 years old, without any experience of how to run a business. Like most small businesses, we worked really hard to make sure we delivered great work while staying true to our values, and the business grew as a result.
I decided last year that Think Public was at the stage where it was important to grow further as a business. I knew we needed to do this to achieve our social vision for a positive culture change in society via design. However, I was unsure of how to achieve this growth.
I started speaking to people and asking them for advice on how to move the business forward. I found out that the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts was running a mentoring programme called the Creative Business Mentor Network, and in April 2009 Think Public was selected as one of the top 24 media businesses of tomorrow to take part in the pilot programme.
Nesta is the UK’s innovation agency. One of its reports last year highlighted how creative businesses contribute a crucial £57bn a year to UK plc, but those creative businesses with high-growth potential often require specialised help to perform to their full ability. This resonated with my experience at the start of the programme.
When I started Think Public I worked with a life coach, and that really helped me to think differently and understand some of the invisible barriers to starting a business.
Through the Nesta programme I was paired with John Bartle, co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and at first I was unsure of what to expect. I wondered how we would work together and if he would be a hardcore businessman. When I met him all my worries disappeared. Just speaking with him reconfirmed to me that, just because you are running a business, it doesn’t mean you have to change who you are or your values.
One of the first things we worked on was learning about leadership, and collaborating with him has helped me develop skills I may otherwise have taken much longer to learn. We are now setting up a mentoring programme for all the team at Think Public, to enable them to develop personally as well as professionally.
Sometimes being the one in charge and leading all the time can be hard. As we all know, when you are a creative you have lots of ideas, and the challenge is to focus on one and work hard to develop it, without getting distracted by other new ideas. Working with a mentor can help to hold you to account and keep you on track when trying to achieve certain goals.
Mentors have the benefit of real-life experience and bring advice to the table that would otherwise be out of reach. Being around someone with so much experience and drive made me realise that I still had plenty of work to do.
I learnt that when I feel like I’m stuck and don’t know what to do, it helps to think back to why I started the business in the first place. Then I just ask myself if this takes me closer to my goal. If the answer is yes, I tend to follow that intuition.
Why work with a mentor?
- Being the one in charge and leading all the time can be hard, so working with a mentor can keep you on track when trying to achieve your goals
- Having lots of ideas is a good thing, but the challenge is to focus on one and develop it without getting distracted. A mentor can use their experience to teach you techniques to remain focused
- To get the most out of working with a mentor you need to be open to learning and trying out new things. Much like prototyping, it’s good to try different approaches to see what works best for you and your business
Deborah Szebeko is founder of Think Public