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Growing make:good

2 May 2019

Catherine Greig, Director

Over the last couple of months we’ve been thinking about growth in all its guises, so it felt like a good moment to share the story of make:good. It certainly hasn’t been a linear journey to where we are now, but I’ve learnt a huge amount and wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

The early days

While I was training to become an architect, I grew frustrated with certain aspects of the industry. If places are designed for people, why is meaningful engagement often treated as an afterthought? I decided that I wanted to run my own business and that it would put people at the heart of the built environment, which remains make:good’s core mission to this day.

In some ways make:good feels like it’s super young but it’s also the business I’ve been plugging away at for 15 years. In 2005 I finished my part 2, registered make:good as a Ltd company, set up a quick website, made business cards and wrote a list of all the people and organisations I wanted to work with. And so it began – five years of contacting people, meeting people, talking about what I wanted to do and not winning any projects. I was a young sole practitioner pitching into a market that wasn’t really talking about participation and community engagement in the way we see it now. There were some difficult times in these five years (not least because I had many other part-time jobs to pay the rent) but they also really helped me hone my offer, the language I used to talk about make:good and a knowledge of how the market would best adopt the methodology.

I did some consultancy projects for make:good in this five year period but they were generally small and certainly hard won. Each commission felt like it needed people to take a leap of faith that it was possible to meaningfully engage people and create high-quality projects. There were many moments of doubt, but my tenacious belief in the business kept me going.

Growing pains

At the end of 2010 I won a project that meant I could employ somebody and put all those ideas I’d been developing into practice; the business began to feel like it could work. That project was Barking Riverside, a client we still work with today. It was full of ups, downs and lessons learned on both project delivery and being an employer.

The next two years were filled with projects won and lost, but for the first time we started winning more pitches than we lost. I found it difficult to say no to projects because I couldn’t believe people were finally offering me work. As a result, the team had to grow very quickly, expanding to a team of 7 in 12 months. Oh, the lessons I learned! Leading a team for the first time was a whole new ballgame. I made so many mistakes and while the projects were good and we were doing the work I had dreamed of, I hated the business I had grown. I wasn’t being a good leader and this meant the team wasn’t flourishing. In the end, people’s contracts had come to an end or they had decided to leave, and I had started to consider whether it might be time for me to do something different.

By 2014 make:good went back to being just me and one part-time colleague. I was still very unsure of how to lead and was smarting from the experience of growth and then shrinkage. It took a lot of soul searching but I just couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do instead, so I decided to throw my energy back into the business.

More than the sum of our parts

This time I wanted to grow a business that reflected the values we use on projects both internally and externally. Collaboration, kindness, transparency and joy should all be a part of how we work and the experience of being at make:good. This is a pursuit and not something that is always achieved, but focusing on those values does mean that the team at make:good now are just a great bunch of people who all bring their best to work and understand the value of each other’s differences.

What’s funny is that when I focused on the team, the project delivery got better and our work improved. Doing better work means more repeat clients and more people talking about what you do.

So now here we are, a team of 7 once more. We grew slower, with more consideration and a focus on values. We have a great mix of projects and clients and the business feels closer to my initial vision than ever.

What I love about running make:good is that the learning never stops, but here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learnt on the journey so far:

1. Trust your instincts

When you can’t get an idea out of your head, it’s probably because your gut is telling you it has merit. Trust that feeling. It might take time, refinement and a lot of setbacks, but your belief in the core concept is what will get an idea over the line.

2. Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes

Everyone makes mistakes, but far fewer admit it. In my opinion, the only shame that comes from making mistakes is not learning from them. I’ve been able to build a much better business because of the mistakes I’ve made along the way.

3. People are everything

There’s a Maya Angelou quote that goes “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Whether that’s my team, clients, project partners or the people we work within communities, people are the most important assets we have. Building and nurturing those relationships is so important.

4. It’s OK to say no sometimes

While it’s flattering to be asked to do things, I’ve learnt the hard way that saying yes to things that aren’t quite on mission, don’t fit in to the balance of projects you want in the office or are just too far away to travel to and make it home for putting kids to bed doesn’t lead to a happy studio.

5. Take care of yourself

Setting up and running your own enterprise can be extremely taxing and burnout is common among founders. While hard work and dedication often leads to rewards, you can’t be your best self if you’re running yourself into the ground. Remember to be kind to yourself!

6. Employ the best people

Somebody told me years ago to employ people who are better than me at their individual skills. I might be the best generalist and my role as a business owner is to see the bigger picture, but I hire people who bring particular skillsets that ensure we all complement one another as a team and are always able to deliver high quality and impact.