Writing on the principles & practice of building digital products

Mistakes we made starting a company

We could have saved ourselves a lot of heartache had we done a couple of things differently when starting up. Here’s a list of some of our more glaring cockups.

When Tom and I started Chambers Judd (as the company was then known), we were effectively two freelancers sat in a room. Over time more people came, the company name changed and as I write we’re up to 15 people and we sit in a nicer room. Looking back on the last 4 years it’s astonishing to think how we ran things in the beginning, and the pain we could have saved ourselves had we done a couple of things differently. So to that end I’ve compiled a list of blunders and subsequent lessons learned.

1. Not focusing our time on the skills people hired us for

In a scenario I’m sure is familiar to many, I remember when a typical workday consisted of putting together a couple of estimates, going to a new business meeting, following up on various bits and pieces over email and then realising I had 2 hours left to produce a day’s worth of creative work. Good creative work. And of course I was exhausted from all that other stuff.

If you’re being hired as a creative and spend most of your time doing non-creative stuff, you're stitching everyone up, yourself included. If you're getting work, then there's a reason you're getting it. Focus on that reason, and if you’re a creative, make that the priority. Split your time into dedicated creative and production chunks and make sure creative gets done first. You’ll be happier because you’ll do more of what you love, and your clients will be happier because you’re doing more of what they paid for.

2. Doing everything as soon as people ask

I’ll caveat this by saying if you have skills people need, it is of course important to use them in the most helpful way you can. And inevitably when a project launches there are tweaks and adjustments to be made as it gets out into the wild. It’s just the way it is.

There is a balance to be struck between being helpful and overworking yourself. It’s an art. I’ve found that if you instantly stop what you’re doing and carry out each request as it happens your day can very quickly fill up with bits and bobs without getting a good run of time on anything. Yes, some emails with the subject line “URGENT!!!” truly are urgent, but in reality they are few and far between. Know the difference between urgent and important, and try to gather small tasks and favours as they come in during the day. Then you’ll be able burn through them in one big lump once the genuinely important work is done.

3. Not knowing what cashflow was

This was possibly our biggest blunder. For a surprising amount of time Tom and I didn't actually know with any real certainty how long we could keep going with the money we had in the bank. We just winged it job to job, safe in the knowledge that bigger numbers were generally better than small er. We were lucky and this worked for a while, probably longer than it should have. There were two of us and fairly predictable overheads so we got away with it.

However one cold November morning in 2010 when we finally sat down and put together a spreadsheet, we realised things weren’t quite as we’d like them. It emerged that in about 4 weeks we wouldn’t have enough money in the bank to keep going, and those 4 weeks fell over Christmas (i.e. when no-one is commissioning new work). Huh.

In the end, we scraped together some small jobs here and there, and we got through it. But if we hadn’t sat down and gone through the figures when we did, I wouldn’t be sat here writing this today.

Get an accountant. Or at the very least a spreadsheet.

Part of all this was just the rough and tumble of starting up. It’s easy to pick holes with the benefit of hindsight. But we certainly could have made life easier for ourselves if we’d gotten into some good habits a little earlier on.