Lessons from one startup business to another during this time
Starting at ITV, Casey Harwood then joined Turner Broadcasting, becoming SVP Europe and managing all commercial business.
He joined Engage Digital Partners, an MBO from Endemol Sport, in 2012 where, as Commercial Director, he drives international expansion and relationships with leading brands in sport.
Here, he shares his industry wisdom with startups during this challenging time...
As a veteran of two major recessions - and potentially a third - I have learned some valuable things about navigating both oneself and a business through challenging times. I was working at ITV in the 90's when I first witnessed what a recession looked like for business, and whilst I was too junior to offer anything helpful strategically, I was determined always to work in a growing sector, a strategy that a few years later saw me move into multichannel PayTV becoming SVP at Turner Broadcasting Europe, primarily responsible for Digital and Diversification.
Leaving Turner after 12 of its best years was less of a wrench than I had imagined, but the question was, what to do next. Adhering to the belief that 'growing company, growing sector, growing skills’ was sound policy, I joined Engage Sports Media, a digital agency created by a 2012 MBO from Endemol Sport. Engage’s vision was to tackle a then-unmet need in non-live digital sports content creation, an area with which traditional broadcasters were struggling.
The intervening seven years have seen me dispel or better understand what I thought I knew; cash flow, a start-up’s need to pivot quickly, how data is crucial, why good investors are even more crucial, why you can live without investors who are simply ‘ok’, successful international expansion within a finite resource, and why 25% CAGR straight growth is both a positive thing and brings its own set of challenges.
As a director and part of a multiskilled leadership team managing in what is now Engage Digital Partners – and with 20+ years’ of corporate experience before that, this is what I would share:
What I knew but took for granted
Much has been written about the importance of working with honest and reliable employees and clients. People need to work in places that suit them and be honest enough to see when they aren’t; not everyone has the grit for agency or non-corporate life, conversely, some people are too individualistic to fit into conglomerate cultures. To excel you need to be passionate and optimistic, not just there for the paycheque; optimism and passion are the qualities which buy time to figure problems out in days like this.
Jack Welch constantly advised his readers to invest in the best finance and talent they could afford. In the UK today, that means c.£250,000, which is straight off the bottom line. Engage could only afford when we reached our fifth anniversary, however, this investment ensured we lasted the last four weeks.
Everything you’ve read about the importance of teams is true. The connectivity between people in them means being able to say it straight, call on goodwill and create levels of trust, which builds over the years. This is critical, especially for effective remote working.
Today’s hierarchy is different, especially in digital and startups where the young workforce’s point of view is so radically altered. We found that graduate recruits and target client creatives judge us on our Instagram site, not our LinkedIn page; once we realized that, we knew that they could guide us as much as we could mentor them. Their creativity in lockdown has been in overdrive as they find workarounds to the challenges we face.
What I thought I knew but was wrong
As a company operating in sport, digital, and with no legacy, we are at the shiny end of the spectrum. However, even in this space where 'tech plays' and businesses with perceived IP are seen as easy to understand and at the super-shiny end of shiny, attracting the big valuations. I assumed the market fully understood our whole-business proposition but, despite huge investment in data and tech, people believed that we were ‘just’ an agency.
What is set to change us forever
The lessons to take forward, unless you are a unicorn or blessed with fabulous timing, are:
- Cash is king. It should be the first and last thing you think about professionally on any given day. The contract payment schedules we argued and conceded other points for have saved us over this period
- Debt and Investment are different things. Live within your means and secure the option on cash before you need it – that way it will be there when you do
- Develop your own IP and don’t rely solely on fees – the difference in doing this is that if client fees dry up, you still have IP on which to capitalize
- Like the above - phase it. What you choose not to do is more important than what you choose to do. Don't start anything you know you can't finish. China and the USA are Holy Grails for many businesses but for us they can wait for when we have the scale to enter – and stay – in the market with a bang not a fizz
- Be your own critic and cheerleader in equal measure. Only once you have three years’ trading experience under your belt have you been through a full cycle. At this point, do a review based on good advice and clever money
- Work with people you like and trust and who trust you, but are different to you.
Time is literally money and where facing challenges and straight-talking need to trump politicking every time, it’s vital the CEO, OPs, Financial, Tech, Creative, Regional and in my case Commercial Director are eager to share, hungry to listen and also free to express feelings without fear of judgement; openly demonstrating this will filter through the organisation as the defacto.