Morrama's next chapter
18 months ago Rob and I were sat in a bar in Waterloo naively bouncing around the idea of starting up a design studio and brainstorming good company names.
On the 1st of last month Morrama had it’s first birthday.
1 year, 25 client projects, 2 business trips, 365 days of learning, 5840 waking hours of worry, 3 hires, one co-founder exit and nowhere near enough sleep.
We aptly saw Morrama’s first anniversary in during a factory visit in China where we were assembling the first prototype of our biggest client partnership project to date. With tooling data due next month, this has been yet another huge learning experience for me personally and one of the Morrama successes this year that I am most proud of.
But it hasn’t been all smiles and celebration. The last 12 months have been incredible tough, mentally, physically and, above all, emotionally. And then in March when Rob left to pursue his new startup Availo, I was left to steer the ship alone.
On paper I have been handed my dream on a plate. Anyone who knew me well knew I always wanted to run my own design consultancy. In reality it has been the toughest year of my life. This post is a reflection on the psychological challenges of starting your first business and my advice to founders and directors, especially if you end up running your company alone.
Understand benefits (and drawbacks) of naivety
If you have never done something before, you have little idea what is the right or wrong way to go about it. This is, of course, a potential recipe for disaster, but it also gives you a huge amount of freedom to be creative and think about things in a new way. Having not gone down a path before, and not having anyone telling you exactly which direction to head in, you have the ability to try something new, to approach a challenge with a fresh perspective and reach a solution in your own way. Just because something is usually done a certain way doesn’t mean it is the best way. Sometimes all experience does is hinder innovation.
As a young company, for many of the projects we work on at Morrama, it’s the first time we will have designed a particular product. As such we can look at it from a completely unbiased perspective that allows us to see things and question things that people who’ve been in that particular industry for years just take for granted. Combine this with an acute awareness of our skill set and a capacity to learn and adapt quickly, we are able to bring innovation into every design task. One of the reasons why we have been able to grow so fast and achieve so much already is because we have kept pushing forwards confident that we will always find a solution.
This process is not easy. Meeting with a FTSE 250 company at 24 years old armed with a portfolio of the only three projects that you’ve worked on since graduation and trying to convince them that you have the skill set to design and develop their first ever hardware product; having to work out why HMRC are threatening to seize and sell your possessions because you mysteriously owe them £3500 (their mistake, not ours); making a bad design decision and having to work through the night to placate a very unhappy client at the risk of saying goodbye to next month's pay day.
Venturing into the unknown means that you have no idea what lies ahead, and this requires a huge amount of commitment because it is exhausting. If I’m not still at the office at 10pm looking over P&L reports, I’ll be awake at 4am worrying as to whether we are on schedule with tooling data. Managing a young business is a fine balance between pushing boundaries and risk management. And the more you grow, the more you have to lose.
Have passion and belief in what you do
I’ve always wanted to run my own design consultancy but not because I see myself as an entrepreneur, but because I am a designer. Problem solving, ideation, questioning why things are a certain way; these are the things that make me tick. Designing a team and environment in which we can work to the best of our abilities, encourage the most from each other, and never lose sight of the thrill of design seems like the most natural thing for me to do.
This enthusiasm is, of course, dependent on the projects we work on and the clients we work with. At Morrama we strive to find innovation in even the smallest and simplest of ideas. Chasing that lightbulb moment really is what we live for and working with such amazing clients who are also so passionate and engaged in the projects makes this all the more exciting. Being able to help make people’s ideas and dreams a reality is the most fulfilling job in the world.
Especially during the early stages of building a design agency, this belief in what we do has been absolutely key. It makes the late nights, the never-ending to-do lists and the threat of a negative bank balance all worthwhile. I have a personal rule that I can’t go home until I feel I have achieved something. This might be finishing up a CAD model and producing the first renders to send to the client, or it might be mapping out the next three months of a project on a Gantt chart. Whether it takes me until 6pm or 11pm, I dance out of the office every single evening feeling a sense of achievement. When your job is such a significant part of your life, it is so important that you always feel it’s worthwhile and brings you a sense of satisfaction.
One of the biggest problems with being caught up in waves of emails and requests and project work (and worry) is that you can make the mistake of spending so much time and energy simply treading water to stay afloat, that you don’t take a moment to work out firstly how to avoid being dragged under in the first place and secondly in which direction you should be swimming. This has been one of the most important things I’ve learnt in the past 18 months.
Know what you are working for
With the long hours and the constant balancing act of bringing in a steady stream of new projects, you can very easily forget what you are working towards. But without knowing what direction you are heading it’s impossible to gauge your progress and it can begin to feel like you are constantly just trying to keep your head above water without really going anywhere.
Start-ups looking for investment have to have long term forecasts, targets, goals and measures of success planned out well in advance. The emphasis is always on speed. Build big quick and exit. Time is money. Yet for a lifestyle business like Morrama, there is no ‘end game’, no big sell out.
Our long term goal at Morrama is to be able to build a business that can successfully support start-ups end-to-end with design and engineering requirements, crowdfunding support, introductions to investors, links to manufacturers (East and West) and marketing advice. If we can achieve this we will be the go-to company for hardware start-ups to accelerate their design process. This is a big task, and will take years to achieve, but by breaking it down into smaller steps we will make it.
Morrama is a long term venture and a legacy. I have no desire to be a serial entrepreneur desperately chasing that big pay out. That doesn’t make me any less committed to the development of this business, on the contrary, it makes me more.
Don't steer the ship alone
In the startup world it is well known that solo founders are a risky bet for investors. If they can’t hack the pressure, the company collapses. If there are two or three co-founders - the responsibilities are shared and they have the support of each other when times get tough.
When we first started Morrama, I led up the design on each project and Rob managed the client outreach and liaison. After he left in March I had to step up and take over his side of the business. Despite having two new team members I was managing the business alone. Having no-one to turn to to share concerns, workload and worries with was difficult and when business began taking me out to China I realised I needed someone back in London capable of keeping things in order.
Without needing to ask, Mike stepped up. His enthusiasm and belief in Morrama is inspiring and he has become our best asset. After experiencing how it feels to run a business alone, it is a relief to have someone I can rely on not only to support me, but to push Morrama in new exciting directions himself.
With a another new designer joining the team at the end of this month, this is a really exciting time for us. The new skills and ideas that each person brings helps to sculpt the company into something a little bit better than before. And the energy and drive that comes with a larger team means that we will be able to take on more exciting projects and Mike and I will be able to begin planning the next chapter in the Morrama story.
Watch this space!