9 things no one told me about running a business


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Lessons learnt from running Tinker London.

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  • Hi my name is Alex and I’m a designer. This is a talk I haven’t been wanting to give, I’ve been avoiding giving even. When Ved asked me to come and speak last month, I thought long and hard but also thought it might be cathartic which it has been, especially as today I sent out the last boxes of my former company’s accounts to our insolvency company in North London. But the fact of the matter is running my business Tinker London for almost 4 years, I learnt a lot. Things that I could never have imagined, 10 of which I wished I’d known before starting. I thought I’d share them with you and it might be useful for anyone else wanting to start a business in the creative industries / tech.
  • I’ll start with the latest finding which is that when you close a company, everyone always wants to know why. And when you tell them “finance” they still want to know why. As if there was some sort of thing you were holding back. I’m not. Finance. Money. When you can’t make the money side of a business work, that’s not a business, it’s an expensive hobby. There are a million reasons why the money thing didn’t work out, bad debts, losing contracts, unpredictable cash flow, unclear business plan that would lead back to unpredictable cash flow and the list goes on. But yeh, money. In our industry, some people avoid closing by selling their business to someone like an advertising group, an investment or consultancy firm. We just decided to close and move on.
  • I studied product and interaction design and was mainly motivated to get people to look at the world of product design with different eyes, more technology saavy eyes. At the time, my business partner had founded Arduino, an open source tool for controlling low level electronics, quite useful if you’re a designer with no coding background. So in order to diffrentiate ourselves and introduce ourselves to the London-scene (I had just moved there) I became the UK distributor of the platform, organising workshops for creatives and meeting people who would eventually become our clients. This tech-centric multi-headed approach did not pay on the long run. It became a game of badly managed margins. We tried to do the job of electronics distributors, schools and r&d departments all at once. I’d advise just settling for one.
  • We incorporated in late August 2007 after months of initial work and our creditors meeting was January 7 th 2011. At no point in time during those 1,227 days of trade did anyone give us a credit card, a loan or debt factoring. We ran the whole thing on cash. It was insane. We started the business on 8K EUR that Massimo, my business partner invested in so we could buy enough materials to distribute Arduino and get me out of my boyfriend’s flat. Noone was ready to lend and our credit ratings meant we couldn’t apply for a credit card for the buisness. That definitely trumped our ability to grow or take on more risks than we were taking already.
  • Don’t hire anyone, really. If you must hire someone, make it your financial advisor. I say this very carefully. Employees are expensive and when you are basically following an agency or consultancy model, you have to make sure you have work on ALL the time in order to justify the expense. Otherwise, you end up being the last person paid.
  • We were featured prominently in the Guardian, The Evening Standard, the BBC. Make magazine, an industry tech and geek blog featured most of our work, by any measure available for such a young business, we were successful. Something I learnt along the way is that this does not translate into sales. You still have to take care of business development. You also often end up working for no money on projects you think will have enough of a public impact and do work for money you will never mention on your portfolio. It’s a strange Catch 22 that isn’t particularily popular but when the well known photographer Annie Leibovitz was bailed out by a bank because she’d gone bankrupt, I could understand. It happens.
  • Don’t be too precious about your time and your tasks. Or other people’s. Clinging on to staff or tasks will make you a slave to them and you can re-hire or meet other people who will bring something new to the table.
  • This is more of a learning post-company I suppose, but after doing so much free stuff for so many years. Free conversations, free advice, free lunch talks, free evening talks, etc I am now much more precious about my time.
  • I don’t say this in a deprecating way. Unemployability means that you are unwilling to see the value of someone else’s org chart. It also means that you will want to keep starting companies. It’s sort of my drug in a way, there’s always the hope the next one will be better. Always the desire to try.
  • All in all, I can say running a business has changed me forever. For good. I can’t even imagine what life would have been like had I not seized that opportunity at the age of 26, fresh off a flight from Amsterdam. That folly will carry me in the next decade I know it.
  • “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” Now go and build your own business. You’ll never look back.
  • 9 things no one told me about running a business

    1. 9 things no one told me about running a business Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino designswarm.com riglondon.com
    2. 1. Everyone wants to know why you failed.
    3. 2. Don’t try to start 3 businesses at once.
    4. 3. No one will lend you money.
    5. 4. Don’t hire anyone.
    6. 5. It’s fame or fortune, rarely both.
    7. 6. Noone is irreplacable.
    8. 7. You’ll never work for free again.
    9. 8. You will remain unemployable.
    10. 9. This will change you forever.
    11. Good luck! Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino designswarm.com riglondon.com