Signing off for 2023.

18 December 2023
Read time: 15 mins

Written by:
Graeme Leighfield.

Wow - what a year. I can't think of a more accurate way to start this blog. 

This year has been a rollercoaster filled with ups and downs, excitement and absolute fear. All in equal portions.

2023 has been hard. The hardest in my 10 years of running the business so sit back, read on, and if there is something in this article that benefits others in some positive way, I'll be able to look back on these past 12 challenging months with a smile.

The office.

So let's start on a high - the office! As mentioned at the end of my article last year, we successfully made our move into our fantastic new premises on 1st March, and it now feels very much like home. However, it wasn't all plain sailing.

A week before we got the keys the quote came in from the contractors, and it was three times over our clearly stated budget (I put that in bold, as it was clearer than clear!) I can't describe how I felt at that moment as it was honestly all a bit of a haze. All I knew was that I had to get into the space. I immediately walked down the road with Carly (she could tell something was seriously wrong), we went into the now near-empty space - I sat in the corner of what is our now Lancaster meeting room and cried.

After a few minutes of letting it out, (and a very much-needed hug) I explained the situation to Carly. There was a lot to take into account:

I believed in my heart and my head due to research I had done prior that the refit could be done. So I stood up - looked at a little wooden stripe that used to hold a picture up - approached it, and pulled it.

The wooden stripe came off with little to no effort. I looked surprised, I glanced over at Carly, and she simply said to me "You know what to do". 

I walked back down to our current office, cleared the whiteboard, cleared my calendar, started a new spreadsheet, and got to it. What happened next was nothing short of complete luck. I knew all the tradespeople from previous personal works, and every single one of them came through. I cannot express the feeling of relief that came through from knowing that not only I was making progress towards making this dream real - but I now had trusted people around me.

After that weekend - I had a whole project plan in place. Timescales were set, budgets defined and this now once powerful feeling of dread and worry had turned into excitement! Fast forward 6 weeks, lots of late nights, early mornings, literal blood sweat and tears and we were moving in!

It seems surreal writing this now at the end of the year and being sat in this wonderful space writing this article. It feels only right to give a massive shout-out to all of those involved in the project. I will be forever grateful to each and every one of you.

Below are a few pictures I put together, each with very fond memories, and each - with its own story to tell! 

A few pictures of my favourite moments during the project.

Pictures of the final place really don't do it justice - so here's a recent video we made - enjoy!

A promotional video of our office space!

We became B-Corp Certified.

When I first became aware of the B-Corp movement, I knew it was something that I'd like to work towards. In March this year, we were proud to officially receive our B-Corp certification

This is one of my proudest achievements to date - building a business that has been recognised as a force for good - both to the employees that work here, but also to the local community and environment. All of these things are personally very important to me.

Our B-CORP status in the office.

We had a birthday! 

We turned 10, and in true GEL Studios fashion - we threw a party!

It was fantastic to see so many faces join us to celebrate this milestone, the timing was perfect in terms of the office being complete, and it was the perfect venue to host. A massive thank you to everyone who came and enjoyed this with us.

We also made a special version of our logo to celebrate our 10 years in business - and yes, I know it's a short step from Marvels 10 year logo. However for those who know me and the business - I hope you'll agree that it's very fitting!

Our 10 year GEL Studios celebratory logo.

The team.

We said goodbye to Jeanne, Nate, and Phil as they moved on to new opportunities. I'd like to thank each of you for your time with us, for all the laughs, and memories - and wish you all the best in the future.

We welcomed Ben and Beth to our marketing team in the last quarter of the year - I hope you've enjoyed things so far! 

It's been fantastic to witness everyone in the team develop further into their roles and continue to make a fantastic contribution to all that we do each and every day. Thank you for all that you do.

Changing for the future. It's been hard.

Let's now talk about some of the hard stuff - the challenging things. Some of the things that have kept me awake at night. 

It's fair to say that I never expected the business to be like "this". It's grown beyond my wildest dreams and that's great, but if it doesn't have a purpose, every day can become the same. This year it's all been about me finding focus, defining purpose, and understanding what that looks like. However, to do this I've had to accept that there are harsh changes that need to be made. As a "pleaser", this is something that I struggle with. "Why can't we help everyone?", "Why can't we provide something that's good for everyone?" those are common thoughts of mine. But the reality is that it's just not possible. This has been niggling at me for the past 24/36 months and made apparent over the past 12.

The right types of clients to work with, and on the right amount of work. What I've learnt (and continue to learn) as a leader is that if the work isn't rewarding, or to an end that is motivating, how can I expect my team to put their best foot forward? It's easy for me to align myself as the company owner (every piece of work contributes to our totals) however that's not the case with employees. The result? Working on those accounts that are a few hours a month, we don't see the impact, the work isn't rewarding - no one is happy. It's just not sustainable.

The change we're making is bold. Moving forward we will only work with clients that have 3 days or more a month to invest in our services. After reviewing all our services and how we approach them, this is where we feel we can make the most impact, and ensure we have enough contact with our clients to ensure a healthy working relationship. Clients benefit because we can be involved with the plans for the future and input our knowledge/wisdom instead of simply being reactive to changes.

We must get better at setting goals. Simply put we've lost clients due to us doing work but not clearly defining the parameters for success from the beginning. Due to us losing several key accounts we've started to look deeply inwards about how we approach things. I've even done a few videos addressing these issues. We're starting to put things in place and getting great results but to reflect upon how we got here I feel is important to share.

As mentioned above, I'm a "pleaser" so when any enquiry comes to us, we collectively all want to help as quickly as possible. We built packages, based on hours, when instead we should have taken the time to understand their needs better this is where the problem lies.

As part of our initial fact-finding with a prospect, we ask if they are going out to anyone else.  The answer is 9/10 a "yes" so then the haste kicks in. We feel (or should I say felt) that we have to convert that prospect ASAP. We've got great processes here and they've served us well for years, so we have all the ability to speak to someone one day and be working on their account the next. It's worked great for us with websites - but marketing? It's a whole different game.

In short for fear of losing the deal, we've rapidly onboarded clients, without clearly defining goals, shared our work after a period of time, and it's not always hit the spot. The result? A short-term win for onboarding a new client (here's one of those ups) and then 6 months later they leave (the down).

So what are we doing now?

  1. We're slowing down. If a prospect doesn't understand why we need to spend 2/3 sessions identifying their goals and needs then we know (again with the gift of hindsight) that they probably aren't a good fit for us. We can then refer them to one of our trusted partners to help.
  2. We're redefining all of our messaging so that from the outset, those prospects know we're different.
  3. Coupled with the minimum time, this enables us to have frequent and meaningful check-ins with our clients, ensuring we're all aligned in terms of the goals/purpose and expectations are clear.

We're already seeing great results from this shift. I just wish we had the confidence to do this years ago. I guess the saying two steps forward, one step back is very appropriate here.

No longer targeting development-focused projects.

Possibly the hardest shift this year was the decision that we will no longer continue with highly technical projects in-house. As a developer myself, this is a bitter, bitter pill to swallow, but I do so because I now have a clear vision of where we're going.

This decision was not taken lightly, however looking at a whole host of data pretty much every technical project was over time, over budget, masses of scope creep, and filled with technical debt. All things that I've tried my very best to overcome over the past five years by building a development team and realising that it was the perfect time to stop and evaluate where we want to be, and highly technical development projects were just not it.

Our approach now? We collaborate with trusted partners to deliver amazing projects. We deliver best-in-class UI/UX planning and design and let the experts do the rest. The real gift? We can ensure smooth handovers, detailed briefs, and share experiences with others to help them on their way. The absolute best bit is seeing smaller up-and-coming businesses thrive because of the work we refer to them. It's a fantastic feeling to go the whole circle, and whilst we might not do the development for those types of projects in-house anymore, I get a great sense of satisfaction knowing we get to enable others to thrive off of larger projects that normally they would not have access to.

Graeme holding a meeting with the team

More great work for good causes.

This year we've worked on so much amazing work for others that need help. Below is a list (thanks for putting this together Lewis!) that shows just some of the projects we've assisted in either pro-bono or partially funding.

Our commitment to doing good was recognised when we won the Techspark community award in July. This award means so very much to me. I hope it's the first of many.

Our sponsorship of the beer festival

A photo at the old town beer festival - all the green! Green beer, (Sign of spring) with our advertisment behind - it was all about the timing for this shot! 

"Inspiring change through creativity".

Our vision has never been clearer - it's now part of our daily language. We'll continue to explore behaviours that represent this, however as a recap our current two are:

Brave - Have the tough conversations that are needed, something said is better than being bottled up. Something doesn't "feel" right? Share with our peers. 

Curious - Explore, uncover, try. Leave no stone unturned - who knows? That crazy idea might just be perfect!

 I look forward to what other behaviours we'll uncover next year!

Next year.

We have lots planned in 2024 - so stay tuned to all our channels for updates, however here are some goals that I can share right now:

In closing. 

2023 has been a hard year. For me personally, I've had to learn a lot. What the business needs of me now is very different to what it once was. I've found making the decisions that have needed to be made tough, as they contradict almost a decade's worth of choices. However, I take comfort in the vision moving forward and the words of reassurance I get from trusted peers when I share with them the reasons why. It's because of that "why", that I'll be doing much more to share this with others in the hope that they can learn from our (or my?!) mistakes. 

2024 is set to be our best year yet but what is coming will be hard work for all involved. That hard work is going to be met with effort, determination and a smile instead of fear.

To my team, thank you once again for an amazing year. None of this would be possible without each and every one of you (past and present).

To our clients, customers, prospects, and friends of the business thank you for your continued support and belief in us and what we're trying to achieve.

I wish you all a fantastic festive time off and see you in 24'.


Written by:
Graeme Leighfield.

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