Hard Lessons


When I first started running a business after a gazillion years in employment I guessed it would be tricky. I was right, though at the time I had no idea how difficult it would be. The result was a pile of mistakes and an uncomfortable first year which I scraped through and which provided valuable learning for me. As some of you will know, I am shortly going to open up the business and share information around how it runs. By way of introduction to that experiment I would like to share some of my experiences with you. Michael Carty and the good people at XpertHR have been kind enough to join me on this stage of the journey. You can read some of what I’ve learned over at their place this morning, and some here. I hope you find this collaboration useful.

Things take time

The business is set up, I’m out and about and I spot and begin to develop a few opportunities. I also register with some invitation to tender gateways for public sector work and start to see interesting things emerge here too. It takes time to jump through the hoops associated with tendering, lots of time. I begin by enthusiastically putting my best foot forward and “having a go”. There are deadlines to meet. You need to deliver all this stuff to us by a date so we can narrow the field by b date and so on. What happens is that b date, and the others that follow in the chain inevitably slip. Folks are great at not allowing enough time for things to happen.

The trouble I had in dealing with this meant I clouded my thinking around “I wonder when so and so will be back in touch?” I wasted loads of time wondering, and then worrying about this stuff. In time I realised that whatever the opportunity is, it’s only one of a number of things going on in the customer’s world. How important it is to me is irrelevant so prepare and deliver your proposal, then get on with other stuff. Or in the case of local authority tendering, choose not to play here in the first place…

Broaden your focus

Attractive sparkly ideas and conversations are very seductive. I mean, who doesn’t like sparkles eh? The trouble is they can be blinding and when I first started out – I became absorbed by the “next big thing” and the sparkles distracted me from other stuff. I was invited to apply for a position of external adviser to the board of a local authority. I was also encouraged to engage with another local authority who were keen to learn more about the connections between an engaged workforce and improved customer service. In the case of the first opportunity I eventually came second. The second one, which started in spring 2010 – is still rumbling along….somewhere. I used to be far too patient and wait for these things to move along. I’m much more comfortable with the what goes around philosophy now. And yet…

Patiently impatient

Because people can take so long to decide, or not decide, or decide and decide not to tell you, things drag. There are reasons for this and one of them can be your decision not to remind folks that you are there. It’s tough to get the balance right and it’s important to be on the lookout for other valid reasons to re-establish connections on things that have gone a little cold. I don’t think it’s worth hassling about the same thing all the time – letting go is important. And it’s just as important to occasionally remind folks you are still there, ready to help.

Deep dive with care

Good preparation enables me to help create a relaxed and flowing atmosphere for the people I’m working with. When I was working on the creation and delivery of my first major conference, I worked with an event company who attracted sponsorship and used their extensive mailing lists to help attract an audience. I invested weeks and weeks of planning time writing engaging copy for the event site and attracting some very good speakers. I wanted this event to be as good as it could be so I left no stone unturned as I sought out good people and tried to write the very best website I could. I became so focused on these things I “forgot” to sort out other stuff. Stuff like – how much was I going to be paid for my efforts.

After a few weeks I broached the subject and we agreed I would take 20% of the gross profit. The event was a big success, we attracted over 80 delegates and some hefty sponsorship and the buzz on the day was great. I used music through the day to intro speakers and other sessions, and played with some visual cues too. The post event feedback showed people really appreciated what we’d laid on for them. A few days after the event I received a cheque for around £2,500. That was my financial reward for around four months of hard slog. I subsequently found out that the event company had made a load of mistakes in their bookkeeping which left me somewhat short changed. They refused to share information, then got very aggressive and I took what at the time was the tough decision not to pursue the matter. I believe that doing so would have cost me more money and time than would ever have been recovered and though I don’t know this; I expect taking that path could have been curtains for the business. I learned some valuable, very expensive lessons. Don’t focus on one thing at the expense of all others, insist on making robust transparent financial arrangements upfront, and know when to let go.

On the gas

I confess I felt bitter about my naivety around the conference. From the outside it had been a success and yet it had drained financial and emotional resource from me. I struggled to get over it and I nearly missed the point. The point was – follow up, and quickly. I contacted as many people I could who had given good feedback from the event and arranged several meetings to explore…possibilities. One of these possibilities led to the piece of work which ensured the company survived its first year and started year two in much better shape. Follow up quickly.

Eager to please

I like to please folk; I think most of us do. Trouble is if you try and please everyone you quickly end up being taken for a mug. Through trying to help a good friend with their hopeless broadband customer experience I managed to displease the Group CEO of BT a while back. And though there are folk who will tell you “you don’t want to make enemies with people like that”, it helps to have a few people you haven’t pleased.


Balance sucks. I learned this from falling off bicycles. Flow is much better. Flow is when time flies, and when you are absorbed in what you are doing, and when you are able to move from work to social to family and give generously when you are there, and move to the next place with focus and presence. Rather than trying to achieve balance – try and achieve flow.

Last minute

Be adaptable. Very early in my career I planned for a day of facilitation which went horribly wrong. Speakers didn’t show, and were hours late, and were poorly briefed. I wasn’t directly responsible for any of these things but I hadn’t planned for them. I managed to salvage a useful day for this team and I learned a lot from it, primarily to expect the unexpected. Have a plan B and a plan C too. Better to go along for the ride with too many things to do than not enough.

Practice practice practice

Pretty much anything worth anything takes practice. If you really want it, keep practicing, asking and listening. In the summer of 2010 I nearly gave up. Am I glad I didn’t! I love what I do and I continue to search for and find inspiration in the likeliest, and unlikeliest of places.

photo c/o greencandy8888

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

11 thoughts on “Hard Lessons”

  1. i guess I shouldn’t be surprised at how hard your first year was, but I am.

    I do hope I did nothing to add to the difficulties as I have enjoyed and valued our interaction.

    I am glad 2011 is looking better and seriously wish you good fortune as you build something you so obviously love.

    1. Hi Ian

      I felt it necessary to internalise a lot of the early difficulties so as not to frighten too many folks away!

      You are one of a handful of people who kept me sane in the early days. I recall meeting you via Nish Kotak as if it were yesterday, I’m so glad we both attended that session and have since got to know each other better.

      See you soon – Doug

  2. Hi Doug,

    Thank you for sharing this. I hadn’t realised how hard it had been. And it’s put my own business development into perspective (I’m now in my 3rd year).

    I guess I was lucky as I had two mentors working as free-lance HR consultants who both persuaded me to set up my own business. They taught me the vital lessons both before I made the plunge and in the very early days – eg how & when to approach the client after making a pitch for a piece of work. Your blog has made me realise how much I owe them.

    Fantastic post. And keep on doing what you enjoy. It will be worth it in the end.

    1. My pleasure Karen – I’m pleased you found it interesting. I should say things haven’t been all bad – and I’m sure folks have gotten into worse scrapes than I have too. But yes – it was tough and I wanted to share that both to give new starters some pointers and some confidence that things can be overcome and successful valuable outcomes can be achieved.

      Cheers – Doug

  3. Gosh – is it that long already Doug?

    Even though I’ve been neglecting SDDTTC for a while now (nothing personal – honest) I popped back today and I’m glad I did.

    I have been watching with some jealously your move from Corporate cog to the man with a voice / opinions / advice / skills / lessons and much more. I love the flavour and format, the ways that you communicate and encourage others to do so as well. As well as an enjoyable 5 minutes every so often and an opportunity to contribute in a small way, there are always snippets and opinions from you and your contributors which make the visit worthwhile but, more importantly, rewarding.

    I am really, genuinely pleased for you and will be back here more often – promise! One day I might even escape the machine myself but for now …..

    Don’t stop ….. keep taking us on the journey …… it’s been (and still is) a pleasure.

    Nice job Mr Shaw

    1. Hey Chris – I think of you often so don’t ever worry about neglect – it ain’t gonna happen 🙂 I too am so pleased you chose today to pop back.

      Your observation about those snippets from everyone (and I am continually chuffed by how many folks pop by and take the trouble to comment) is spot on. Worthwhile and rewarding – splendid stuff.

      I too look forward to continuing the journey a long while yet.

      Cheers – Doug

  4. Doug,
    I’ve been following your blog for a few months now. (Found it via Ian S.)
    It’s on my must read list every day now. Thanks for all your open, frank and honest comments. Today’s especially so.
    There’s always something inspiring that get’s me thinking in new ways.



    1. Hi Mark – thanks for your kind note. I particularly like it because you acknowledge how you found your way here, and because the blog helps you think in new ways. That feedback is so important. Cheers – Doug

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