Happiness. It’s what we all crave, isn’t it? In our working lives as much as in private. The last UK Government was so convinced that happiness is a major vote winner it set up a whole policy framework to encourage it...
When I launched my marketing agency ten years ago, happiness was a guiding principle. I’d been one of those corporate characters who saw happiness and work as alien concepts. Sure, there were many periods of feeling good at work, and occasional moments of elation. But mostly, happiness happened strictly after work. I wanted a different lifestyle, where fun and contentment played a big part, at work as well as at home.
That kind of world doesn’t invent itself. But at least as an entrepreneur I had the chance to challenge working ways I didn’t like, make my own mistakes, and try out a different environment for me, my team, and my customers.
Ten years on, I’m a happy chap. Thinking back, these are the three keys I had to turn to make things work best along the way.
Money - release the pressure
Happiness isn’t all about making loads of dosh. Plenty of lottery winners are proof of that. But let’s not be bashful. Unless you’ve got a backer with deep pockets, covering your costs and future plans is a top priority for the new entrepreneur. Oh, and don’t forget to work out your personal financial needs. It’s all part of what you need your business to deliver.
The first task is to get a grip on likely commitments. My company had low set-up costs. I could work from home to start with, supporting clients online, by phone, or in their offices.
But the plan was to grow, and office, staff and IT were critical costs in my three-year business plan. Remembering likely peaks and troughs in the business year was also important, and so was building in contingency funding.
I was lucky. I wasn’t too affected by red tape other than employee liabilities and the need for insurance cover, so I could work out costs with minimal online help. If you’re manufacturing goods, and especially if you’re exporting, your costs and compliance profile will be more complex to assess.
Once you understand your costs, don’t let them run away from you. For most start-ups, cashflow is at the core of financial contentment. Keep on the case of slow paying customers with personal phone calls or visits wherever possible, rather than chase-up emails or letters that are easy to ignore. And don’t be afraid of losing bad payers. Your company is no good to you or them if it’s insolvent.
Managing your money might not seem the most exciting route to a happy organisation. But without it, you risk the very opposite of contentment: regular sleepless nights.
Build happy relationships
When I left the corporate world, I knew my customers’ happiness would decide my success. With low costs and no greedy shareholders, I could compete on price with anyone. But my customers wanted something else: a 'yes of course' experience from me every time, not the 'we don’t do it that way' corporate response of my past.
That means delivering to aggressive deadlines, and building deep relationships based on omni-channel interfaces. If my clients want to consult the online court of public opinion to get marketing advice, we’re there monitoring Twitter and Facebook and responding fast. Our own website isn’t as sophisticated as our corporate competitors, but we keep it up-to-date and focus on added value content as our differentiator.
We also survey our customers regularly to keep our standards high, and gather meaningful customer data from every transaction to help tailor future offerings. Another thing. I recognised from the start that we had to do things differently as a team to create a happy work environment.
Above all, we needed to work closely, and buy into common principles. That was important for consistent delivery to customers. But also because I can’t offer my people big company benefits. To be happy and committed, my people have to appreciate the flexibility and responsibility of working in a small team, and feel the special buzz of providing personalised service.
I learned quickly that a happy team is strong on collaboration, and everyone must have a voice. People also want compassionate help to learn from mistakes, and they want clear leadership. Sometimes unpopular decisions have to be made. That’s fine if they’re based on authentic reasoning and transparent communication.
Keep on growing
As an entrepreneur, you live with the risk of losing your most energetic and talented people. Try and refresh the business and grasp new opportunities as much as you can to keep the team keen and committed.
Most important, don’t start believing the only way is your way. Look upwards and outwards at how other companies in all kinds of sectors are thriving and adapting to change. And encourage your team to grow with you. Over time, individuals develop unexpected skills. Take a chance. Give your people the kind of freedom you didn’t have in your corporate life, and enjoy with them the happiness they get from it.
Running a happy company is a choice, and not all entrepreneurs rate it high as an objective. But the dividends can be tangible, and for my company its pursuit is tightly entwined with every business decision, and a bell weather for all I set out to achieve.