As we approach our first anniversary as a company, I feel there is more optimism and hope in the air, something that was almost non-existent when we launched Digital Futures at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many questioned our timing, given uncertainty around when we would see the subsidence of what can only be described as one of the most devastating periods of economic and social impairment the world has ever experienced.
There were many reasons for establishing Digital Futures, some of which I discuss below. However, I also wanted to reflect on the year that was, and lessons I’ve learnt over the last twelve months that I hope you find useful, especially for those entrepreneurs at an early stage of their journey also.
Whilst COVID-19 was not the catalyst for launching Digital Futures, being part of the solution and doing something meaningful to help those most impacted by the pandemic, in particular young people and graduates, was a critical priority for me personally, my investors and the wider team.
Additionally, it was clear the pandemic has compounded the shortage of skills in the UK and need for mass re-skilling to keep the existing workforce relevant, as organisations prioritise investment in digital transformation, new technologies and ways of working.
And while diversity continues to be a significant challenge, there is no doubt about the emerging corporate conscience resulting from both the impact of the pandemic as well as a number of global movements such as BLM, driving the need for change and a desire for organisations to better reflect society and the communities they serve.
So whilst I agree launching Digital Futures at the height of the pandemic has not been without risk, we are highly motivated by the need to respond proactively to the resulting social challenges and want to drive change that ultimately matters.
In turning to lessons learnt over the last year, there are many. Like any new business we’ve had our issues, however, have managed to adapt quickly to the new operating environment and approached the build of Digital Futures with pragmatism and a willingness to learn at every stage.
1. A binding purpose
At Digital Futures our mission is to create opportunity for others. It’s a simple mission, underpinned by a core set of values that bind us as one team. I’ve found being purpose-led, results in greater personal motivation, commitment and engagement from both colleagues and clients. This has been reinforced in feedback from the thousands of applicants to the Digital Futures Academy who were compelled to apply as a result of our mission and purpose as an organisation.
We aim to foster an inclusive culture, underpinned by a commitment to empowerment, transparency and trust where everyone’s voices are heard and respected. Creating a culture in a virtual environment has of course been challenging. However, we strongly believe our culture and the ways in which we engage and communicate with each other will ultimately determine our success, regardless of how effective our strategy is.
3. Incremental gains
Like many others, our business model is linear, comprising of a set of processes that require ownership. It’s not possible to be involved in every decision, nor as a founder, should you be in a rapidly growing business. Process owners should be supported and empowered to make decisions, encouraged to be creative and willing to fail fast, safely. Our process owners consider themselves as product managers where continuous innovation, achievement of incremental gains and improved experience is required to be demonstrated as the business evolves.
4. Reach out – not in
Align your service offering to a clear challenge and don’t attempt to create a market that doesn’t exist. You will waste a lot of money doing this. Do your research and seek constant feedback from the market, clients and former colleagues. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to give up their time to provide advice and feedback if you ask them. Keep internal meetings to an absolute minimum, employ a clear decision-making framework and only involve yourself in matters where you can add value.
5. Be data-driven
Technology is central to our strategy and ability to scale. However, being data-driven from the outset has allowed us to refine our processes quickly, enabling us to optimise investment across multiple areas of our business, from marketing, talent acquisition, assessment, training and client pursuit activity. Leveraging your data to create valuable insights to support your decision making is an absolute must and will ultimately create enduring value. Intuition only gets you so far.
6. A very social presence
Regardless of my opinion, an effective social media strategy has been key when engaging with our target audience and demographic. The analytical power of the major platforms e.g. Instagram has been eye opening for me, however, also requires constant attention and commitment. Compelling design, tone of voice and high-quality relevant content is key to keeping your audience engaged and building a sustainable brand presence.
7. Play to win
A growth mindset and being goal-driven is critical to creating a high-performing team and a profitable business. It’s not something to be shy about. Competition is healthy, but it’s also imperative you can differentiate from it. Stay true to your purpose, be clear on your value proposition and be guided by relevant strategic indicators. Perseverance will be key to your success, so be prepared to embrace uncertainty and hold your nerve.
8. Finding balance
In the early stages of business formation it’s very difficult to disconnect from the myriad of activities and issues you find yourself dealing with as a founder. Late and sometimes sleepless nights are to be expected. However, it’s imperative it does not become all-consuming at the expense of your health, relationships with family members and friends. Be disciplined with your time, be present and find time for things you also enjoy.
9. Authentic leadership
Being authentic and open about who you are is incredibly important when it comes to leading and inspiring a team. There’s no need for everyone to know your life story. However, being open, empathetic and, at times, vulnerable goes a long way when developing new and important relationships. Let your personality come through and be confident about who you are and what you stand for. If you’re overly concerned about how people perceive you – hire a CEO who’s not.
Above all, the biggest lesson for me personally has been the importance of surrounding yourself with excellent people, and being brave enough to recognise who’s not. Having a great team around you, inspired by your mission and dedicated to the cause is obviously a key requirement. However, ensuring they have the ability, capacity and strategic dexterity to grow with the business will ultimately determine your velocity as a company and credibility as a leader.
I’m very grateful for the support I have received from my team, their commitment and contribution to our journey so far. It is a true honour to work with so many gifted individuals on this important project, and I am truly humbled by their passion and drive demonstrated each and every day.
As we start to navigate a new reality, many of the challenges discussed previously will be exacerbated by other economic, environmental, geo-political and technology forces. However, I feel there is real momentum and commitment from both business and government to address these. But we need to do more and take greater collective responsibility for our future.
At Digital Futures our immediate objective is to provide even more opportunity for individuals looking to start their career in technology. We will achieve this by launching new pathways in several new locations across the UK, with the objective of creating sustainable employment for thousands of individuals who demonstrate the required ambition, curiosity, commitment and ambition to break through, change the narrative and drive lasting change across the industry.
Finally, I’ve been truly inspired by the thousands of other entrepreneurs who have also established businesses during the pandemic, in particular those focused on improving the world and communities in which we live.
To those, I salute you. You’re the lifeblood of the UK economy. We simply need more of you – more mavericks, risk takers, underdogs, pioneers and swashbucklers to challenge the status quo and drive innovation that ultimately enables our society to thrive as a result.