How my newborn baby made me get out of my own way
For most of April and May 2017, I wasn’t really in this business – physically or mentally. Sure, I was answering a few emails and spent some time at the office, before blearily driving home before rush hour. My wife had just given birth to our first baby, and I wanted to be there. I wanted to lose hours touching our son’s pristine skin, to get up to change his midnight nappy and watch as he started smiling. I had also induced lactation, so while I didn’t birth our boy, I was lucky enough to get to feed him a couple of times a day – and that meant being around him a lot.
A few years ago my absence would have left this little copywriting agency in a crumpled heap. Clients would have gone unanswered – and then over to our competitors. Deadlines would sail by, trust broken irreparably. By way of comparison, I took two weeks off in 2014 to get married in Sri Lanka – during that time I checked emails, paid bills and delivered work. So how did the business survive without me for six weeks?
A hard stop
This time, I had a hard stop – the arrival of our baby boy. Zebedee’s birth, I knew, would create zero flexibility, demand absolute attention, and be all consuming. So I had to choose – set the train in motion so I could step back, or watch our amazing business wither away. It was an unarguable ultimatum. It’s that same immutable nature of parenting that makes working mothers so damned efficient – when you only have four hours until you absolutely have to pick up your kid, you make sure you get stuff done.
Letting Ro have at it
I was lucky – I had just such a working mother already on my team: Ro. She’d brought experience, drive and passion, which had largely gone untapped. Ro had been asking for more responsibility for months, to be allowed to add more value. I wanted to hand over to her, but I just… couldn’t. Having run this business on my own for almost ten years, I simply didn’t know how to cede control. I couldn’t see how things could work without my brain across every element.
But things were getting real, and fast – Zebedee was coming. I couldn’t put it off until I had more time or money, or until this thing was done, or that thing. Ro needed the resources, the systems and the processes in place to manage things when I was gone. We set about identifying and formalising processes and systems that had otherwise been in my head. This was something I’d intended to do for years. This time, I simply had to.
And then, Zebedee was here. What had been theory a week before became practice as Ro took the reins. Without me muddying things with my exceptions-to-rules, my undefined processes, or just simply, my micromanaging, she – and Words for Breakfast – nailed it. Understandably, the business still did a fair bit of limping – we were missing our key copywriting resource and creative director, after all. But things tracked onwards. Work got done, invoices were paid, promises were kept. Considering where we’d come from, that was a huge win in itself.
BZ/AZ – Before Zebedee, After Zebedee
But I realised the true value of my absence in the months following my return. I didn’t resume my previous micromanaging (mostly because Ro, bolstered by her successful run in the top seat, kept telling me to butt out). Work is now split more effectively across our team. We have roles, systems and processes more clearly defined, and adhered to. There are fewer double-ups, errors and do-overs. That means better profit, happier clients, and a team that doesn’t step on each other’s toes.
We now also have time and headspace to tackle important strategic decisions that will help us deliver more to our clients, win more business, and grow in the way we want to. We capture and follow up more leads, grasp opportunities, and stay in better contact with our past clients. We’re working with much larger brands, on bigger pieces of business, and repeat work. Retainer clients make up over 50% of our business – it was barely 5% before.
I now see having our son as a landmark moment for Words for Breakfast. We’re now living in an AZ era – After Zebedee. I can mark April 10, 2017 as the day my son made me get out of my own way, so my team – and WFB – could have the space to fly.