Three reflections on turning three…

Unleashed is turning three years old! I feel like we have been around forever, but three years have also gone so fast! If I’m honest, I often think that it's a bit crazy that we’re now a team of 8 - and growing! When I founded Unleashed, my hope was to establish a little lifestyle business; I set out to spend more time at home with my kids, doing 2-3 days a week work, max... Well, that lasted all of 2 months!

Anyway, back to turning 3...

In writing this birthday post, I wanted to avoid something generic about scaling a business with no external investment and I don’t want to talk about turning three during corona (I think we all need a break from talking about that bluddy virus). Instead, I want to share something both useful and fun - definitely something we need more of right now!

Those of you who know me, will know two things; I’ve grown Unleashed on foundational core values that are totally aligned with my own, and that I love to make up words! Hopefully reading this will be fun (I am indulging in a very nice wine as I write this, so it’s fun for me!) and as far as useful goes, I want this to be beneficial and have a positive impact - genuinely, no bullturd. (There’s the first of those made up words!) Essentially, I hope that there is something in this post that you feel you can actually go away and use.

So, here are 3 reflections for our 3rd birthday.

On Being a Founder-CEO

For those that have been there and done that, when I say ITS F*^KING TOUGH, you’ll get it. And when I add, IT’S THE BEST THING EVER, you’ll also get it. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I LOVE being the “CEO” of this amazing company; but I also know it’s only this amazing because of having (frankly and with mega bragging rights appropriated) THE BEST TEAM EVER.

Not intentionally, but with stellar timing nonetheless, we happen to have marked our 3rd birthday with a shiny new website that we are immensely proud of and have received lots of amaze-nuts (another made up word!) comments from (literally) around the world. You’ll notice on the team page we each have a motto - mine is “you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf” and that really does sum (almost) everything up for me. It’s obviously not my saying (pinch with pride is another fond phrase of mine!). I truly believe it’s on the basis of this (and my second-favourite saying, “you’ll miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take”) that Unleashed has seen its success. Fun fact: I had both the ‘learn to surf’ and ‘shots-you-don’t take’ sayings written on the back of 100 business cards I had printed 3 years ago. Guess how many of those cards I have left…? 96. I gave 4 away to members of my family.

Back to not stopping the waves, but learning to surf… it’s true that this personal belief is truly aligned with how we work at Unleashed. We are incredibly adaptable and agile. We hit the right balance of being considered and confident; and we just go for it! We’re totally fine with the role luck has to play, and we embrace serendipity as a way of life. Why? Because as a team, we back ourselves… big time.

On another note, what is interesting about being the founder of a business whose business it is to support other founders, is how very hard it sometimes is to take your own advice. I’m constantly supporting founders with advice on everything from prioritising the important vs the urgent, to properly supporting teams with what they need to be happy and do their best work and a gazillion other things. However, working hard to move the world for others (including and especially your own team) when they need it, makes it hard to prioritise your own needs too.

This leads me to my last thought on being a founder… you just never shut down, do you? It is constant. I actually love that it’s constant, but… it's constant. I’m on my laptop writing this blog, whilst simultaneously watching my daughter run from one side of the garden to the other, jumping on the trampoline on the way (one that I dug into the ground - BEST THING EVER! EVER!) and screaming with joy - while at the same time, my son (whose head I shaved earlier today as an ‘iso-haircut’ as I have no competency in hairdressing and who I think now looks ridiculous) is screaming at me because he broke his phone... teenagers, am I right?!?! And here I am, rightly or wrongly, thinking of Unleashed. Like a creeping plant that grows without you really realising, it has established itself, firmly. It is part of my family and my family is part of it. And in true transparency, my family often has to tolerate coming second to Unleashed. (Remember the last paragraph where I say I don’t always take my own advice?) But hey, that’s the reality of being a founder; it’s a constant search for ‘balance’, but I wouldn’t change it.

On People + Culture

Things are changing, slowly. Very slowly, in fact. However, there is a distant sound in the air, ringing in the change (and God, I love change!). It’s a sound my ear just wants to follow... a faint echo for now perhaps, but it’s approaching ever quicker and if you listen hard enough you may also hear… “HR is Dead. Long Live People.”

Speak to almost any leader in any business and it is likely that one of their top challenges is their people. Speak to almost any leader in any business and it is likely that one of the greatest things about their business is their people.

The old school “HR” approach is totally not able to do justice to the most important part of your business (I think we’ve established, but just to be sure, that’s your People!)

Quite simply, if you want to grow a great business, start with People + Culture. Define YOUR great and then bring on the people that align with that. Here is a top trumps trick… think about how you’d love to have people describe your business in a few years’ time. Based on that, align your intentions to your behaviour (that’s an important one!) and WITH PURPOSE craft it! Design it and build it… like a house.

Of course, your business will evolve, all the best ones do! Things change around you, and you change, but at all times you should be proactively crafting the future you want. Too often I see businesses scale without focusing on their people (there could be many reasons for this), and as a result, too often I see Series B/C raises that come with a realisation that “this isn’t what I wanted to create, I need to change it.” Something happens along the way. It is really important as a founder, to acknowledge from the start, and remember the whole way through, that your people are your everything. They will help you succeed and you will fail without getting the best from them.

If I may share a wee little story…

In June 2019, we made two offers to two sensational people. They both accepted and one started immediately. A few days later, and the night before the other was due to resign from her then employer, we lost our biggest client. It was sudden. In fact, they had sadly lost their biggest client, which meant that they didn’t have the funds to continue relationships with any external partners. What this meant for us at the time was a massive drop in revenue (and, remember what I said about acknowledging the role luck has to play in all this!) this timed precisely with us organically wrapping-up with another client. I needed to make a very quick decision as to whether or not to withdraw our offer. I looked at the numbers and tried not to freak out. Thankfully we had some cash in the bank but we would start losing money imminently and on those projections, would be out of business by the end of the year. (Unleashed’s reputation means everything to me and the team - one of our sayings is “excellence is hard to keep quiet”. We work hard and we always get more clients, but I don’t like to ‘bank’ on the unknown.)

I realised three things.

  1. I needed to email Michaela who was due to resign the next day to ask her not to. And needed to explain why. I wanted Michaela to be clear that I wasn’t withdrawing the offer yet, but that I needed to talk to the team (and if there was a risk of us potentially needing to withdraw the offer, I really didn’t want her to have resigned already! That would have been a disaster!) Admittedly, it felt risky sharing so much with someone who hadn’t yet started with us.
  2. This was not a decision I could make alone. I wanted Michaela to open our Amsterdam office (and as said, Unleashed had always been able to extend its runway before) but I could not morally make this decision solo. If things didn’t go the way I thought they would, I was intentionally taking the business into the red and risking the livelihoods of everyone in the team. This was not my decision to make. The decision belonged to the team.
  3. I had to share ‘the numbers.’

So, I emailed Michaela. Then I emailed the team. Obviously it would have been preferable to have had this discussion in person but the nature of our work means we’re often not altogether in the same room for days at a time, and I had to get back to Michaela.

I shared the numbers. I was very frank. I asked for input from the team as we needed to answer the question of “do we or don’t we take the risk of hiring Michaela and opening Amsterdam?” We discussed the pros and cons, how we could mitigate and what we could all do to secure the outcome we wanted.

We made the decision to take the risk. Michaela joined, and we launched Unleashed Amsterdam. As I’ve said previously, you miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take.

From that moment our overall performance increased 100 fold (it was already strong mind you). We got more clients than we’d ever had, at a faster rate than ever before, which meant we could continue hiring more people into the team to make it even super-er. What makes me proudest though, is that we did all that while maintaining our two core “pill-oes”; delivering excellence and protecting team happiness.

We wouldn’t have achieved this if I hadn’t been completely transparent. And I no longer felt alone. I haven’t stopped sharing the numbers since… When it comes to the business, if I know it, the team knows it.

Your people are everything. Give yourself to them. Your role as a leader is to support them to succeed, and in doing so, let them drive the success of your business. They’ll have your back if you have theirs!

On What I’ve Learned

Short answer? I’ve learned so much I don’t really know where to start.

Long answer? I love learning and I love to be challenged; in fact, I actively ‘demand’ to be challenged by my team. I want feedback and I need it because, without it, we don’t improve. I’ve learned that my need for feedback is so extensive that I seek it in everything I, and we, do… Which is actually quite tiring as I look to maximise learning on IT ALL! (What could have been better? What will I do differently next time? And so on… constantly.)

I’ve learned that I am wrong most of the time.

I’ve learned to ask more questions than I answer. (Still practicing this though!)

As a team, we actively ask each other… “who has the alternative thought?” We seek the role of “devil’s advocate” in all our discussions. Groupthink is not OK even if we value similar things. We are empathy-first and we apply design thinking principles to all the work we do — for our clients and for ourselves. We metaphorically bring different people into the room by wearing different hats and it’s liberating, none of us are inhibited or restricted. Some serious psychological safety is needed to do this, and as a leader, I work hard to enable my team to enter into this ‘hat-wearing’ confidently. I think we nail it. It means we solve problems and apply creativity, that we learn from all the different perspectives in the room and we can (and do!) often change our minds. We are all about ‘strong opinions, weakly held.’ Honestly, it’s awesome. Try it.

Most of all, I have absolutely learned that if you don’t make yourself vulnerable, you don’t put yourself out there and you miss the opportunity to truly grow. I mentioned our two “pill-oes”; delivering excellence and ensuring team happiness. Well, true happiness is only possible by being yourself — which means at times being vulnerable; we all know it’s hard to be vulnerable as a leader, but it’s crucial if you want to be successful.

On that note, I wanted to do something super vulnerable right now, and share my ReadMe with you all…

This is me in all honesty and transparency (in slide-deck form.)

My hope is that this inspires you (as we also recommend in our newsletter’s ’10 Acts of Kindness’ post this month) to create your own ReadMe to share with your team, but my dream is that you carry on doing this; encouraging your team to do the same and embedding ReadMe’s into your new starter onboarding experience, a place where ReadMe’s are super impactful — they fast-track trust and enable strong relationships, early. ReadMe’s are an integral part of onboarding at Unleashed and have been incredibly beneficial for many of our clients too.

The trick is to be honest and make sure that your ReadMe evolves as you do. Review them and add your learnings regularly and make sure that a ReadMe is a starting point to the conversation, not the end…


— — — —

Struggle with our made-up or conjoined words? Not a fan of an analogy? No time for metaphors? Then fear not, we’ve put together the Unleashionary (the Unleashed Dictionary) to let you into our world and help keep things super clear:

Unleashionary: Unleashed Dictionary.

Bluddy: Fun, slightly Australianised spelling of bloody, as in ‘stop bluddy talking about that bluddy virus!’ Say it with an Aussie accent!

Pinch with pride: It’s ok to use someone else’s good idea, just make sure you admit it isn’t yours and do it proudly!

Amazenuts: A different version of amazeballs. Prefered by Team Unleashed.

Bullturd: A slightly less crude version of bullshit. Again, perhaps simply because we like to be different.

Pill-oes: This takes a bit more explanation. Excellence and team happiness are our version of what most businesses would call ‘pillars’. Every decision we make and everything we do is rooted in this. However, we found this word to be slightly ‘meh’ and overused, we wanted something else. We tried to personify them and called them ‘our heroes’. But quite frankly, that sounded a bit ridiculous. In explaining this convoluted story I mispronounced and conjoined both words. And so the word ‘pill-oes’ was born. We decided to keep that as our version of ‘pillars’ as from a pronunciation perspective (think ‘pillows’) it works well as “what we rest our head on”.

Superer: Even more super!

You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf: You can’t control what happens, but you can control (control more, anyway) how you respond to it. Be open to what is happening and see where it gets you. Learn from it.

Devil’s advocate: A person who challenges in order to get debate and ideas flowing.

Written by Founder @ Unleashed.Company Anouk Agussol.

If you enjoy both boat puns and great insight on all things People, Culture + Leadership, then sign up for our newsletter Unleashed Thinking. One email per month, no spam.

Get Unleashed Thinking straight into your inbox

Thank you, you've been subscribed!

Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.