Business book summary of Ian Whitworth's Undisruptable
With half of Australia in lockdown it’s apt this week’s book talk is Undisruptable.
Entrepreneur Ian Whitworth credits his 10 leadership commandments for the growth of his audiovisual business Scene Change - even during COVID-19.
He explains it was because they began Scene Change during the 2008 global financial crisis.
Ian says there are many advantages for entrepreneurs who set up businesses during a crisis:
- Your costs will be down for all kinds of reasons.
- You can start with a clean, streamlined structure that suits the times.
- It's never been easier to make your business look big, even when it's you, your laptop and your dog.
- There are more ways to fund a business than ever before.
- Being smaller creates energy; you have to fight for every gain, every day.
- It's more fun to be the up-and-comer. Big companies have a defensive mindset.
- Starting in hard times gives you an appreciation of new customers that never wears off.
His 10 commandments have guided his business since they were first written from gut instinct on a plane trip (remember those?).
Here they are:
1. Look after the crew.
Ian says the private equity approach is "always about the money." He and his partner's approach is if you look after the staff they will be happy as they go about their work, and they will make happy customers who will in turn do the marketing for you.
"It sounds basic but our business has grown 20% - 30% per year for a decade, without any external investors," he says.
2. If it will make us money, buy it now.
Ian believes the less management the better.
"Managers multiply like termites!" he says.
His company Scene Change has very few managers, so if there is an opportunity to make money by buying something it’s as simple as a phone chat between the partners “Shall we buy that thing?”
"We can take action without stupid committees," he explains.
3. Chase profitability, not size. We don’t have to be everywhere.
A lot of corporate strategy is based on dots on the map and a mindset that you have to be everywhere. Ian says it's also about people’s willingness to do work just for turnover.
"They say “Oh it’s keeping the doors open” but if you’re making zero margin on something then that’s not keeping anyone’s doors open."
You have to be able to make a profit. He admits it seems obvious but so many businesses just chase revenue.
"They’re making no money."
4. We are comfortable saying no.
As he explained in Commandment #3, you don’t have to chase every bit of business.
"If the customer says “Oh, but my budget is this” - well it's the equivalent of this: you can’t walk into a restaurant and order lobster but say “My budget is $18.50,” Ian says.
"If you have a small budget you might have to have cheese on toast."
5. We’re in this to create long-term income, not to float or sell off to [private equity].
Ian says there's a common myth that when you start a business you must go to IPO as the only successful outcome.
"It’s just not true. I know plenty of business owner friends who have great businesses, they haven’t sold out."
He says he and his business partner don’t actually work in the business. They have equity-owning managers in each city who run those businesses. Ian says if you float suddenly you’re at the command of finance managers and shareholders who don’t have your interests at heart. If you want to float go for it, he says, but it’s not the only option.
6. Low group overheads.
Say no to requests for more management, Ian counsels. Large corporations need HR, for example, but for small companies it may not be necessary.
He says firmly "If you think 'Hang on, I could use HR to fire people' then you’re a contemptible excuse of a manager."
So be careful of systems just appear in your business just because others do it.
7. Talk to people rather than emailing everything.
Ian says his company frowns on people sending lots of BCC emails or reply alls. He adds that talking to people stops people spending hours drafting emails.
In 2020 he had to have some difficult face-to-face conversations with staff.
"When COVID-19 hit in 2020, we realised our business was about to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel," he remembers.
"We had staff meetings, we told them really bad things were about to happen. It had taken us 10 years to put together this Avengers-style super team, people with the personal skills to talk to a bank CEO backstage.
"We valued them so we logged into our bank balances and showed them our P&L and how much money we had left.
"We said, 'We value you.' We all went to three days a week but we said we would spend all the money we had left keeping them employed.
"While they were freaked out, they were grateful that we committed to them with whatever we had."
Within weeks JobKeeper was announced.
8. One short report a month is fine.
There’s a mythology in business you need to be a maths wizard, Ian says, but he believes a Year 6 maths will do. At business school you learn to do complex spreadsheets where you learn to calculate the discounted values of cashflows into the future versus the up-front investment.
"That’s fine if you’re building hydro-electricity power station or a tollway but you’re not," Ian says. "If it doesn’t look good on the back of coaster the don’t do it because it’s not profitable enough."
And…stationery expenses don’t matter, he adds.
9. Make the good people think “I want to work here.”
Since Scene Change started its turnover has been under 2%. The cost of staff turnover is enormous, and Ian's team make an effort to avoid it.
10. No f---- Blackberries® (written pre-iPhone® – ie. reduce unreasonable demands from head office).
"Gather round kids, dad’s going to tell you about old technology!" laughs Ian.
He says that when they set up the business it was the peak era of the corporate Blackberry®. The giant head office would ping their staff with emails all night wanting instant responses on their Blackberries®. "Our view is we’re in the business of shows, our staff work long hours, so we shouldn't be interfering with them on their personal time expecting responses to stupid emails," Ian says.
"We try to avoid 24/7 disruption in personal lives."
Ian’s advice for pandemic-ravaged entrepreneurs:
- In business you should always assume the government is not going to your rescue. Go back to your landlord and say “Hey remember the negotiation we had last year, we’re right back there.”
- Start calling your suppliers. Start negotiating.
- Talk to your staff. Keep them in the loop.
- Cut down on expenses that can be controlled because this is going to go for quite a while this time.
Ian’s advice to avoid longer-term disruption:
- Make sure you have a coherent brand that is consistent and means something. Bring the human element in as there is frustration for customers when machines apply rules blindly. "There will always be a customer who needs an exception to the rule."
- Maintain a personal relationship with your client as much as you can. People don’t leave hairdressers because of this personal allegiance. If you get rid of frontline people, you’re effectively a vending machine. Keep humans in the system where it matters.
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