July 22, 2020

Why Are You Actually Starting a Business? An Interview with Alex Bec About Nailing the Basics, Managing People, and Football.

In person Alex Bec, Managing Director at It’s Nice That and Anyways, comes across as confident and charismatic, which is reflected in the way he runs his companies. After quitting his job to help his friend Will Hudson run the blog It’s Nice That, the pair set-up Anyways, a creative agency spun off from the website. He’s currently managing director of both It’s Nice That and Anyways, and is also working on Lecture In Progress, which is helping the next generation of creatives make better career decisions.

Alex Bec has always thought about the reasons why he’s running a business, and what he wants out it. This process lets him develop and mature his company in an organic way. The culture of the Apprentice, Dragon’s Den and Silicon Valley has popularised investment and shooting for the moon, but sometimes it’s more important to focus on being consistent and building trust.

Key Takeaways:

  • Focus on consistency. When Alex Bec and Will Hudson started It’s Nice That and Anyways, they made sure that they did the basics well. It may not be as exciting, but reliability and trustworthiness are the bedrock of any successful business.
  • Ask questions. If you’re friendly, helpful and reliable, people are usually happy to help you. You have to be brave to reach out, admit you don’t know things, and be humble enough to be willing to learn, but asking questions is one of the best ways to learn anything.
  • Your assets are your people. The most important assets of Alex Bec’s companies are the people who work there. Building a sound appraisals system helped him make sure that he and his staff were both on the same page about what they wanted to do.
  • Use your passion to learn new things. Alex Bec’s passion for Manchester United clues him into lessons about management and leadership that he might not absorb in a formal setting.

How did you develop your creative agency, Anyways?

It started with the blog It’s Nice That, which my friend Will set up. Will and I initially did it alongside other jobs, but it graduated from a hobby in 2009 when 80,000 people were looking at the site. That’s the point at which we thought about making it a full-time business.

The real keys to our success are that we’re dogged, passionate, and that we went for it. We were also fortunate in a number of ways — when we were 21, it was a beautiful point in our lives when we didn’t have mortgages, or kids, or anyone answering to us or for us. We didn’t have any responsibility for anything apart from putting everything into our business.

At that early stage of development, we made sure that we did the basics well, which built up a lot of trust. That consistency led to enquiries about what else we could do. The first important opportunity we got was a big client phoning us up in the middle of that year and asking us to commission some work for them. They saw that we could write and photograph well, and that we could commission people.

“It was a point at which content — that concept — was just emerging, so we were building something really valuable without quite realising it. Lots of brands and companies were being pressured at that point to do more content, but they didn’t really know what it was. ”

So, in 2010, we set up INT Works, to show the work we were doing more clearly. In October last year we relaunched it as Anyways.

How did you learn what you needed in order to develop the business, as you didn’t have a lot of specific agency experience?

One of our biggest skills was that we asked lots of questions. We never pretend to know what we don’t. We had a brilliant network, so instead of guessing how much to charge a client, or what they were like, we’d call up somebody who’d worked with that client. Yes, I didn’t have agency experience, but there’s the experience of being a human being, and making sure that you don’t overthink the basics. If you make sure that people like your company, then it’s much easier to pick up everything else.

There’s an old adage about being an illustrator — If you make maps, then people will ask you to draw more maps.

“You have to show that you’re passionate and that you can do something different before anyone asks you to — other people aren’t going to make that leap for you.”

A lot of people whom we could potentially work with are very busy people. They don’t have the mental energy to connect the dots for you — you have to do it for them.

Was it a deliberate choice to grow Anyways and It’s Nice That in a slower way?

Sir Paul Smith has been a big influence on us. He said, “don’t spend the money if it’s not in the jar”. We’ve never taken big bets — we’ve always made sure that interest already exists. In 2009, I think that there was much less public awareness of the rhetoric and understanding of the business world.

I think it’s sad that for the last few years — and hopefully the bubble is bursting — the only way that people have thought about starting a business is through getting investment and signing over equity. Our aim was always to make sure that we had a profitable business, and that any money we needed to invest came from that.

What are the problems with this popular view of entrepreneurship?

My fear is that no one really thinks about why they’re doing it.

“I think it’s important to always ask yourself why you’re building a business. If this place were 100 people, I’d be the most miserable person in the world. ”

I think that so much is written about great businesses which have grown incredibly quickly with loads of investment that people sometimes don’t think about whether that’s what they want to do with their business — whether it’s suited to the aims of the company or their lifestyle.

I do think that a business which has been built more slowly without major investment has had a chance to prove its profitability and consistency. WeTransfer is a brilliant example of that — it only grew out of necessity, was always bootstrapped, and was always profitable. They’re now taking huge investment from the US, but it’s really exciting because those people are investing in a business that has proven that it really works.

What are the structures and processes you’ve put in place to achieve growth?

At the HudsonBec Group the most important thing for us is people. I was inspired by reading an article about the John Lewis Partnership, so we devised a well-thought out appraisal system very early on, which applies across It’s Nice That, Anyways and Lecture in Progress. It means that we have a really rigorous set of competencies that we want everyone at junior and senior level to meet. We measure people against those competencies, and that gives the opportunity to pinpoint what’s working and what isn’t.

This helped us make some really horrible and difficult decisions about people who were here. Those systems let people understand that they weren’t achieving some of those competencies, and that perhaps they didn’t want to. So it laid out what we expected, and if that suited the person, then that’s great, but if it didn’t, there weren’t any false illusions.

How does your appraisal system work specifically?

I think that management’s a very personal thing, so while we suggest certain things, we give our managers quite a lot of leeway about how they want to do the short-term appraisals.

“It’s strange because we’re a creative company, but what people appreciate about the yearly appraisals is their formality. ”

Your monthly appraisal might be in a coffee shop, or might be quite short, but every twelve months you have to sit in a formal environment for a couple of hours. We take it very seriously, and we talk about things that have gone well and gone badly. People rarely get that elsewhere, so they love it.

How do you deal with issues around giving and taking feedback?

We ran a full studio session just about taking feedback because most people are very bad at it. At the most junior and the most senior level, it’s a real killer. What we try to do is give people some tools to be able to confront it. The training that we offer talks a lot about the idea of feedback as a gift, which makes it less scary. The first response to feedback should be “thank you,” so if somebody doesn’t say it, then you can rib them a little bit about it. It makes the ritual of giving feedback a bit tongue-in-cheek, a bit jokey, and that stops people from being defensive.

How do you hire the best people for your business?

I’ve been lucky enough to have two completely different experiences of recruitment. At It’s Nice That, a lot of the people applying understood and were interested in the website. Whereas at Anyways, the agency, a lot of the work is hidden and confidential by its very nature. It’s difficult to explain what we do there because we can’t show it to people.

From my experience, this is a key issue to sort out in recruitment — making sure people understand what they’re coming to work for. I think this also gets more difficult as you expand. In the past, the best people we hired were specifically interested in the company and were inquisitive. At this point we have to cast the net a bit wider, and therefore an essential part of the problem is brand — how many people are exposed to our company and its values.

What’s on your learning playlist?

The biggest influence on my leadership skills — genuinely — has been football managers. I generally find leadership and management training impenetrable. There are some brilliant people who can make it more concise, such as Simon Sinek, but it’s more difficult for me to take in and apply to my situation.

I’m a fan of Manchester United, so reading about Sir Alex Ferguson’s incredible success tricks me to into absorbing the relevant points about leadership. Some people are good at learning these lessons in a formal manner, but I’ve found I learn best about leadership through something else that I’m interested in. So, if I were interested in fashion, then I’d want to find out all about why Hedi Slimane left YSL.

“The most interesting thing that’s currently happening in my learning and development is José Mourinho moving to Manchester United. He’s a completely different person to what’s come before, so how is he going to react to everything that happens — how is he going to build a new brand?”

What have you learnt from football?

My favourite book about football and management is Alex Ferguson’s first biography — Managing My Life, which was published in 1999. In the preceding decade and a half he turned a fading club into the most powerful club in England, cemented by winning the Treble in 1999. What’s so interesting is the way in which Ferguson brings every aspect of the club and brand under his control — from the kitman to David Beckham. And when Beckham became too big for the club, Ferguson got rid of him. I think it’s fascinating how the most successful clubs in the world are built on their brands. A manager’s job is about dealing with people, from the management of egos to recruitment, so I think there’s a lot to be gained from learning about it — particularly if you’re already interested in football.

You’ve written some articles on Medium about various leadership lessons you’ve learnt. What inspired you to do that?

In the second half of my career I want to get into Learning and Development. I think that management and leadership training can be put on a pedestal that they don’t need to be — that doesn’t allow you to enjoy it or grasp it. That’s one motivation for writing — I want to talk about things in a way that I don’t necessarily see elsewhere.

“Another motivation is that I’ve had so many disparate influences that I feel a sense of responsibility. It’s a bit morbid to think about it this way, but it’s like a testament. The most valuable things that I have are the things that I’ve learnt.”

I have no desire for scale. I want to find some businesses and ideas that I really like and help them, and help them in a more ad-hoc way. That’s why we’re launching Lecture in Progress in 2017: it’s one of the ways in which I can achieve those goals.

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