This week my Female Founder of the week is Amanda Davie from Reform Digital. It was great fun hearing Amanda's story and there is certainly some brilliant lessons to be learnt. It was an absolute pleasure meeting another impressive and inspiring Female Founder.
Tell me a bit about your journey up until Reform?
It’s probably worth me saying that I am the founder of two businesses - so far! Reform is very much my day job and has been for six years now, but I’m really hoping to spend more time on Mentoring Digital Minds in 2015. Both are complementary in terms of my passions, skills and career goals...
My career has been in internet media and marketing for twenty years now. I am what business academics and professional development people call a Generation X-er. I read something today in fact, in the Harvard Business Review, that perfectly describes my career status. It said that Gen X-ers have all the right qualities and career experience to be great managers of business at this stage in our careers. But, we tend to be prone to extreme work, respond better to flexible working, need more mentoring - and that we were stuck in between frustrated millennials and inflexible baby boomers: the baby boomers who refuse to change the business or retire, and the frustrated millennials who think they can run the business better. I see my role, and indeed Reform, as a ‘unifier’ of these two generations in the workplace. And I am definitely prone to extreme work!
Reform - The Journey
What is Reform?
Reform is a specialist management consultancy. We specialize in digital, helping businesses adapt and change in the internet age. I spend half of my working week helping business leaders deal with their ‘digital discomfort’ and make digital business transformation their legacy; and the other half of the week coaching ‘high potential’ millennials to become the business leaders of tomorrow.
How did Reform come about?
I have always worked in digital media services. Firstly I worked for an online advertising sales house in the dot com boom. Then I worked for two very pioneering independent digital media agencies, one was bought by WPP so we were swallowed whole and became part of a big corporate media network. The other one sold to private equity. So I worked for about 10 – 15 years on the agency side as a digital specialist, convincing blue chip brands to invest in digital media and marketing. By 2008, I thought ‘right, I want to take all of this great knowledge of how businesses are growing and create a consulting business model where we will bring together a crack team of digital marketing experts, but crucially individuals who can really talk in layman terms, who have great communication skills and commercial acumen, as well with business consultants, to help businesses to truly understand and capitalise on the potential of the internet, not just as a communications channel but as a tool for business growth’. And that idea became Reform.
Most businesses need to adapt to the digital age, in some shape or form. A chief executive might say ‘yes the future of my business is all about digital’ and completely believe that. But then they might say ‘so, I am going to hire a chief digital officer’ or ‘I am going to give the digital budget to my marketing director’ or worse, ‘my IT director’. And therefore, they have ticked the box. At Reform we believe that digital transformation - sorry to use a buzz phrase - and the adaptation of the business has to be from the board downwards. Often, however, it comes from the lower ranking techies. Therefore you have got this sort of stunted change taking place within businesses - it’s like a teenage kid really that is not quite fully formed and has got growing pains.
Do you find that companies sometimes just don’t ‘get it’?
We see it a lot. It does tend to be that the baby boom generation nod and say all the right things but if they just ignore it until they retire then it becomes their successor’s problem rather than seeing it as a growth opportunity. They might theoretically believe that the future is digital but they don’t know where to then practically make the changes both to their business strategies, and their commercial plan and whether they need to adapt their products and services. That is the bit that really gets overlooked – digital tends to end up being siloed either into a department like marketing, or the creation of a brand new spanking-new, shiny department, whether that is e-commerce, or social media. But it is a cross organizational piece and it is a cultural piece so the whole debate around how you get the most out of the millennial workforce and not making them use a mobile device that they don’t want to use or banning Facebook in their lunch hours; practices and policies like that will not work. These are our future business leaders as well as our junior employees today.
There is some really good stuff being done. Things like the government backed Tech City that ensured that they are raising the profile of investment in technology is all really, really important. A lot of the corporates are creating incubators and that seems like a good way of trying to incubate a micro culture within a very large organization and enabling that innovation and that talent and those processes to infiltrate out into the organization. It will be interesting to see if those types of models succeed.
How has the company changed and grown? How has your role changed?
We have typically generated £500k - £1m in annual revenue since launch in 2009. We established two offices in London and in New York, we nearly sold the business twice in 2013 and 2014, and we have gone from a permanent headcount of one to ten and back again! We took a difficult but brave decision in 2014 to refocus on our core consulting offer and turn away delivery work, and so today we operate a ‘modern’ operating model comprising a temporary and flexible workforce. We’re lean and keen, and we have remained profitable year on year, and that, as they say, is the bottom line.
My role hasn’t changed much in five years. I run the business and I am its beating heart. But I have learned a lot about myself as well as how to run a business. I am passionate about digital talent and the impact it can have on the economy, but it wasn’t coincidental that the career path that led me to strike out on my own also happened at a stage in my life when I was trying for a family. In fact, I was so stressed out and burnt out from 15 years working in agencies that I quit my job. I blamed my job at that stage for the fact that I couldn’t get pregnant. So, in the background whilst Reform was being conceived I was also trying to start a family. The reason I am digressing into my personal life is that while I was out of the business having my children Reform’s growth potential was limited because, as founder, I am the person who is most passionate about the business and therefore best placed to inspire and attract clients and staff alike.
When I came back from maternity leave last year I decided to make quite a few changes to the business because, whilst it remained profitable, the business wasn’t doing the kind of work that inspired me and that I wanted us to be doing. There is little point in putting up with the challenges of owning a business if you can’t be in control of its destiny. The team had been brilliant and done everything I had asked of them while I’d been away, they kept the business profitable, kept on winning clients and supported each other. When you are in a service business and you have got growth targets to meet, there are probably only one or two people on the team who feel empowered to turn down new clients because it is not the right kind of business, long-term. Whether the clients don’t share the same values as you, or whether it is business that take you away from your focus and the company’s mission. That person who can say no is usually the founder. So I came back to a bunch of service contracts that I felt were uninspiring at best. And at worst we had one client with bullying tendencies, and another paying for our advice but not taking it, so the subsequent poor results were causing disappointment on both sides. I decided, therefore, that we would be brave, risk losing revenue by saying to those clients ‘this isn’t working’, and we walked away from these contracts. I made a conscious decision to temporarily stop growing the business and re-group. Consequently we saw staff leave because the decision to revert to a consulting model took them away from their comfort zone. For the most part we have always hired ex-agency people and the transition from agency practitioner to management consultant is a big, big leap and lots of them never quite made it. As founder, stepping back from a growth trajectory, albeit a temporary side step, has been very challenging and hard to reconcile.
The biggest challenge of my career to date has been trying to juggle becoming a mum with being an ambitious founder and business leader - it has been really hard to reconcile the two roles and to try to be good at both. You read all these articles: ‘Can women have it all?’ and I didn’t want to believe it when people said no, women can’t have it all. My own difficult experience is that women can’t have it all when their children are really young, when you’re learning the most difficult new job in the world i.e. being a mum, and when you are functioning on half the amount of sleep that you used to get in your previous life. Women at this stage in their lives simply cannot function as effectively. Something has to give. And that is currently what I am going through and I hate it because I hate being sub-optimal at anything. I want to be a brilliant mum, I want to be a brilliant career woman, I want to be a brilliant manager, mentor and deliver brilliant services. And it is really tough to achieve all of this.
Balance & Managing Work
Have you found any way to balance or is it still a learning process?
I know that I am really lucky because the only person that is really putting me under pressure is me. Fortunately or unfortunately for me, a colleague once told me she thought I had the hardest work ethic out of anyone she had ever met! I know I put myself under a huge amount of pressure, pressure that is completely unnecessary most of the time. But as my own boss I can work flexibly. I choose to work four days a week and have an extra day with the children, and if the nursery calls and one of the children needs picking up, I can drop everything, I can decide which clients we want to work with and which clients we don’t, where I base myself and who I collaborate with.
Reform has a small, core team and an extensive network of associate partners - freelance consultants and small agencies and tech firms. This is a liberating model because these people are not going to charge clients 50 grand to build them an app, nor are they going to try to deliver a certain type of project if it is outside their area of expertise. It enables us to be agile and nimble, keep our overheads low, but also work with committed experts. I feel lucky to work with some really talented people but I don’t have their personal problems or their fixed costs to lie awake worrying about at night. We all live or die by the quality of our work and our ability to look after our clients. You get the absolute best out of your partners and if you don’t, you move on and you find others. It is a really refreshing way of working. I came across an organization recently who are a matching service. They source people for projects. So if a company is looking for a video production person or a mobile marketing specialist they will source freelancers for those jobs. They said increasingly the big corporates are going to them and saying ‘we want you to inject some new talent into our existing teams. We deliberately want to shake things up, hire contractors to come into our marketing team, to inject new ideas and challenge our conventions.
The working world is changing and obviously the bigger corporates take longer to adapt than small businesses like Reform. But new and flexible ways of working is something that I am passionate about because in my world, in the digital industry, I got to a certain age and I looked around and there were no other women left in the organization. In my last business, on an operational board of ten there were two women. The men went out to a gentlemen’s pie club every week at lunchtime, they took skiing holidays together and they went to play golf together. In the boardroom whenever myself or my female colleague made a suggestion, they would group together and dismiss it. I have experienced how men in the digital industry can be exclusive and I have experienced a lot of female peers quit and reinvent themselves because they get to child rearing age this kind of small-mindedness in the corporate workplace is simply not worth the fight anymore. They are not offered the same promotional opportunities, they aren’t allow to put their families first and so they move on.
How did you overcome situations when you were ignored and your suggestions weren’t included? Did you find a way to deal with that?
Initially I fought really hard - it is the fight or flight survival mechanism - I fought really hard and that led me to becoming very frustrated, stressed and burnt out. A lot of the behaviors were subliminal and it was over a period of years that my frustration built. It is actually what led me to set up Mentoring Digital Minds. The first thing that I did was I organized an event, some drinks - in a private room in a nice hotel. I emailed all the women in my network who were my peers, all with whom I’d had similar conversations of ‘do you experience this in your organization?’. I got a room full of 30 women and we all had a drink and a moan! We all agreed that something needed to be done, and I felt strongly enough that I wanted to create something helpful and constructive. So I set up Mentoring Digital Minds. It is not a women’s only vehicle and we don’t target purely women but we do target rising stars in digital. Talent who are not necessarily getting the support that they need in their organizations because they are working in digital teams or digital organizations that have a 5 year business plan to make a million and then sell. They are predominantly run by men or owned by men because they are technology-led businesses. Typically, these rising digital stars are not invested in. I was one of the lucky ones. I got lots of formal professional training, client servicing, people management, negotiation training, all of those sorts of business skills. One of the reasons i-level was so successful is that we deliberately spent twice the industry average on professional development for each member of staff. So I received a lot of training and I felt that it gave me many skills that my industry peers didn’t have. A lot of digital agencies don’t put the budgets in place for professional development and it has a direct negative impact on staff churn rates, on client retention, and on the bottom line. Mentoring is a tool that is really cost effective and businesses can create mentoring programs themselves without actually paying huge sums to training companies.
Mentoring Digital Minds
How does Mentoring Digital Minds work?
We started off by setting up a small matching service. On the first cohort we had half a dozen couples. Just from that first drinks event we had more than a dozen people stick their hands up and say they were happy to mentor as a way of giving something back - all MDs or board-level directors. Then we realized that in order to grow Mentoring Digital Minds we needed to make some money, and in order to make money we needed to start charging for the service. But we couldn’t charge because the mentors weren’t qualified and if they had given the wrong advice and something had happened we would have been liable. We didn’t feel that we were in a position to source and sell qualified mentors at that early stage of the business, and three of us on the board are self–employed so growing this additional business wasn’t going to happen overnight. But one of the board directors is a business coach and she is therefore qualified to train people to develop mentoring skills, so we created a series of workshops for this requirement. Companies can now send their staff to Mentoring Digital Minds to develop their individual mentoring skills but we can also help them to go back and set up mentoring programs within their companies.
Mentoring Digital Minds is complementary to Reform because a lot of ‘consulting services’ is coaching, teaching and mentoring. Often with my Reform hat on I get asked to mentor digital marketing managers because they don’t necessarily have anybody in the organization who understands their practices, their conditioning - that they are kind of in this perennial beta testing mode and that everything goes at a million miles per hour and they can’t wait two weeks to see a decision maker. Or mentor business leaders who don’t dare admit to their subordinates in this day and age what they may not know about digital and how to leverage its potential.
Final Thoughts & Advice
Finally, what would your advice be for anyone starting their business now?
My biggest piece of advice is ‘nurture your network’ because people buy people. Simples! People who trust you will invest in you. If you’ve already got 50 people in your network with whom you have worked, who like and trust you, then nurture this network. Word of mouth and personal recommendation is everything. Every year at Reform, we have sat down to write a sales & marketing plan and every year it doesn’t matter what activities we deploy, 95% of the work that we win comes from our network because once people know and trust you, they will recommend you. But you have to keep reminding people of your value. That’s where events, email marketing, thought leadership, etc. come in.
I like to go onto LinkedIn and remind myself who is network. I am pleasantly reminded of all the amazing, talented people that I know and have been fortunate to have worked with. Keep in touch with them, be re-inspired by them and remember that those relationships are a major asset for your business.