If there is a normal route in life I have rarely taken it. Not entirely by design and with plenty of being in the right place at the right time.
I left school at 16, I tried sixth form for all of four weeks before deciding that it wasn’t really for me. I’m the chap that should have done well at school but didn’t knuckle down enough as I didn’t really see the point.
After working in a few miscellaneous roles, including on the sales floor using my terrible, doctor-level handwriting to write on big whiteboards, teaching swimming and selling double glazing, I talked myself into a trainee developer role at a local software house.
Little did I know that this programming role was to become the cornerstone of my professional life and the rock upon which I would build a business.
I’m not going to pick up the woodwork tools and build some furniture, but I can create something with code.
I’d always had a bit of a thing for tech, and as Scott Adams wrote in a famous Dilbert cartoon I had “The Knack”. Software development came quite easily to me. Some people speak languages, some do art, others can sell and I could develop.
I worked in my first role for a couple of years, learning various pieces of now very old technology before discovering contract development. Contract devs typically work on short-term contracts at roughly double the money of a permanent employee, allowing for a semi-nomadic lifestyle. I’ve had the opportunity to develop software on four continents for lots of different employers, and enjoyed 99% of it.
This lifestyle took me to some interesting places, working with some interesting people on some great projects and, most importantly, gave me the skills I would use to build the software that underpinned the first iteration of FanFinders, my business to be.
In early 2011, my wife gave me the best news ever: I was going to be a dad. This coupled with a growing understanding of how I wanted my life to look gave me the impetus to start a business.
I wanted a business that would allow me to work from home, to see my child (which became children a couple of years later) and help be a truly hands-on parent. I have long suspected that no-one gets to the last moments in life and thinks “I should have spent less time with my kids”.
I have broken down this part of my story more in other posts but this time in my life gave me several key skills that still help me each day.
My contracting background taught me about the ups and downs of business life. No business is ever plain-sailing and having to find new work every 3-6 months gives you a feel for this. It both hardens your nerves and shows you that things do always come good with hard work.
My desire to spend time with my family was an odd but great business driver. If I didn’t knuckle down, find a fabulous team and get this thing working, I would be back on the road peddling my wares. Now I see this as a very first world problem but it helped drive me successfully on both counts, the business is going well and I walk my kids to school 90% of the time.
Wearing many hats
On a daily basis, my current role as CEO is an amalgam of the previous 20 years. The CEO of any SME wears many hats, it isn’t just one role.
For me there is a mix of the new: commercial and financial planning, cash flow forecasting; and existing skills: driving technical development, understanding of basic accounting, strategic planning and the like. Then there’s buying daft hats for people that turn up late to our ‘all hands’ meeting, though this does not deter the slightly silly.
As alluded to above, my day-to-day life can differ hugely. I might be helping the dev team with some last minute coding, working with our CCO on commercial and strategic planning, talking through marketing initiatives or reading the end of year accounts. It’s a full and varied role and one I hadn’t fully understood before sitting in the seat. I also wouldn’t change it for the world.
It often seems the story spun around having a career in business is one of all or nothing, not having one’s cake and eating it. I disagree. With the correct attitude, the ability to work hard and intelligently, and by having a great team around you, you can achieve both.