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4.3 — Growing Strong, Becoming a Businessman

I was moving forward as a designer but here I was becoming a businessman. I was not sure, at this stage, which I got the most out of.

Paying the Bills

Living a life of creativity is inspiring and exciting, but ultimately it does not pay the bills on its own. I was being creative as part of a business, a business that paid me and kept a great group of designers in employment. The fascinating aspect, for me, was that this was what I ran away screaming from back when I left school. My father tried to help by steering me into accountancy, banking or business. The idea of that was horrific to me. All these years later I ended up running a company that I joined for completely different reasons. It was either a cosmic joke or it was what I was always meant to do.

The answer to that was to come soon enough, as you will see next week, but for now let us just stay with what was happening.

I had become a Director and then Managing Director of the design firm I joined some years previously. I had become one of the best known designers and yet I moved into growing and developing the business. Looking back I can see the extent to which I was pulled of the path I was moving along, but that is how the design world works. In construction design, whether it is lighting, architecture, or engineering; the sales, marketing and business leads tend to be taken by the most prominent designers. The principals go out and get the work and pass it down to the designers they employ. Spending time with clients and directing the flow of the design process becomes exciting as you leave the grind of the drawing board (later computer terminal) behind.

I spent increasing amounts of time looking for and bidding for work, one of the most important aspects of keeping a business of this type going. I can remember feeling jealous that I was becoming increasingly isolated from the design process. I kept in touch with certain clients, but even there I had to let go of so much of the detail. If I did not let the designers design they would leave. There was little I could do to interfere in this process.

Financial matters

What was most fascinating was the extent to which I involved myself in the financial side of the business. I was good with numbers—I had a first class honours degree in mathematics from the Open University—and, of course, my father had been an accountant. I see now what happened, why I drifted into this away from design. It was about control and knowing I could do better.

And I could.

It can be difficult when you are good at lots of things. You see what is happening and if it is not being done right, in your mind, you take over. That is what I kept doing. I could do it better and, to an extent, I enjoyed it. What I missed at the time was that I used it to hide away from the aspects that I felt uncomfortable with.

Although I was good and confident as a designer, I still had problems connecting with people. Looking at how many of my competitors organised their working lives I can see how I hid away from the contact with the outside world. The most important aspect of running a design business is promotion and direct marketing. That meant constant talking to people, people I did not know, and constant promotion of me and my team. I hated that, not because I was no good at it, but because I lacked in self-confidence. The competitors that excelled were ones who put themselves out there all the time.

I developed the business side with partners as I sought to grow the business. I travelled a great deal to cement the business relationships in ways I did not do with potential clients. I travelled many times to Australia and forged relationships there. I was an agile businessman in many ways and did well at putting together deals.

A Leadership Role

This all happened alongside the amazing leadership role I took on at the International Association of Lighting Designers (IALD). I have talked about this earlier in relation to my growth as a designer. In fact what happened supported and deepened my role as a businessman and thought leader. I was President for two years and on the Board for a total of seven years. This was an amazing period in my life, one of real connection with like-minded people, and successful people. Even this was a bit edgy for me, but I pushed forward with it because I was in control.

This aspect of control was so important to me at this stage in my life. I was moving increasingly away from my personal life. My personal life was becoming more difficult for me and anything I could do to get away from it was a good idea, especially if it may me feel good and got me lots of recognition.

I travelled the world for years on the back of all this. For several years I was going to the US on average about every six weeks. I had a British Airways Gold Card and life was great.

It is fascinating how seductive this can be, especially for men away from home. I was contributing in the world, I was making money, I was involved in great design work, and I had lots of high-flying friends. Who would not want this kind of life.

If I have a regret it is that I did not use all this control and success to create an amazingly successful business. I was successful, but only to a limited extent, and that did not continue, but more of that later. I was working on my issues during this period and making an effort to come to terms with what I wanted and what I could do. I went to many events by Tony Robbins, the self-help guru, learning about leadership and developing my own inner power. The problem was that for a while I also hid away in growing in this world. I became a Senior Leader and worked on events around the world. I loved this work and, of course, I was good at it.

But of course, I was still hiding away.

Avoiding People

I had to show myself and the world that I could do what I did well and I craved the recognition for achieving what I set out to do. What this does is, perhaps, divert you away from what you should really be doing. The one thing that would make me, and my business, successful, was the one thing I avoided as much as I could. Although I had contact with many people, I did not have the contact I needed with people who did not know me and might not want what I had to offer. I stayed with people who were grateful for my skills and avoided people who might not want what I had to offer.

I had always hated selling, even though I could be good at it. I wanted to give what I had to offer to people who wanted it from me. I did not like the idea of having to sell what I had to offer. I realise, of course, that I did not have anything against selling as such. I hated the idea of continually putting myself on the edge and facing rejection. After bidding for projects I would avoid chasing them up, because I wanted to avoid rejection. Despite all my success I still could not get away from this.

Next I will look at the consequences of all this, and how I had made such a mistake all these years, but for now I will hold onto the success I had and the fun I had.