The Pain of Trying to Set Up a Business That Could Last Forever

Why we were committed to building strong business foundations for It’s Nice That, however tricky.

When we started getting serious about It’s Nice That developing from a time-consuming hobby to our ‘real’ jobs somewhere in 2009 we decided to try and do it properly. To try and build something that could last forever, with or without us, through good times and bad.

When I say properly, I mean dedicate real time and effort to structuring it as a business with integrity and solid foundations. I’m not talking about registering with Companies House, or renting an office space or drafting templates for contracts — those are things you need by law. Everyone has them.

What I’m talking about are all of the things many businesses (especially creative ones) don’t seem to bother with. Things like employee appraisal systems, competencies, training and development support, values, purpose, business targets, annual employee meetings, management structures, pay reviews, inductions, HR policies etc. etc.

A dozen or so things in a list that look pretty straight-forward. However, what links them all is the lack of knowledge we had about any of them, and (without trying to sound melodramatic) the personal struggle and discontent I felt in setting them up.

I remember crying on the way to work at the thought of how clumsily we were treating an employee while implementing our appraisal system. We lost the employee (and a mate) over that, but came out the other side with something robust enough to avoid more pain in the future, and with a few tweaks that same system exists today, over 7 years on.

For almost 18 months we obsessively and repeatedly wrote out the steps and speeches we needed to deliver to implement our Annual Pay Review. We were desperate to make sure our employees had all the information they needed to understand the benefits and how it might affect them. Now it’s something our business couldn’t be without.

I had countless sleepless nights trying to work out how we could include our teams in the setting of our company targets for the first time. Now, I love the process of working out the right goals to inspire our team and take our business to the next level. Our annual meeting with everyone is one of the highlights of my year.

While paying ourselves barely enough to live, we spent money on hiring outside HR help to make sure we had the right policies in place as soon as we could (maternity, holiday, grievance, etc). Even though we’ve never had the need to use half of them — it has always important our team knew we were doing everything we could to make sure they were treated properly.

And I could go on — take any one of these seemingly straightforward structural pieces and I could tell you a story about some kind of struggle due to lack of experience.

We’ve spent years (no hyperbole) of our own lives crafting a developing these foundations. Years. Numerous iterations. Failures. Lost mates. Lost employees. Good decisions. Bad Decisions. Disgruntled restructures. Excited new recruits. Improved project managers. Empowered creatives.

Now the fact that these foundations exist brings me more joy than I could’ve imagined. They give us the opportunity to better develop our workforce and attempt to thrive and grow as a business.

However, what I find most interesting about all of the above is that we didn’t have to invest any time of effort into any of them by law (apart from HR policies of course). We could’ve flown by the seat of our pants and embraced some high staff turnover and a bit of stress and probably made a bit more profit in the short term.

We were lucky to have great advice along the way from some amazing people who gave infinite wisdom, who also allowed us independence to make our own mistakes. Saying that, there was no luck in the desire we had to make sure these things happened and didn’t end up just as aspirational ideas in a lost notebook.

To this day I’m continually amazed at how people we’ve employed from respected companies have never heard of half of these foundations — especially the ones needed for their own development. For example, one incredibly talented creative on our team didn’t have a performance review at their previous company for five years? Does that signal a cool, relaxed, creative environment — or nearly 2,000 days of missed development opportunities?

These foundations are now more than something I’m proud we’ve implemented; they have become our definition and our culture.

They are our hope for the future. They allow us to take risks when we need to. To grow or to shrink as necessary. To help good people become great people. They define us as an organisation and now as people too. And, most poignantly I believe they give our business the chance to last forever — long after we’re not involved.

All of this from something I absolutely loathed, which makes it even more satisfying.

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