Autopilot disengage

I’ve been listening lately to a podcast about business, and it’s reminded me how important it is – in life and in business – to ingest…. I hate the word “content”, so I won’t use it. Let’s go with: thoughts and opinions and ideas from other people, whether that’s books, or videos or podcasts or whatever.

The podcast that I’m into - this guy built a service business in a highly competitive industry from nothing to massive in two years. He’s thoughtful and articulate and interesting. The ideas aren’t new. They’re all things that I’ve come across before, some almost to the point of being cliché. But it’s so useful to be reminded, and it’s been encouraging me to get out of my day-to-day head and take a more considered look at the bigger picture.

And it’s made me think about the way that we do things at Freshleaf, and a bit more about where we’re going.

I inherited running Freshleaf nine years ago, and to be honest, it was already in pretty good shape. That’s what made me take the job here in the first place, and I think what makes the business successful. We’re getting a lot right. Understanding that our people are our strength. Protecting the standard. Knowing and believing in the why.

But there’s also things that I’m currently weak on. I understand the value of mood setting but don’t proactively do it. I also believe in the value of goal setting and visualisation – as long as it’s combined with action and prioritisation and time allocation that matches those goals – but again, it slips off my radar in the day-to-day, and things that don’t matter take away time from things that do.

And I know that we – as a company – suffer with imposter syndrome, and we fall down horribly on selling our strengths. We’re a small service business based in an unfashionable part of Dorset. As a digital agency we fail to live up to the stereotype – we don’t have beanbags or wellness plans or unlimited holiday, and we don’t have swanky offices. What we do, however, is our small team serves businesses from start-ups right the way up to $bn multinationals, and we do it really well. We do protect the standard. We outperform much larger agencies, who probably do have swanky offices and beanbags.  We’re efficient, we’re good at what we do, and we solve real-world problems. We’re flexible, we’re agile, and we’re totally committed to quality and customer service - not as a concept, but because it’s part of enjoying and being proud of what we do.  We know all this, and yet we’re still achingly incompetent at telling anyone these things. I’m incompetent at telling anyone these things.

The podcast talks at one point about stories and the way that they influence how we engage with the world. Our brains are programmed to identify patterns and fill in blanks: narratives are how we make sense of the world, and we’re addicted to it. It’s fascinating stuff – we live in, and through, stories, and they affect us deeply. It also makes stories an incredible way to engage with people.

And it made me think about my story with Freshleaf. I tend to think that I’m lucky to have a job that I love – and I am. But that’s not the full picture, and really it underplays my own decisions, and those of people around me. Like a lot of people in digital circles, what first attracted me to technology was the low barrier to entry. And as with a lot of things – when you don’t know what you don’t know, it’s easy to think “hey, this isn’t so hard, I can do this”.  So I built a (truly terrible) website for the company I was working for at the time, and then I decided I’d quite like to be a web developer, so I wrote some letters to some digital agencies - and someone was mad enough to give me and my home-grown skill-set a job. To be honest, most developers are self-taught – so the “hello world” to gainful employment story isn’t a new one. But it was a choice.

Fast forward a few years and I’ve got some commercial experience, but my role is drying up at the company I’m with, so I’m in the market for a new job. I interview twice. Once for a fashionable digital agency with some big-name clients and a 12-hour working day. I don’t recall if there were beanbags, but I bet there were. And once for Freshleaf, where, when I arrived for interview, a couple of the team were busy trying to figure out how they were going to fly their RC helicopter onto the roof of the bank opposite. And who doesn’t want to work in a team that’s planning a heist?

Fast forward a few more years and I figure out that I’m a very average developer, but what these guys really need is a project manager (and it’s more fun anyway).  A couple years more, and – and this is where I don’t know if it’s luck or opportunity that I created - I guess some combination of the two – the business owner says to me “I want to stop running this business and do something else. How would you like to take over?” And when I finish looking over my shoulder to see who he’s talking to, I say yes – because again, who says no to something like that?

And so between then and now, I’ve learned a bunch of stuff, and improved a few things but, if I’m being completely honest, I’ve relied on the foundations that were here when I got here. Because they were bloody good foundations. How they got in place is a different story – maybe one day soon I’ll dig into that (more stories!). But now I wonder: how much more could this be if I … if WE… really doubled down and built on those foundations? Where could this company go? What else could we achieve?

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