Notes from FutureScape ’14 – what do you do if your business plateaus?

Back in the spring, I was asked by Jim Wilkinson, the organiser of FutureScape, to speak at the event, which took place last week. Great, I thought, mentally running through which projects I might talk about.

“The title of your talk is ‘The Way Forward’ ” he said.

“That sounds very grand, what does it mean?”

“Well, last year you spoke about marketing; everybody’s done that now and they want to know what to do next” Quiet groan to self.

However, when I started to think about this, it occurred to me that all small businesses face a similar challenge, and it is one that all the self-help management books don’t really talk about.

It all starts with an idea...
It all starts with an idea…

Businesses start with an idea. Perhaps it is one you have carried around with you for years. Maybe you are pushed into it by redundancy, or maybe you’re just a brilliant entrepreneur. You nurture this idea, feeding it with time and money. You have great hopes for it, but somehow it stays stubbornly stunted. Why is this? Let’s look at the reasons and explore some possible solutions.

 

Not enough work. Wrong sort of work

What most people complain about is simply not enough work. Or perhaps the wrong sort of work? Do other people seem to get all the best jobs – how did they get that?

Well, one answer is to diversify. This could be a matter of selling a different type of product to the same clients – maybe offer maintenance to your existing clients. Alternatively it maybe lateral expansion into a new market – schools or care homes for example.

Richard Reed, founder of Innocent Smoothies
Richard Reed, founder of Innocent Smoothies

The opposite might also be a good strategy. If you find yourself chasing round after lots of small projects with no time to think, perhaps you need to focus. Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent Smoothies put this brilliantly when asked about singularity of purpose and focus: ‘If it’s too broad, there’s too little focus. But if it’s too small you might not give yourself enough money to grow. So there is a trick to working out what you’re in the business of. You have to work out exactly what it is you’re doing, and do that better than anyone else.’ I must confess to not being the best person at this – I tend to get dragged in to distractions too easily. But I do understand what my core market is, and we are very competitive in that market.

It may be you need to do more effective marketing. Once you’ve got your message and market clear, the starting point should certainly be your website. This may sound obvious, but it is amazing how many small businesses ignore it – out of date, unloved websites are positively counter-productive; they actually put people off. Use quieter times to rethink your marketing material. During a downturn in business a few years ago, I spent the time putting together some A4 landscape format sheets to make a digital (or print) brochure: four or five general sheets, then half a dozen or so case studies. Over the last few years, we have gradually added to these until we have about 80 or so sheets which we can choose from to make up a brochure – although we still don’t vary from 12-16 sheets in any single brochure. Finally don’t ignore networking and social media. These frequently are slow burners in terms of marketing – they often produce leads in unexpected ways.

Finance

cash-wadDo you have too much work, not enough money? It’s a common enough problem with smaller businesses. There is a simple answer to this – put your prices up. It is a straightforward way of slimming down the workload and making more money at the same time. Often, it is surprising how the market reacts to this. Consumers do not always equate lower prices with value as much as they do higher prices with quality. In a market for luxury goods and services, the latter is often a bigger driver. If you can’t put your prices up, then look at your costs – can you buy more cheaply? Could you put more pressure on your suppliers for price? Or trim your overheads – how much plant do you really need? Could it be hired in?

Maybe cash flow is the problem. Most SMEs are pretty awful at credit control, especially in the design sector. It is almost as if they are a bit embarrassed about asking for money. Be proud of what you do and don’t be afraid to ask for payments regularly and on time. If you go out for a meal, the restaurant doesn’t say ‘That’s fine, drop by tomorrow and pay; or whenever you like really.’ If credit control is a serious problem, then one solution that some businesses use is invoice factoring. It can be expensive, but is often used effectively by enterprises that are expanding quickly. Another solution is simply to build up a cash cushion that allows you to ride out the vagaries of the market and still take advantages of opportunities as they arise.

Could you expand if you had just a bit more money? The obvious first stop is family. This has been the favoured way of funding businesses for hundreds of years. It can provide solid funding from somebody who trusts and understands you and is unlikely to foreclose without notice. Failing that, you might think about Asset based lending. This is bascally borrowing against some asset as surety, including intangibles such as future profits. You can find good articles about this at Fresh Business Thinking. Don’t write off the banks either. Since the government has been encouraging banks to lend to smaller businesses (with schemes like Funding for lending, British Business bank, Enterprise Finance Guarantee) they are quite keen to lend money, only if of course they see you as a good risk. One solution that we sought was essentially selling of part of the business to grow the whole. This allows other people to come in and re-invigorate the enterprise and often provides a much needed cash input. Branson has expanded his empire in this way – with almost every step; he sells part of his existing business to fund the expansion of a new enterprise.

Not enough you

Perhaps we get to the crux here – this is why most businesses plateau. They expand rapidly while they are based on one owner, but eventually that person runs out of enough time and energy to grow the business further. The solutions to this are sometimes obvious, but also sometimes counter-intuitive. I found that getting away from the coal-face often paid dividends. Recharging

Spending time with family and friends for a while often allows you to recharge and focus. Equally, instead of working, find inspiration! Go to an industry event, an exhibition or a networking opportunity. This should be a real driver in your business allowing you to absorb new ideas and move forward.

Andrew StraussTo really move the business on, you have to look at how you relate to others in the business and what the culture of the company is. You need to be open in the way you talk to others. I always find that talk to everyone as your equal is a good mantra – and this cuts both ways. Don’t undervalue yourself but also don’t patronise others. And you won’t always be right – Andrew Strauss put this well in a recent interview: “There’s a fallacy that strong leadership is about being right all the time. Actually strong leadership is admitting you don’t have all the answers sometimes, and encouraging other people to think a bit as well. I always think probably the best leaders are those that understand their own strengths and weaknesses the best and don’t pretend to be all things to all people”. I have a friend in Spain who runs a large language school. She runs a session with her staff each week called ‘Challenge Jill’ in which they can ask her what they want and question any of her decisions.

Listen to everyone: talent is everywhere. Ask people what they think; listen more than you speak and you may just find out what your people are capable of. Teams need nurturing. If you value your staff you will get more out of them and they will respect you. Andrew Strauss again: “Good leaders have empathy and care deeply about the people they’re leading. My philosophy is that if you care about them, they’re more likely to want to be led by you”.

Give back – this again is one of those counter-intuitive things. If you have achieved, give something back. Volunteer on a charity project, become a committee member in your professional or trade association, or become a school governor. Often these are self-affirming activities, and it can be great to use your brain for something other than work! They can also be good networking opportunities.

Despite all this, things go wrong. But don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is part of the learning process. I think almost everyone has some event from their childhood seared into their brain, some occasion when they failed. Failure is how we learn, and avoiding making the same mistake again is a huge motivation. Many great thinkers and entrepreneurs have remarked on this:

Coco ChanelCoco Chanel, fashion designer

“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”

 

Branson

Richard Branson, entrepreneur

“You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”

 

Henry Ford

Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.”

 

 

Churchill

Winston Churchill, UK prime minster

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”

 

Drew Houston

Drew Houston, Dropbox co-founder and CEO

“Don’t worry about failure. You only have to be right once.”

 

 

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison, inventor and businessperson

“I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

“Many of life’s failures are made by people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”

JK Rowling says she may have got it wrong by matching Hermione with Ron in the Harry Potter books

J.K. Rowling, author

“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success.”

 

Finally and perhaps most importantly – surround yourself with good people. Stelios Haji-Ioannou (the founder of EasyJet) once said that he always surrounds himself with positive people – negativity is a killer. But there is not point in surrounding yourself with great people if you are not going to share the responsibility – and the glory – with them.

Julian Dunkerton, founder of SuperDryI’d like to finish with a quote from Julian Dunkerton, founder of SuperDry: “Never think of yourself. It’s about your staff, your customer, and your business. You’re tenth on the list. If you’re thinking that you are doing it for a Porsche then forget it, because you’ll never make the right decisions to build the business.”

Urban (notes from the SGD Autumn 2014 conference)

If you put the word ‘Urban’ into Google image search, this is what comes up:

Central Kowloon in Hong Kong: glossy, sleek urbanism.
Central Kowloon in Hong Kong: glossy, sleek urbanism.

A glossy, sleek, landscape of steel and glass. Actually, I think that many people’s idea of Urban is grittier, more individual; maybe even a little threatening. Something more like this:

An Urban explorer
An Urban explorer

The truth is more interesting. Landscape and Urbanism are intimately linked. If you ask almost anyone what is the earliest example of garden design they can think of, they will probably say (other than Eden) the hanging Gardens of Babylon.

new-old-7-wonders-hanging-gardens-babylon-iraq_18308_600x450

This is the only one of the seven ancient wonders of the world to have no known historical location, although it is almost certain to have been in what is now Iraq. The important point is that the very concept of gardens emerged at the same time as Urbanism. Cities only became possible because people moved from a nomadic hunter-gatherer existence to one of settled agriculture. The idea of making gardens emerged at the same time – gardens and buildings are inextricably linked; so one could argue thatwithout cities there would have been no gardens.

Dense medieval Bologna
Dense medieval Bologna

Medieval cities were pretty dense – look at southern European examples that still survive. The same was true in a more haphazard way in Northern Europe, where wealth came later. Significant green urban spaces only began to emerge here with the Agrarian and then Industrial Revolutions, and the explosion of learning that came with them. Buildings began to be taller, partly because of new building methods. Larger scale developments began to emerge, along with ideas of urban design and town planning. These higher densities created value which effectively funded green spaces between the buildings: much of central London with its squares was built in this way. I love this image of Belgrave Square, a chunk of woodland surrounded by a dense urban grain:

Belgrave Square from the air
Belgrave Square from the air

This trend continued into the twentieth century. Look at this wonderful example of Urban design from Darbourne and Darke in Lillington Street, Pimlico. This was the project that inspired me to go into Landscape Architecture in the 1970s. Once again, the buildings justify (or perhaps are justified by) the landscape spaces between. Is this buildings in a landscape or landscape between buildings?

Lillington Street Estate in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke for WCC
Lillington Street Estate in Pimlico by Darbourne and Darke for WCC

We have tried to follow this route with our own work. Look at this example of dense Urban development in St Johns Wood, below. It is easy to grasp the scale of the space and the way it is shoe-horned (over an underground car park) into a sliver of land between new houses and the back of the adjacent C19th houses.

The COllection, St Johns Wood. Photo: Steve Wooster.
The Collection, St Johns Wood. Photo: Steve Wooster.

And finally, Singapore. Some of you might remember from James Wong’s barnstorming presentation at the ‘Exotic’ conference in spring 2014 his fantastic images of ‘greened’ urban development in Singapore:architetcure-parkroyal-sky-garden-hotel

Here, they seem to have the daring to achieve the sort of things that British Cities achieved in the Victorian era. In our own way, we are still making daring statements in London, such as this huge living wall on the Rubens Hotel designed by Gary Grant.

London's largest living wall
London’s largest living wall

This tied in very neatly with one of the co-sponsors of the conference, Treebox, whose system for living walls has the lowest water and nutrient usage of just about any on the market.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in Northern Europe though is how to deal with the post-industrial age. Nature has its own way of doing this of course. Look at this picture of a deserted, derelict Aldgate East tube station:
_9876013_orig

Duisberg in Germany (by Latz and Partners) is the best known of these post industrial landscapes. Here the gutsy nature of the industrial structures was retained rather than being sanitised, and a series of contemporary uses was found for the former steelworks.

1210_DU-Landschaftspark_DSCF0095_3007x1050

Partick Cullina explored this more fully in his fascinating presentation on the New York Hi-Line Park. This landmark project came about through the intervention of residents when the structure was threatened by demolition, and a design competition was staged. It was won by a Briton, James Corner, a graduate of Manchester Poly like me. There is no doubt though, that the real success of the project is Piet Oudolf and Patrick Cullina’s subtle herbaceous planting.Herbaceous planting on the Hi-Line

‘Grand Projets’ have their place here too, and there is room for both these and the post-industrial renovations like the Hi-Line. Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick’s Green Bridge project in London promises not only to be a fantastic structure and addition to London’s skyline, but also a major regenerative engine in its own right.

The Garden Bridge over the Thames designed by Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick
The Garden Bridge over the Thames designed by Dan Pearson and Thomas Heatherwick

Mudchute FarmHowever, cities are as much about anarchy and the individual as government (perhaps more so?). So within the city grain there is room for outbreaks of individualism. I love London’s city farms such as Mudchute. Who could ask for a better picture than this:

There are also hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of tiny back gardens, each crammed with plants and artefacts in an orgy of individualism and biodiversity. James Fraser’s anarchic gardens perfectly represent the importance of small interventions. These are perhaps more important for the ‘green life’ of a city and together make up the mosaic that is its true character. Here we can all play a part, and particularly the garden design community. Sue Illman talked passionately about the way water (as an issue) links all landscape spaces. How we manage water resources and how that influences the design decisions we make, thus becomes very important. She mentioned CIRIA and its C697 paper (downloadable for free) as a particular resource in this respect, and although some of the thinking has expanded a little since then, it is still a useful source of information.

The true nature of cities therefore begins to emerge; far from being sterile hard environments, they are as much made up of a network of vegetated spaces running through and between the buildings. In fact, more than 50% of London’s area is either ‘green’ or ‘blue’ (water). If we go back to aerial photographs, look first at this picture of Central London, and then one of the whole of London.

Aerial photograph of Central London
Aerial photograph of Central London

 

London from the air
London from the air

It is noticeable from these just how green the London is; it is not just the capital however, Manchester, Sheffield, Bristol, Glasgow and many others are just as green. The world’s largest urban horticultural survey (iTree) was undertaken in London this summer in an attempt to quantify cost and other benefits accruing from trees in the city. And there are many; look at the map below of the density of street trees in the London boroughs from the GLA website. What comes through is not only some of the surprising boroughs (like Southwark, with 50 trees per km of street) but also how haphazard the pattern is: it does not follow the ‘green doughnut’ that one would expect. Investment makes a real difference here.street trees per km London

 

I think what was remarkable about this conference was that at a day devoted to ‘Urban’ we spent the whole time talking about plants and nature. Our most important actions are to create the framework; nature will do most of the work thereafter. Indeed, one of the most interesting threads to emerge from the day was the way in which all the speakers worked with rather than against nature. Sue Illman’s rain gardens, Patrick Cullina’s planting on the Hi-line, James Fraser’s forest gardens and Dan Pearson’s carefully poised plant communities all had the underlying principles of permaculture in common. As Patrick Cullina pointed out, our interventions are important but they need to be finely balanced.

147909d1391704616-i-tree-eco-project-london-dsc01803

The SGD owes a particular vote of thanks to both Treebox and Griffin Nurseries for their generous sponsorship of this conference. We shouldn’t forget that planting can’t happen without nurseries!

Speakers details:

  1. Chairman: John Wyer CMLI FSGD, Bowles & Wyer: www.bowleswyer.co.uk
  2. Sue Illman PPLI director of Illman-Young and immediate past president of the Landscape Institute. www.illmanyoung.com
  3. Patrick Cullina, former director of horticulture at both Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Hi-Line. Patrick Cullina Horticultural Design & Consulting 894 Sixth Avenue, 5th floor New York, NY 10001 pjcullina@me.com
  4. James Fraser, The Avant Gardener, www.avantgardener.co.uk
  5. Dan Pearson FSGD, www.danpearsonstudio.com