Alex Wilcox was the buying and marketing director for The Conran Shop Group before co-founding creative agency The Nest in 1999 with £40,000 and a mission to make commerce more humane. The business has grown from three to 40 employees and has a turnover of £3 million.
Find a friendly mentor
After a life-changing trip to India, I decided to take a different career path and started my own creative company. I cannot underestimate the importance of speaking to peers and other founders of companies before setting up a business. When I started, many thought my ideas were too grand, as I didn’t want to just tweak clients’ brands but to cover everything from product design to new media marketing. Thanks to my experience at Conran, where Terence himself was inspirational and the divisions are run as separate businesses, I was exposed to real life situations that were not normally in my gambit and so was more prepared for whatever was thrown in my way. It’s important to find a friendly mentor that you don’t rely too heavily on, but whose brains you can pick for free.
Believe in taking risks
I totally believe in risk-taking and that mistakes have to be made. In the end, fear is pointless and what will be will be. In the first year of The Nest, I took a risk with a personal acquaintance and exchanged production development ideas for equity. I have to admit I got completely shafted as the acquaintance took our ideas and we went to court over the issue. We lost, but it was a fantastic learning experience at an early stage. On the other hand, by following the convictions of my business ideas, I recouped my initial investment in the first year.
Be passionate about your staff, but don’t put off making hard decisions
Being a creative company, the staff are everything. I employ people on the basis that I like them and naturally, that they will perform outstandingly. There really is a family feeling in our offices and I am not afraid to promote people into roles where they feared they would sink but in fact swam. For example, I took on two students with no graphic design experience and gave them a project to complete – they excelled. But I am also a believer that sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind. Most of the mistakes I’ve made have been in recruitment and although it is easy to get caught in people’s problems, prolonging an unsatisfactory relationship is detrimental to that person and the company.
Continue to innovate – within the company and yourself
With prestigious clients such as Selfridges and MFI, they want to see you are passionate so they will be safe in the knowledge you are passionate about them. To keep the staff motivated (and therefore constantly creative), I have budgeted for innovations that will affect them personally. For instance, we have employed a company doctor that comes in two half-days a week to take care of the health and wellbeing of the staff. The impact on moral and sickness leave was dramatic with sick days reduced by 70 per cent. I also ask people from different walks of life, such as artists and writers, to come in to give lectures as inspiration.
Never fall in love with what you are doing
I do not concern myself too much with what’s going on in my sector and prefer to understand the world at large, which is my clients’ world. I have also learnt not to fall in love with what I am doing and to not throw too much energy into something that’s not working as I want it to. Honestly, if you learn to let it go, it will come back to you.