Bring in the business

Business skills become a prerequisite when your consultancy grows beyond a certain size. Nat Hunter speaks from experience

When I started out as a designer, I never had any ambition to run my own business, but things never quite work out as you plan them. Airside now has a staff of 12, and there are often 20 people in the studio, when all our freelances are here.

When I started Airside in 1998, with my two business partners, Alex Maclean and Fred Deakin, our goals were to achieve more creative freedom and an inspirational working environment. We had in mind a collective rather than a company – Tomato’s structure was definitely an inspiration. Our focus at the start was on the quality of the work we were going to produce. As long as we had enough money to pay the rent, we weren’t focused on making profit.

Everything went smoothly until a critical period in late 2004, when we came within a hair’s breadth of going bust. At this point we had two options – go out of business, or become less idealistic and more business-like. We sought help from various people. Adrian Shaughnessy, for one, was wonderful and gave us some extremely useful advice. We realised we were very inefficient. For example, the founding directors oscillated between eight completely different job descriptions – and so we separated out our roles, hired a great project manager, a new business person and a great accountant.

This new structure and approach seemed to work and our turnover promptly quadrupled, but it suddenly occurred to me that I was now managing director of a ‘proper company’, with all the responsibilities that the role brings. This scared me so much that I started looking for a business education, which is when I found a course called Building The Creative Business, aimed at entrepreneurs operating within the creative industries.

This particular course runs at the London Business School, but your local business school may offer similar professional development programmes. Courses are also run by organisations like D&AD and the Design Business Association, but these are often more creatively-focused.

Ours consisted of three weekends spread out over five months. Fees are subsidised by the Government. There were 15 companies involved, with two delegates attending from each one (the theory being that it needs two people to actually implement the changes, once you return to your business).

The idea is that it helps you to transform your business plan, and then to create an effective five-year growth strategy. It also teaches key business, leadership and financial skills to enable you to implement your new strategy. This course runs from 9am Friday to lunchtime on Sunday, with homework in between each weekend. We found the energy and enthusiasm of the classes truly infectious. I take my hat off to any teacher who can hold your attention for nine hours on a Saturday, when everyone would rather be relaxing after a hard week. Fred took the course with me, and we have both really enjoyed it, way beyond our initial expectations. It has enabled us to engage with our business in a new way. We were already instinctively using about 70 per cent of the basic techniques described, but it was reassuring to know that we have been doing the right thing. However, we realised how blinkered we were when we found out about the other 30 per cent.

First, we discovered that we were still operating as if we were a six-person consultancy. Other than the directors, no one was taking responsibility for anything, and there was a lot of confusion as a result. We started implementing a middle management structure. It will benefit everyone when it is in place, but the challenge is to keep our culture intact. How do you keep the feel of a small consultancy as you grow?

The next realisation was that, by creating a middle management structure, those managers could then run teams more effectively, which would free the directors up to do more strategic work, and allow us to run a broader ‘pyramid’ structure, employing more freelances, and increasing our margins.

I would recommend this sort of business course without reservation for anyone in the same position as us – designers who are starting up on their own with no previous business experience.

Nat Hunter is managing director of Airside

PUT YOUR CONSULTACY IN ORDER:

• It can be helpful to clarify your job descriptions, particularly for the directors

• Setting out some key roles like new business or project management can be a good idea

• Get someone in charge of the finances too

• If you don’t have a middle management structure and you employ more than a handful of staff, it could be time to put one in place

• Check out business schools, like the Centre for Creative Business, for professional development courses tailored to the creative industries

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