Four more years

Team at the RA

Four years ago, I left the Civil Service and started trading, rather than simply blogging, as Helpful Technology.

This time last year, we’d become a team of three, and by this July, we’ll be six strong. A business that started out as some optimistic freelancing has become something that pays people’s mortgages. It’s all got rather serious.

Paul McElvaney of Learning Pool has a lovely description of himself as an idiot entrepreneur – a phrase which really captures my approach to business over the last few years. I’ve bumbled around chatting to folks, emails have materialised in my inbox, proposals been agreed, and invoices despatched. It’s worked quite well, albeit at a small scale – a sort of ‘freelance-plus’ model. But it’s felt increasingly terrifying not having much of a plan beyond tomorrow’s inbox. The Something Always Turns Up (SATU) school of business management.

So I commissioned a bit of consultancy help from Matthew Cain, author of the excellent Made to Fail and founder of two startups himself. He put me through a ‘small business MOT’, helping me to work out what I’m not doing in terms of managing the business, benchmark myself against my peers, and give me some tough love about my freelance-plus ways.

It’s been a richly productive experience with lots for me to digest. It also made me realise, both in how I manage things, but also in how I explain what we do to people, how much of it is backward-looking: to the last four years, but even more so my years before that as a civil servant. They’ve been great years, but it’s time to look ahead.

I’m not about to radically shake up the pleasant shambles that’s served me well so far, nor launch an aggressive sales and marketing push. But there are three things I’ve not been doing, which I’m resolving to work on now, to set the foundation for a bolder and smarter next four years.

Choosing

The SATU school of new business is certainly low-effort, and has a rather good success rate. We’ve worked with some really tremendous organisations and individuals in recent years, from the Royal Academy (team pictured above on a visit to our iPad app in situ at the recent Sensing Spaces exhibition) to the FCO and the Big Lottery Fund; Heathrow Airport to the Singapore Government.

The team is full of ideas and experience, and it’s time we made some connections with the inspiring organisations we can really help, and move on from the projects and tasks for which we’re not such a good fit – and which we don’t really enjoy either. It’s not about dumping the small and medium-sized client organisations which have got us this far: if anything, they’re often the ones we’re best suited to help.

Planning

I’m making some more time for myself to look ahead financially and in terms of planning new business and product development. It’s embarrassing how little of this I’ve got away with so far.

We’re also hoping to plan day to day life a bit more – like lots of small agencies, the struggle of balancing ongoing support against project and product work risks driving us into the ground without some proper scheduling. And just as important, we all need a bit more time off the clock to learn and experiment, participate and tidy up – and planning makes the space for that to be possible.

Linking

As a freelancer, you see the links between projects and people naturally. But as the team grows, it becomes more important to link up. We’ve tended to run our social media crisis simulation work entirely separately from our digital skills training and tools, which is a little daft.

The civil servant in me finds the concept of cross-selling somewhat alien and a little distateful, and I can’t picture myself doing it anytime soon. But our clients’ worlds have changed over the last few years (accelerated by the Government Digital Service for sure, and the rise in management interest in social media) and the line between websites and training, content and campaigns, consultancy and knowledge transfer have blurred quite a bit.

We’re a team with a great mix of skills now, with lots of smart friends and associates, and we can help people in lots of ways that – walking out of Westminster on that sunny day in May 2010 – I couldn’t possibly have imagined.

Blogging about blogging

Last week, Team Helpful took a day off to focus on kick starting the revamp of our website. The results will hopefully appear soon, but one thing that won’t be appearing on the new site is a blog. Or at least, not in the conventional sense.

As a civil servant working in digital six years ago, I set up helpfultechnology.com as a personal blog about work – driven mostly by a desire to avoid hypocrisy. Three years ago, I left, and the blog became the site for my one-man-band consulting business, with the blog serving as a subset of content in a small corporate website. As Helpful Technology has grown from one man, to one man plus associates, to two, three and maybe more people, it’s clear we need to try a different format.

Personally, I’ve found myself blogging less about day to day work and examples, and tended to write more sporadic posts about deeper strategic issues – it’s more challenging to write engagingly about client work, for sure (even when clients are lovely and projects are interesting).

Convention dictates we’d have a company blog, and all our team would post their bon mots there and we’d collectively build up a following – to use the vile phrase, develop some corporate ‘thought leadership’ – of our own. The thing is, I didn’t hire Luke because I wanted to read less of his ideas on Intranet Diary. Howard has a parallel acting career alongside his work here (and jolly helpful it is too, though I’ve yet to find a corporate application for his stage combat skills). And even for me, there are times where I’d like to write things which don’t fit in Helpful Technology space.

Ultimately, I think blogs work best when they’re personal. But the form and dynamic of blogging has changed in recent years: Blogging happens:

  • in a wider variety of places
  • in looser arrangements and collaborations
  • in many more forms from captioned pictures to code snippets, long-form musing to practical how-tos or bookmarks

So my blog is shipping out here to postbureaucrat.com (well spotted Paul), and the Helpful Technology site will feature a curated collection of stuff from there, from the rest of the team’s blogs, from things we or our clients write elsewhere, and from places we talk about our process, methods and advice. It will  draw on the experience and rather nifty technology we’ve developed to power Demsoc’s Open Policymaking site, and our own Digital Engagement Guide.

Blogging in a purer, personal form again feels exciting and fresh (I’m almost tempted to book myself on Dave’s great-sounding blogging bootcamp). The old RSS feed should still work, or you can get my new posts as an email on a Sunday afternoon if you prefer.

And hopefully the next post here won’t just be about blogging.

After the earthquake

The changes going on right now in central government digital communications are pretty seismic. Not least because thanks in large part to GDS, digital teams no longer view ‘communications’ as the limit of their ambition these days, as they mainly still did when I was part of one.

So what’s the role for a company like mine in a GOV.UK world? It’s just over three years since I incorporated this blog into Helpful Technology Ltd, and the world around us has changed quite a bit. So we’re making some changes too.

Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore

For a start, we’re properly plural now – Luke Oatham has flourished in his six months on board, delivering some awesome work for Wilton Park, CLG and DCMS amongst others. And from next month, there will be three of us, when my former BIS colleague Howard Gossington joins the team. Howard’s an actor as well as a solid gold webby, and I’m excited about what he’ll bring to the team.

We’re two separate companies now, too: the work we’ve been doing with social media crisis simulation is a global enterprise now, with export clients in the US, Singapore and Europe and hopefully more to come. It’s a very different kind of business too, from simulating tram crashes with Manchester Fire & Rescue Service, to throwing petitions-gone-wrong at the team at Change.org (and they’re just some of the ones we can talk about).

We’ve also been working closely for a couple of years now, particularly on social media training, with our good friends at Claremont Communications, and we’re hoping to start sharing office space this summer, with a view to blending more of their social PR nous with our nuts and bolts digital skills.

But over the last three years, our bread and butter has been central government work, and as Inside Government gets smarter, there’s likely to be less of that around. That’s a good sign.

Like many small firms, at times over the last six months, we’ve found ourselves stretched in lots of different directions. So in 2013-14, we’re going to be trying to focus our work in four main areas:

  1. Digital engagement: effective digital engagement lives or dies by the strategy, skills and connections which underpin it and we’ve too often found ourselves at the end of a food chain, supplying a platform without the involvement to help make it effective. A year ago today, I launched the Digital Engagement Guide; now, I’m hunting for more opportunities to help organisations consult better and discuss policy online, and be a less peripheral part of the teams doing it.
  2. 21st century intranets: Luke’s work for the terrific team at DCMS has rightly been celebrated by GDS. What they’ve achieved with content, and how Luke has shaped a platform for it, is really impressive. There’s much talk (but few examples) of ‘social intranets’ and led by Luke, I’d like us to help more people turn their intranet from a waste ground of corporate guff, into something people use to solve their problems. Maybe it’s time for Intranet Club II.
  3. Power to the elbow of the little guys: a client once described themselves as ‘puffer fishes’ – able to do what appeared to be a big team’s work with a small team’s resources, thanks to the magic of WordPress and friendly, can-do support. Working for one- or two-person teams at Involve, Wilton Park, LGIU, University Alliance, and the Committee on Climate Change amongst others has been really rewarding, and they’re the clients for whom we add the most value.
  4. Social media in a crisis: around the globe, organisations large and small are realising that bad news travels differently now, and we’re refining a platform and consulting service that rivals anything in the world. We’ve established partnerships with around half a dozen agencies so far to offer social media crisis simulation services to their clients, and we’re developing intermediate products focusing on practical writing skills and Twitter in particular.

So while it’s sad to see old friends like the Department of Health’s innovative WordPress site fade into the archives, even I can wish it a fond farewell. The good stuff is around the corner.

Employee #1

Growth cartoon

When I left the civil service and set up a company, nearly two and half years ago, it’s fair to say I didn’t have much of a plan. Thanks to many kind people and plenty of luck, the purchase orders kept flowing and I’ve found myself working alongside some fantastic people, whether it’s training communicators or simulating armageddon. But for my own sanity (and because the box room at home has weak defences against two vociferous small boys), it’s time to take the next step. Or rather two.

Firstly, I’ve been lucky enough to secure Luke Oatham as Helpful Technology’s Employee #1. Luke was the first digital hero profiled on this site, and runs a great blog about intranet design and UX issues, drawing from his work at the Ministry of Justice and elsewhere. He’s a government webby of the finest sort, and will be joining me from September working across all the various things that we – now a proper ‘we’ – do.

Secondly… I think I mentioned the box room. As I’m now working with around 15-20 clients at any one time, having a central base to make meetings more flexible and save on the Starbucks Tax has become increasingly important. Silicon roundabout isn’t quite right for a small business working with central government, so from September we’ll be based in a bright little office in Duncannon St, just off Trafalgar Square. I’m hoping to be there three days a week, and planning to set up a little drop-in hotdesk for friends and clients to use in between Westminster meetings. It would be lovely to see you.

Despite the cuts, despite (or perhaps enabled by) the Government Digital Service, there’s clearly a market within and beyond the public sector for good value, specialist digital communications support in various forms, from social media training to WordPress digital engagement platforms; UX research to crisis simulation. With Luke on board and a more central base, I’m hoping we’ll be able to provide a better service and follow up more of the exciting leads that are coming in.

These are pretty optimistic times to be in digital, whatever sector you’re in, and that’s certainly true in my little corner. Roll on September, and thanks again for getting me this far.

Update: Luke blogs about the move

Cheesy clipart credit: Business-Clipart.com

The year of living helpfully

Me at govcamp (Photo: Paul Clarke - http://www.flickr.com/photos/paul_clarke/5381950736/)

It’s been 18 months since I last walked the mean streets of Westminster as a civil servant. There are things I miss about the old lifestyle: having the scope to run with projects on the ‘inside’, being in the loop on the latest goings-on in government, and most of all, having a great team around me.

I blogged in May about the experience of the first year of going freelance. So mainly to cheer myself up as I bash away at this lonely laptop while web teams around Whitehall stagger back from convivial Christmas lunches, here are my stand-out memories of 2011:

1. Visting The Guardian with Tom Loosemore and the Heads of Digital in the January snows: my first glimpse of Mike Bracken as a cheeky little fact-finding expedition I set up to Kings Place got a vision of things (and as it turns out, people) to come. Government has lots to learn from The Guardian’s ‘mutualisation‘ strategy, for instance.

2. Following the UKGovcamp & Mailcamp buzz: a big ol’ Govcamp even by global standards, made possible by the team at Microsoft, the inimitable style of Dave Briggs, and a list of sponsors who funded 10 more events and kept the buzz going through the year, including a surprisingly interesting afternoon about email. 2012 looks like there’ll be more of the same, with at least as much in the pot to support more events – and we’re going to be talking email again too.

3. Helping the ‘puffer fishes’: in March, I helped the team at public participation specialists Involve to relaunch their site in WordPress, enabling them to reinvigorate their blogging and make it easier to achieve what they’ve termed the ‘puffer fish’ effect – amplifying the impact of a small, talented team. In May, University Alliance did the same. And in September, Lord Sainsbury put across his vision for the Cambridge Chancellorship with my first little foray into HTML5 – which was probably the clincher  in his narrow victory, I suspect.

4. The Dads & iPads: in the still-early days of the Single Domain project, Simon, Neil and I huddled round a pedestal unit in COI’s Hercules House, trying to figure out what digital engagement might look like as part of the Alphagov project. We didn’t crack it, but a brains trust which came together a few months later helped the ideas along the way, and hopefully we’ll start to see some concrete outputs, and more critical friendship, in 2012.

5. The first commercial outing of The Social Simulator: the Social Simulator platform gives teams realistic experience of the tools, norms and force of the social web, and in 2011 we put dozens of people from emergency services to retailers, transport companies to government press officers through their paces, hitting them with crisis scenarios amplified through Twitter, Facebook and online media. The first big outing of the platform in April was one of the most high-pressure days I can remember, terrifyingly real – and lots and lots of fun. I’m hoping to ramp up the Social Simulator element of Helpful Technology’s work in 2012, including growing our work with emergency services via a new partnership with Likeaword and some social media shenanigans at British APCO 2012.

6. The launch of The Collective Memory: this little service for the British Science Association collates evaluations of public engagement projects around science – there are some neat little touches which deserve a proper blogging one of these days (CSV data downloads, embeddable widgets, front-end user profile management etc), but I mainly remember the late nights learning WordPress’ new custom post and taxonomy functions. If you think WordPress is really a blogging tool, think again.

7. Training the Press Officers: for over a year now, I’ve been part of the team delivering social media training to central government comms teams, alongside my partners-in-crime Simon and Giles from Claremont PR with help from Dan SleeDave Briggs and Tim Lloyd. We’ve had some lively sessions on digital engagement, social media PR and using Agile techniques to manage digital projects, but perhaps the highlight for me has been seeing the enthusiasm of press officers – often kept too busy (or sometimes too afraid) by their senior managers to think about the landscape they find themselves in – discovering new tools and techniques and starting to use them.

8. Seeing the Department of Health homepage: in August, the Department of Health switched its main corporate site to WordPress. I have to be somewhat cagey about my involvement for contractual reasons, but let’s just say I was chuffed. The team at DH are, basically, in the zone digitally-speaking right now, turning an oil tanker of a publishing operation into a nimble frigate of engagement, or more accurately, a flotilla of frigates, all guns blazing. I’ll stop now.

9. Getting AAA certification for a WordPress site from Nomensa: in November, work I’d done with DCMS for the eAccessibility Forum went live, including a version of a WordPress theme tweaked to meet the requirements of AAA accessibility, which I talked about at Simon’s inspiring second WordUp Whitehall gathering.

10. Relaunching the FCO blogs: blogging is about more than software, but shifting the FCO’s blogs to WordPress (and pursuing my own daft point of pride by migrating 70+ blogs and building a Disqus exporter as part of the project) makes new things possible and old things easier. To quote the Single Domain mantra – the new platform takes the ‘faff’ out of the process, and showcases the incredible stories of our diplomats in more pictures and languages.

Anyway, enough of the smugness. Time for a mince pie, and a raised glass of mulled wine to the clients and associates who’ve made 2011 a corker. Hope you have a Merry Christmas and a great 2012!

Photo: Paul Clarke