It's been two years since I quit my job in Jan 2021 to run my own business InfoSect. I thought I'd do a blog post looking at my second year, but also step back to see my entire journey in running my own business.
Re-reading my first year blog here, I think the focus of the first year was space and infrastructure. Although space and infrastructure continue to develop and grow into my 2nd year, I think if I was to reflect on the year, our biggest focus was people. So I'll kick off analysing how this is going.
Below shows the staffing numbers for InfoSect since I started in 2021. The grey line is the actual numbers at the end of each month. The orange line is the trendline. We've had steady team growth over the past two years and what is probably more significant is the demographics of our team is changing as we lean toward hiring more senior staff members. As we enter 2023, we're now sitting on the borderline of small vs medium business size.
I've managed some significant team sizes in my past roles, but growing a team from scratch for a new business is a completely different task. This year I learnt the lesson of ensuring you focus on the culture of your team at this very formative stage. The culture is driven from within the team, the people you hire and how they interact with others. Once outnumberd, the capability of leadership to influence culture becomes reduced.
This twitter thread about the downfall of Atrium after raising $75M in venture capital commented on exactly the same thing:
At Atrium, we hired too many people too fast and we failed to set a cohesive culture early. This is incredibly hard to change later on.
After a few challenging decisions and some help from our friends at The Expert Leader, InfoSect is entering 2023 with a solid foundation and strong culture focused on trust, respect and accountability.
Space & Infrastructure
In July 2022 we expanded into another warehouse in our complex, more than doubling our space. This allowed us to physically separate the spaces we used for research vs where we conduct our training and community activites. Our larger, light filled classroom is shown during setup below (we've upgraded the chairs since then too).
The extra space was sorely needed. You can only imagine having upto 10 random students wandering through your workspace to head to the bathroom while trying to hold a customer meeting in the meeting room that is en route to the bathroom. Of course this kicked off another set of desk builds, new boardroom tables and all the stuff we had experienced in 2021. Fortunately for us, we have hired someone to do this for us now. We now have a Business Manager that manages our facilities, ensuring they are maintained and safe for use.
If I reflect on this, a side effect of getting bigger and having more people, something that seemed to take a year and a lot of focus, suddenly feels a lot smoother and easier (at least from where I'm sitting!).
The number of training courses we deliver has stablised now. The chart below shows the total number of students taught over the past 4 years, and we see a smaller increase from 2021 to 2022, with 2022 accountable for 35% of training over the past 4 years. This was our training demographics from 2021.
Again, this seems to be a reoccuring theme, but with Silvio no longer the single trainer at InfoSect, these numbers felt a lot easier to manage in 2022. Also, the slow down in training growth and additional trainers has left Silvio and myself more time to focus on the research side of the busines.
Research is such a loaded term, it can be used synonmously with "hack days" or "free learning", and I think using the terminology may have led to some expectation issues in 2022.
So to clarify, the research we do at InfoSect is highly directed. It has fixed deliverables and in 2022 was responsible for 63% of our revenue. Without a doubt, it is immensely fun and rewarding work. As an aside, if you're going to embark on starting a business, make sure its something you love to do. For us, we love and believe in our work, and so does the team.
A highlight for me in 2022, I was feeling rather flat and stressed after catching COVID-19 at KawaiiCon (always a brilliant conference). Silvio and I were quite sick and fell behind in a lot of work. It led to us having to convert our in person ticket to a virtual ticket for the inaugural Australian Defence Science, Technology and Research Summit (ADSTAR) conference in Sydney. Out of the blue I received a message from an ex-coleague and friend which is shown to the left.
Having our business mentioned by the Assistant Minister for Defence was definitely a highlight for 2022 - it was nice to see our hard work pay off with such recognition.
We aren't great at marketing and we certainly aren't paying anyone to assist with marketing (can you tell? :P). Our tact is to just do really good work and let that speak for us. And I think in this case it did.
2022 marked the end of our 18 month research grant from DST which we received in 2021, and the end of the project culminated with this mention and this story released on the 26th July 2022. DST decided to extend our contract by 18 months, so watch this space for more in 2023!Overall, our research side is going great, with similar (less public) stories coming from our other research partners. Although training is extremely rewarding, if I was to predict our business growth in the next 2-3 years - I definitely imagine it will be in this space.
This post is already incredibly longer than it should be and I certainly haven't touched on everything achieved in 2022. But I really want to take a step back and look at the business side of things.
InfoSect by no means is a standard startup business. InfoSect was founded in 2017. Silvio and I grew the business slowly with focus really kicking in from Silvio in 2019 when he went full-time. I think at this point InfoSect was closer to a sole trader business until I moved to full time in 2021. Neither of us are entrepreneurs, instead we are a couple of nerds that wanted the freedom to focus on their passions. So take my analysis below with a huge grain of salt.
Harvard Business Review does a good post on the five stages of small business growth. At this point I would put InfoSect somewhere at the end of Stage II (survival) and heading into Stage III (success).
Stage III is the success stage before significant growth and its at this point the owner can choose either substage D or G (shown by the two blue arrows I've drawn in above. This choice is to disengage from the business management or continue driving the business, investing more into it.
Understandably, a lot of owners want to step back after the hurdle of survival has passed. Either to continue the business with some free time or to consider selling the business. However, in all honesty I believe it's unlikely that either Silvio or I will select the Success-Disengagement pathway because we enjoy the work far too much. (Case in point - wait to see us invest into our new x-ray machine this year!)
In reflection of 2022, I would advise anyone thinking of kicking off their own business that once the shine of doing something incredible wears off, there is a really hardwork and decision-making phase that follows. The decisions made at that point will affect the success or failure of your business. This phase is incredibly fun but also needs consideration and commitment.
My learnings from 2022:
- Keep learning in areas where you are weak. Some of my favourtie resources in 2022 were:
- The Expert Leader
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick M Lencioni
- Have trusted outside support and advice
- Make friends with other small businesses, it makes the journey easier
- Don't forget to look up, breath and enjoy the ride