May the 4th be with you - From Macclesfield to Malmö and back (a few times)

By Hilary Stephenson | 04/05/2017

Ten years ago, I flew to Malmo to meet my new Sigma colleagues, after spending the previous two weeks frantically working out how to set up a company. Those first two weeks went a little like this:

  1. Identify a catchy, meaningful and original company name that has to contain the words “Sigma”, “IT” and “Limited”
  2. Browse through the Companies House website and realise there are over 300 companies with the name Sigma…
  3. Interview people in pubs and convince them to join me
  4. Open up Excel to start the financial planning
  5. Close Excel and go back to the pub for more interviews
  6. Apply for a new credit card
  7. Sign a two week “compensation agreement” and register as a freelancer, as we had no company in the UK to issue an employment contract (HMRC, don’t come looking, it was all above board)
  8. Hire Carla Thurston
  9. Book flights to Malmo

Given that I’d only had two previous jobs, and the phrase “embrace change” is something I tend to use sarcastically, this was an interesting time for me, both personally and professionally. I was working from home, with two whippets for company, a head full of ideas but a feeling I could get the right people around me to make something work.

So, off I flew to Malmo with a plan (see aforementioned Excel spreadsheet), a few names and a winning attitude - “tits and teeth” doesn’t even cover it. The trip to Malmo started with a dinner for about 40 colleagues, only one of whom I had actually spoken to before. I was asked to say a few words about Sigma’s new company.

Given I veer wildly between introvert and extrovert and have a healthy dose of Imposter Syndrome, I relied on my trusted trait of sarcasm, commenting that we’d experienced 100% growth in two weeks as we now had two employees. I think that joke was lost in translation.

Going one step further and a “couple” of gins later, I also said we’d ticked the diversity box as both of the employees were gay. That didn’t get a laugh either.

I’ve hopefully learnt a little since then about how to handle myself in networking situations. I’m also happy to say that from a standing start, we went from 2 to 4 and continued to add brilliant people along the way. Real contracts, interesting clients, offices, mugs, printers, new skills, wins and losses, profit and drought ensued and we are still here, smiling after 10 years.

I appreciate this is a little self-indulgent and I’m genuinely trying not to be mawkish but if it helps others who might be pondering their own start-up or are interested in the changes in agency life over a decade, here are some reflections:

Building a team is a great thing but it’s important that the thing you sell to a new recruit at the interview stage is delivered upon in the same we way seek to honour promises made to clients. At times, we have been attractive to join but harder to live with and I thank those who have stuck it out. We’ve seen office romances, break-ups, long-term illnesses, short-term health “initiatives”, the loss of parents, the birth of babies and a shed load of stressful house moves. We’ve done it all together, with an amazing sense of humour that makes it a pleasure to come to work.

Be open and be flexible. Right from the start, having the right people around me was more important than where we were actually all based. It takes people to make a company, not offices (and at the beginning, not even clients or a detailed business plan). To me, it didn’t matter where they were based. It mattered that we understood each other, could work together, could laugh about our situation and could be honest with potential clients and recruits about what we wanted to be. That meant baking in home working, part-time contracts and extended holidays from the start. I’m not saying we mirror the excellent family-friendly approach taken by our Swedish parent company but it’s nice to say we have our Commercial Director based in Newcastle, our HR Manager in Devon and that we allowed one member of the team to spend a year working in Buenos Aires to be with his girlfriend (now wife).

Invest in organisational development, coaching and an on-going understanding of team behaviours and motivators. I favour chatting to people over formality but others really don’t like that. They prefer structure and process. Job titles and reward might be hugely important to some, where others couldn’t care less. Throwaway banter makes some feel part of the gang but causes panic in others. A kind word may make someone’s day but a light-hearted joke may cripple them for weeks. Don’t put people in boxes but do invest time in understanding what makes them work as individuals and what causes them stress or a sense of achievement. Revisit that, regularly.

Be honest with clients when you have got something wrong, whether it be pricing, a misunderstood requirement or the feeling that things just aren’t working. There is no value in a relationship that doesn’t feel right (on either side) and it’s better to speak up and part company. The customer isn’t always right and neither are we and it takes a brave account manager to say that. To those customers who showed early trust, we are forever grateful.

Accept change (can’t force myself to write embrace) but don’t jump on fads like they are the silver bullet to longstanding problems. Business is hard, people are tricky, communication is vague, technology is complex. It’s good to try new things but it’s also important to maintain a healthy cynicism about tried and tested methods that might have just had a re-brand.

Don’t hide your personality, your views, your tastes or even your politics if it makes people understand what’s valuable to you, but always consider that others simply don’t feel the same. Coax and cajole where you think they might be persuaded though!

Don’t consider diversity and inclusion as “job done”. Despite my joke about ticking boxes, in reality there is no point in seeking diverse talent if you don’t plan to learn from the lived experience those people bring. We are not there yet and having a few gays scattered around doesn’t cut it. Most of our work is informed by user research and we advocate a representative, inclusive approach to our clients so why would we not do that for our own organisation? Despite supporting amazing initiatives like Upfront and encouraging female speakers on our event programmes, we were pulled up recently on our BAME representation at Camp Digital and we could do more around intersectionality. I’m sorry to say although Rachel (STEM ambassador extraordinaire and social hack veteran) is our only female developer and I can’t recall seeing any female candidates coming through the DevOps recruitment process in recent years. We need to make a change there.

Offer to do good things even if you can’t see an immediate return or where it costs you time / money you won’t get back. When we asked the team what they rated highly in their jobs, there was an overwhelming desire for our work to have a social impact. That doesn’t mean we don’t seek profit in our business but where we can, we help out or look to work on problems we’d like to fix and it’s probably the most rewarding part of our work. At the risk of sounding like one of those “I don’t want to mention my charity work…” celebrities, on behalf of a bloody good team effort, I’m particularly proud of the following:

  • Assisting local tenants with digital skills and web confidence
  • Running a free hack day for local students on International Women’s Day
  • Inviting older members of our local community to share their internet concerns on World Usability Day
  • Giving away free student tickets at our annual Camp Digital event for the last 6 years
  • Helping Diversity Role Models launch their website
  • Giving new voices a chance to share their stories with an audience who might not have been looking – waves at you lovely Molly Watt
  • Getting behind digital inclusion initiatives like Race Online 2012, Go On UK and more recently the Funka WCAG web accessibility audit initiative

We are far from being perfect but collectively we have a good heart and I rather like the quirkiness of our approach and character of our people. I also like that we try to do the right thing and I know that we all care about helping both our clients and their audience. So, on May the 4th we celebrate 10 happy years.

Incidentally, the company registration date was lost on me - Star Wars was never a huge part of my life but it keeps some of the geeks here happy. Thanks to all involved along the way, from those who signed up in the pub back in the day, to those who joined in the last year - you’re a very impressive bunch. Thanks for indulging my annual “enforced fun” team kick-offs. These two photos sum up how you feel about it beautifully:

Sigma Team at Coronation Street

Sigma employees at Thai cookery school

To Sweden (or the parts of you we know), thanks not only for the excellent music and design ethos but also for giving us this opportunity and the freedom to make our own way. Thanks also to the customers who showed a leap of faith and those who see value in the way we do things. For all partners, suppliers, freelancers and technology vendors who have also given us support over the years, please keep that coming.

* Disclaimer: regarding honesty and the common company name, I’m willing to confess that we did donate to some of the team the 500 breast pads that were incorrectly delivered to the office but we never cashed in the huge PO we received for some very expensive lab equipment and I wasn’t fibbing about the HMRC.