Illustration of a magnifying glass

20 Jun 2019

A Decade of Snook

As you may have seen, I announced some exciting news this week. It’s big news, mega news in fact and the most difficult decision I’ve ever made.

I talked in our release from a company perspective, and I meant all of it. Snook was and is in a really good place with no need to change because of cashflow or problems, but this was more about the consultancy model needing transformation.

However, I wanted to provide a personal perspective on the decision I’ve taken and what it’s really like to run a company like Snook as it has grown.

Firstly, this feels weird. I now have a boss, a much bigger team than ever before and a new role that asks more of me than just Snook alone.

Beyond all of this, I’m finally saying out loud that I am proud. I’ve managed to build a successful and profitable company, particularly in the last few years, building on the foundations that Lauren and I set up early on.

A decade of focus and personal development

I’m not going to lie. This has been a hard decade of work. It has been a real graft to focus down on one thing and give everything you have to it, and I mean everything. I gave my entire 20’s and early 30’s to Snook, starting the company straight out of art school at 22.

There was no investment into Snook, we had a small network at that time, and we were trying to hone our own craft as professionals entering industry, whilst learning how to work a spreadsheet and manage our team. We were trying to start a new business, with no previous business experience, selling a practice (service design) that was also a new and emerging field. Those things combined make it extra tough.

Those first few years of Snook were immensely hard. I got rather ill as a consequence of it, working weekends, nights, and when I took over the company myself this only got worse, making up the second half of another role to make sure we had a pipeline of work for our growing team.

From 2014, I worked alone. I led the design work, I managed the team, I built new relationships, I wrote the proposals, I managed the payroll, I wrote the policies, I designed the strategy, I wrote the job descriptions, I built our design development pathways, I was First Aid, I provided pastoral care, I did the recruitment.

I didn’t do any of this without a team of course, and my first thing to always note is that Snook is nothing without its team past and present. However, I still undertook about 3 different peoples roles when I took over. And it was hard, really bloody hard.

Running solo, I also had to face a lot of my demons because there was no time for that. Things like:

  • Confrontational situations, I hate them but had to grow into dealing with tough conversations.
  • I have a tendency to be almost too optimistic to a point of denial, believing things will improve when actually they can get a lot got worse by not dealing with them.
  • Overthinking and perfectionism, a positive trait but not great when you have to spin multiple plates at the same time.
  • Not speaking up, sometimes I would stay quiet as I found it difficult to express how I felt.

I’ve had to push myself beyond the limits of what I feel comfortable with on a daily basis and when you run and are responsible for a company, you cannot ever walk away from that, you have to deal with it, you have no choice. This has only made me stronger and I guess, enforced some good leadership skills but it’s been difficult.

No one had heard of Service Design, let alone in Scotland

My work has always focused on how we get people into the heart of the processes where we make design decisions. Whether that’s policy, services, products, my passion has been to bring people into the design process and ensure what we build, works for people.

I settled on Service Design as an umbrella discipline to engage in this kind of work back in 2007 as I explored it at university.

When Snook started, it was against a backdrop of a lack of understanding of the value design might bring — it was way before, dare I say it, design thinking gone mad.

We really were out in front. Not the first (there’s lots of other disciplines doing what we were doing in various forms), but in Scotland it was something exotic, unique and new. Whilst it’s great to be an early adopter, it also sucks for building a sustainable team and pipeline of projects.

At the time of starting, and right back to my routes in Government before Snook, aside from the RED team in the Design Council, thinkpublic lead by Deborah Szebeko (who I had the pleasure to intern for) and the Social Innovation Lab in Kent County Council (where I had the pleasure to interview Sophia Parker who led the work with Engine), there was little around in terms of service design in the public and social sector. No Government Digital Service, no policy labs, no government digital profession, very little to learn from. We were hanging out with our friends in community development, social sciences, technology innovation, trying to find a bigger home for us. What we realised was, we needed to make a home for Service Design as its own ‘thing’.

Beyond our projects we have always invested in promoting and developing design for good and belief in the value of its ability to be part of transforming the world. We held some landmark events that helped shaped the development of design as a practice in Scotland over the 2010’s.

Back in 2011, we ran the first #designforgov events with the Scottish Government strategy unit on the Learner Journey, bringing learners and policy makers together for the first time to co-design services. It was one of the first times design had been explicitly used as a tool for re-designing services and I’m proud to say I’ve been to colleges who still reference the report and the open source ideas that were generated at it, to this day.

Above is a photo from the first ever Service Design drinks event in Scotland, where about 10 people showed up. Most of those people I still call friends today and they include Peter Ashe, Andy Hyde, Gayle Rice, Lucy Gunatillake. Compare this to over 200 people signing up at recent Service Design Network events in Scotland. We’ve come a long way.

In 2014, we ran another #designforgov event Renewing Public Services: Service Design in Scotland with colleagues in Stirling University bringing together many of the interested people in design including Open Change, Alzheimers Scotland, Glasgow School of Art and more with our industry colleagues Satu Miettinen and friends from Finland.

Most recently we’ve run over 18 months of our Design on the Inside series in both Glasgow and London talking about the climate crisis, housing, mental health and how design is being used to take on these challenges.

The history of our events chart a meteoric rise of Service Design in Scotland (and beyond) and we’re proud to of played a significant part in that.

What have we done in ten years?

There are way too many projects to mention, but I think we’ve completed over 500 of them. I couldn’t be more proud of the teams who have been part of this and the wonderful clients we’ve had the support of and pleasure to work alongside as critical friends.

During our time we’ve also launched our own initiatives including CycleHack, an award-winning initiative to overcome the barriers to cycling in 50 global cities, to Dearest Scotland, a snapshot of the referendum which culminated in a book of letters written by citizens to the future of the country. The Matter- a young person employability training service co-designed with the brilliant Young Scot and Start up Street, a civic model designed with Ice-cream architecture and Architecture Design Scotland on regenerating high streets.

Our incredible alumni have gone across the world to work in Australian Government, set up design studios in Brussels, join huge research firms, get stuck into designing Government services. I’ve always said it’s sad to lose people from the team and it hurts every time but I’ve learned to accept that we are a platform for talent to come and contribute to our mission for a given period of time, grow in themselves and take a bit of Snook to the rest of the world.

We’ve had awards from Core 77 social innovation winners to Government Knowledge Social Justice Award Finalist and accolades from Mozilla and Google.

This is painting the best picture of the ten years I have and must reiterate, my decision comes at a time when Snook is doing some of the best work it has ever done. It’s important to also reinforce, that Snook will continue as Snook and that was most important when finding a new home for the thing I love.

We’re one of many Service Design studios that have been acquired over the past few years. Some may have concerns about what this means in the industry but I actually think it is a really great sign for Service Design because it signals the discipline going mainstream and being seen as a valuable asset by clients and agencies alike.

I didn’t write this post to showcase what we’ve done, that’s a whole book in the making. What I wanted to write about was share some of the challenges of running a company our size and some of the reasons I’ve taken this decision.

The buck stops with you

I’ve honestly stopped tracking my own time as it became ridiculous. There aren’t many places I go without my laptop because there’s always something to do or catch up on.

And when someone can’t deliver something because there’s no more capacity, or there’s a deadline, or something else, you have to do it. I’ve worked weekends and evenings for years.

Lou stopped that when we met and helped me relax and discover the concept of the weekend again but there’s been moments when I’ve had to sit in an internet cafe to send off a proposal for 6 hours missing the start of my holiday, stayed up into the night to complete things, dedicated weekends to preparing myself for the week ahead, worked in the back of cabs. As we’ve grown this has reduced but there was a time when it literally felt like I worked every hour of the week. That’s because, at the end of the day, I am responsible for Snook and if the team aren’t available to support, the buck stops with me.

When I took over Snook, after a year I hired an operations manager Lili and it was literally like the world opened up again. Lili did a stellar job in sorting things out at Snook and took a huge amount off my shoulders. This has continued with other non-billable roles including our strategy director Simon Smith who’s built a bigger operations team with Bryce, Aisha, Rob and Carla joining that team too. They’re the real engine now of Snook helping all our design team to do what they need to do with our clients.

With our new partnership, I’m excited to have even more support around us to really get us focused razor sharp on designing and delivering great services.

Ageism is totally a thing

To be honest, I’m really not that young anymore, and a recent workshop with a group of 12 year olds really caught me out with my Youtube vlogger game at an all time low.

I’ve been mistaken for the intern and constantly referred to as young, or innovative because of my age. It’s frustrating for your talents, or space at the table to be consistently contrasted in line with your age.

I had to win many rooms around who judged me and dismissed me because of my age in the early years. It was really difficult to start on that kind of back foot. My skills shouldn’t be conflated with the length of years I’ve worked, we all have expertise and experience from different perspectives.

We’re not perfect and it’s hard to hear

This is my worst anxiety.

I mean, we get lots of lovely glowing reviews in the majority, but sometimes if someone hasn’t enjoyed working at Snook for particular reasons it really kills me inside. I have major anxiety about this because all I want is for it to be perfect and for people to enjoy their work.

These reasons are sometimes out-with our control but sometimes are within it. It might be because our on-boarding hasn’t been as good as it could be. We’ve not giving someone the right work. They realise consultancy isn’t for them. Or our practice isn’t what they thought it might be.

I’ve always said, we listen. I personally listen. And most of my team I hope will agree that I’m honest in saying I do my best when we have feedback to make change happen. But change, even in a company as small as ours, doesn’t move quickly. So when something isn’t working it does take us time to take it onboard, fix it, and build it. For example — if we want to start delivering our work in a slightly different way, culturally it takes time for that change and message to take hold and actioned on. We get things wrong. No company is perfect.

But knowing someone hasn’t enjoyed working in the company is hard, and many of the times, we find out too late. This is a natural pattern of many companies similar to Snook face, I’ve confided in other founders for support in the past. We all want to make it great for staff but often we don’t find out until it’s really too late.

This is the thing I have found the hardest, and particularly when it’s people you really like personally or have even been friends with before. I’ve been fortunate when this has happened to maintain most friendships but I know I’ve lost some too and that’s my deepest rooted anxiety that plays out into my home life.

This is one of the many burdens that I have had to carry, and it has always felt super lonely. There are things you can’t confide in your staff with or competitors and would take too long to explain to your partner, so you digest it all by yourself.

This anxiety of course comes home. Your partner lives your stress with you

If you’re in a relationship, the other person goes through it with you. They witness the highs, the lows, they become your therapist, your business mentor, your coach because when you run something alone there’s no one to talk to when you have all the feelings and nowhere to go. It can damage relationships or at least create bad feelings because all you want to do is talk about work. We’ve had to work through this and find other ways for me to release the stress I carry.

I’ve an immense thank you to Lou to scraping me off the floor when I’ve had tough days.

The industry is creaking

The delivery model of consultancy in our current format is crippling. I wrote about this over the last couple of years in how procurement of design is failing and we’re being asked to deliver outputs not outcomes.

Budgets are low, and the aspiration of some clients for fully accessible designed services definitely doesn’t match what is being paid for or how it’s being procured.

We have rates, they seem high on first reflection but they’re not as high as some of our competitors. And they are that way for a reason — they pay for training the team in things like first aid mental health, allowing band-with for cross studio sharing so when you hire us you get a studio not contractors, coaching roles to grow our team, operations to power us to be able to deliver good work, software and hardware, studios, team training, therapists. All the things that form the backbone of our designers, researchers and strategists to do the things they do best and safely.

Budgets are being set by clients, with a long list of needs.

We start by calculating up what we think is the right thing to do, who’s needed for the work and what level of depth we need, and honestly, we usually come out at least 4 or 5 times more expensive than a set budget (that’s even if you are given one, most of the time it is guessing in the dark).

And that doesn’t even account for the growing list of demands to do knowledge exchange, run agile ceremonies, attend or account for most of the meetings you’re expected at.

People aren’t willing to pay for good and inclusive design and the budgets don’t exist.

I hate going to my team with a budget and saying ‘please make it work’ because they know they can’t do their best work. But they have to.

What’s more, with this model it means some of our team have to carry 3 or 4 projects at any given time. It’s not fair on them, but as the company grows and given our work involves co-production and co-design and quite rightfully that is the market ask, projects are spread out and it means more bitty work over longer periods. It’s difficult and crippling for them. We’ve designed some great work arounds to this in terms of re-modelling how we work but in all honesty, I know many consultancies who face this, it is a common problem.

I want to be clear, I don’t begrudge this or any of our existing clients as we make this work and we have matured into some much bigger and smoother pieces of work now where we operate sprint models. But if you want a resilient company with processes in place to ensure safety of work and undertake all the asks to ensure research and design is ethical, safe and inclusive as possible, we have to start reviewing what we’re willing to pay and invest in to do this well.

One of the major reasons I’m making this decision is because it feels like the model of consultancy in our current format is becoming outdated and difficult to operate and we want to move into some bigger strands of work allowing us more freedom and space to run the types of work in our existing portfolio.

The major thing I feel, is free.

Running a company is something you can’t walk away from, especially as it grows. For some who know me personally well, I’ve nearly given up several times in the last few years.

You feel stuck.

The problem is — you can’t leave. You just can’t. It’s also really hard at any form of scale beyond about ten people to transform your operating model while you spin the hamster wheel of delivery. There’s little bandwith for significant change, for example say a company structure of shareholders or becoming a cooperative — when you’ve got work to do and outcomes to hit.

It’s also really hard to close it if you want to consider that option. Honestly — I’ve never really wanted to do that, I did consider starting something new. What’s been most important for me is that Snook continues. I think we’re needed in the industry, we do good work and we need to continue. Closing comes with a cost too, and believe me, it’s not that easy. So even your option to close in order to create freedom is hard.

And why do I want to be free?

Firstly this really isn’t about stopping or not wanting to do what I do at a macro level but I’ve been doing sales for the past three to four years whilst helping to support projects with a slither of my time. I purposefully grew Snook to bring in other talent to manage and support projects but the role took me further and further away from what I like doing and am actually good at. Yas I can run a business and grow it, but you should hire me for my vision and skills as a design leader.

To describe this move, it’s like lifting a tonne of bricks off my shoulders, no wait, a megaton of bricks. Of course, there will be new demands and things I will have to achieve as Snook and in my new role, but the fear has gone in a personal sense.

To give you an insight of what I mean by fear it’s this. At one point we lost around 7 bids in a row and our pipeline dried up with only three months left of runway. You sit there with your partner crying — Do I have to lay people off? Do I have to fold? Will I go bankrupt? Luckily we’ve been pretty stable for a long time now with healthy profits reinvested back into the business, but those moments have occurred and they weigh you down so hard. I carry the responsibility for the whole team. Their mortgage, their salaries, supporting their kids, all of that.

And that comes at a personal cost to you.

Because there’s that threat, as a business owner you carry a latent stress that is with you all the time that things will go wrong. It’s pervasive in every way in your body and mind. Whilst all the time, showing up, smiling internally and externally to the world. That weighs so hard.

I cried when I told the team, twice in both studios because I am relieved to have found a new home for Snook where I can finally return to focusing on how we design the most inclusive, accessible, relational, user-centered and climate considerate services with a partner who can support the backbone of what we do.

I feel like I can breathe again and get back to focusing on what I really care about.

This is a momentous and deeply symbolic day

I feel like I’m doing that terrible ‘shit’ sandwich thing. Good, the bad, the good. I’ve been honest here to give an insight into what it’s like to run a consultancy of our size. The good outweighs the bad by a mile from seeing our team grow personally and professionally, to where people have taken their Snook experience too, and ultimately the people who are using our service designs in the real world. But the tough times do have their impact.

I owe many laughs and cries to Lauren who cofounded Snook with me back in 2009. Most of you know she left in 2014 to pursue new work and opportunities and even snagged herself an OBE during that time which is an incredible feat and I’m immensely proud of her for that. I’m really grateful for the time we spent together in the early years of Snook exploring our crafts and what we wanted to change in the world.

I’m so excited about our next move. It gives us the platform and skills to take on new challenges, work differently, learn from a partner with deep expertise in delivery and get to work on live services that touch millions of people in the UK and abroad. It’s going to be a new journey but one I’m excited about, with more support now, to do even more work than before.