Over at Stripe Partners we’ve shot a film of our studio process. Studios are our way of ensuring that the benefits of an ethnographic approach to developing understanding are shared by our clients through their engagement in the worlds they seek to understand.
Some thoughtful commentary on job hunting by Amy Santee, a UX researcher based in USA provoked me to dig out this blog post from 2005. I wrote it when shutting down Ideas Bazaar – a company I ran for about 4 year between 2001-2005.
It’s a funny thing working for yourself. Everyone thinks you have it really easy. You’re your own boss, right? You can do what you want, when you want, can’t you? You’re in control of your own destiny aren’t you, can take your holiday whenever you want and can bunk off when the mood suits? Well, some of this is undoubtedly true and, compared to those who have their salary paid each month, there is certainly more freedom for those who choose to go it alone. But perhaps that ‘freedom’ needs qualifying. It’s not unconditional freedom.
As in many areas of life, the grass is always greener dictum holds true in the land of employment. Both sides think the other has got it easy / better / sorted.
What are you driving at, you ask? Why these sudden genuflection on the experiences of self- or other- employment? Well, Resh and I are about to jump the fence and try that grass out. That t ‘Other’ grass, which other people tend to, fence in, water, cut, sow and harvest. Yes, we’re going to work for someone else.
No, before you ask, we haven’t sold the company to Yahoo!, AOL, or eBay. We’re not going the way of many new companies (Flickr, Weblogs, Skype). Nothing so lucrative. No, we’re selling off the physical assets that a company like ours has (not many and not worth that much), packing up the things we want to keep and heading off with just over three and a bit years of the following in our cardboard boxes:
- Fun & laughter
- A real sense of accomplishment / achievement
- A few bitter and many sweet experiences
- A general sense of enrichment
- A few end-of-the-month-seat-of-the-pants feelings
- A continued sense of personal and professional commitment to what we were doing
- Excitement and not a little sense of forbidding
- Sometime getting to the decision is harder than making it and this has definitely been the case for us. We have loved Ideas Bazaar despite the worries and anxieties that often go with running your own company. Sometimes, particularly recently, we’re feeling so in love with our creation that we wonder what the hell we’re doing but the die is cast, the decision is made, and our futures have been etched onto new contracts with new employers.
We have, we feel, been pretty successful (link to client list), in commercial, professional and other ways. Indeed, as is to be expected, having made the decision to call it a day, we’ve had endless calls and emails from people asking to help their businesses with the sort of research, consultancy and whatever else it was we did for people. Like that proverbial London bus – you wait for ever, give up waiting, light a cigarette and then they all tip up at once. A few of those potential clients coming forward earlier might have helped make life easier but wouldn’t have made any difference to the decision we’ve made. In any case, situated in a culture (I use the term advisedly) that glories in failure, we feel compelled to point out that this is <b>not</b> a financially orientated decision forced on us by a spillage of red ink, but an active, conscious and dare I say it positive decision. In case your still wondering, then, we’re in the black.
So why give up. Will you forgive us if we don’t give you what you think is a wholly satisfactory answer. I for one, cannot speak for Resh but I know her mind pretty well. We finish each others sentences for Christ sake. I guess early on this year we asked ourselves the following question: “Might it be possible that there is something else we want to do or somewhere else to work, that Ideas Bazaar might not be what we do for the next x years?” This question, once asked, lingered on, not quote answered, not easy to dispel. The genie was out of the bottle.
Not long after, as if by magic, I had a cheeky approach from Intel which seemed worth exploring. And, as it turns out, it seems like it’s going to be exciting times there and that I’m going to be a part of them. I’m off to Intel Ireland (Leixlip in County Kildare, not far from Dublin) to ‘run’ a European outpost of an ethnographic research unit called People’s Health Practices (within the R&D unit of the Digital Health Platform Group), working with John Sherry. I start in December and relocate with my recently expanded family in January ’06.
What have we learned?
That you can run a business without a business plan, you can start it with no capital and make it all up as you go along. (But see next thing learned).
That a good accountant is great asset. (Anyone who is a self-employed freelancer type or small business like we were) should call Ravi Koppa at CK Partnership, London. He rocks very, very hard.
Working with other small business usually works really well. How often have I thought, for example, that our IT was 100 times better than that of most of the companies in which we did research. Thanks to the tag4 posse for making IT work.
That in this type of business you have to give some stuff away. That giving away ideas forces you to replenish your supply but that the so-called creative industries (see Mark Thomas’ comments on their theft of the word creative) are bloody good are taking the piss out of people who do research: Saatchi and Saatchi, St Luke’s, Glue and many, many others, you know who you are. In future, I suggest you click here for free insight when your “clients are thinking about doing some research” and you want to see the cut of someone’s thinking jib. (BTW, ad agency wcrs are a notably straightforward and honest exception to this rule, i.e., they commission research from what looks like a risky, small, not on their client’s roster companies and let them get on with it. Big thank you).
That there is a lots of totally crap market, strategic, creative or whatever sort of research out there and loads of companies seem content to put up with it. Or perhaps they know no better. Whatever, it cannot be stressed enough to anyone thinking of running a research company in this broad space: There is so much crap out there you only have to be half-decent to stand out. Hopefully we’ve been better than half-decent but that’s really not for me to say.
That you don’t have to have to have a anthropology degree (or even a social science background) to be an ‘ethnographer’ or even an anthropologist anymore. Perhaps this doesn’t matter that much, or as much as I think, but perhaps it does and I should have a proper rant about it some other time.
That these sort of businesses don’t scale very easily (should that have been something we sought? Probably not, but ho hum) but that having a totally fantastic bunch of associates with a variety of experiences, background, ethnicities, nationalities, abilities, expertise and excitement is what you really need. Thank you Bambos Neophytou, Bruce Davis, John Curran, Stokes Jones, Louise Ferguson, Hannah Knox, Laura Davies, Ed Beerbohm, Katrina Jungnickel, Caitlin Scott, ANY MORE?
That if you run a blog you should be more outspoken, more often and put more ‘editorial’ or opinion on it. My future employers permitting, The Ideas Bazaar will return with a bit more attitude and a new, no longer part of a company website look, soon enough.
So I guess it’s goodbye from us. Sorry this announcement was so long winded. There was a lot to get off the chest, and lots that had to be said. Stay in touch, as it were. And thank you…
A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working simple system. –John Gall
in Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail. 1975, p.71