We recruit across the digital product lifecycle. This means we get to spend our days working with generally awesome people who are doing interesting work across technology, product management, user experience, digital design, project management, analytics and insight, marketing, change and transformation and leadership.
And we love exploring what makes these digital minds tick. So we launched FFS, or Futureheads Five Stories, where we speak to people who have interesting stories to tell, to find out more about their career in the digital world, and the lessons they’ve learnt along the way.
And we couldn’t resist the acronym.
What’s the story of your career so far?
A bit like life in general, it’s complex, interwoven and not as I first planned.
I studied design management at university and quickly fell into business growth roles at traditional graphic, interior and brand design agencies. The first agency I worked with, FOUR IV, was an exciting place to be with a very strong culture, so it stood me in good stead and re-assured me that I wanted to stay on the agency side of the fence. I loved the variety, the energy and its fast nature (plus the socialising back then was awesome!).
After spells at Conran Design Group and a few others, I could see digital coming. To this day I remember hearing about blogs and spending late nights and early morning playing around with Blogger getting my head around the social purpose, not the technology.
I then did some consulting with e-tailers after learning a bunch of stuff about e-commerce and online advertising. It was incredibly exciting because it was new. I think that ‘new’ theme continues to motivate me. That’s where my foray into insight and innovation kicked in. I took a great idea that I’d seen developed at an innovation agency and built it out ready to be licensed to other insight and innovation agencies and consultants.
We didn’t borrow any money or bring in investors – I’ve always believed in building a business with my own money and bootstrapping. It’s worked so far, but it’s a big challenge and means that you sometimes move a bit slower and take longer to make big decisions. But given I built my current business during the financial crisis, I think the notion of running the business like it’s your own bank account makes you strong and robust.
So here I am now, with three businesses. My main business is Further, a hybrid tech/insight agency that helps brands and agencies understand why people do what they do. Then there’s Versiti, a very specialist research agency that provides the evidence to support change in the world of diversity and inclusion. It’s incredibly exciting as we’re unique in what we do, and as a result, we are in demand.
Finally, I’m launching a new tech business called Signoi, which is what we describe as quantified semiotics. Put simply we decode culture quickly using AI, machine learning and some of the leading data analysts and strategists. Semiotics is fascinating and more people should be doing it, but the old guard that do it are expensive and slow. This is where we come in.
I’m a restless soul, surrounding myself with much smarter people every day. That’s what drives me, along with my insecurities and fears.
What advice would you give to yourself when you were just starting out?
A couple of things. Firstly, take more risks and get out more. My insecurities stopped me from talking to a lot of people in the early days for fear of rejection. Crazy really. Everyone has an opinion, and you will do well to take it all on board and harness it, good or bad.
There are some wonderful people out there, willing to listen and help. Sure, you’ll get some good advice and some bad advice, but stay on course, learn what to take on and what to ignore, and surround yourself with people smarter than you.
Secondly, I’d tell myself to get a really great mentor as early as possible. I’ve had a few, and continue to look for more. They are invaluable. They’ll help through the highs and lows, they’ll tell you to pick yourself up and get on with it, and they’ll tell you that really, nothing matters more than you, your family and friends and your health.
One more. Remove assumptions. They can bite you badly.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love nothing more than connecting with new people every day and listening to their stories, their experiences and trying to work out how we can help each other.
My biggest asset is my network now that I’m at a slightly later life stage than I’d like to be. But I’m proud of it, and I now know I can pick up the phone or send an email out calling for help, and get someone in place in quick time. That helps enormously. And on the flip side, I try and help everyone who comes to me for advice. But it is getting harder as my free time becomes less and less.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
I used to get obsessed with what my competitors were doing, and I’d think they were bigger and better than us. Wrong. Nobody is famous, and there’s always room for more. Stay true to your own vision, don’t worry about something you can’t control.
What do you think is going to be the biggest challenge for the digital industry over the next five years?
As an employer, Brexit is a big one as there’s the risk of losing some really talented staff. Nobody really knows how it will pan out yet, but it’s going to be a bumpy ride for a while.
Then there’s the challenge of building a team in the face of changing work patterns, employee demands and the cost of being in London. So many people don’t want full-time employment, they want long-term contracts, and that’s hard on my side of the fence.
A little bit about Stephen
Stephen grew up in the clean air of Warwickshire before moving on to Nottingham and its beer-stained bars and clubs to study an unusual new degree course focussed on design management. It was only in middle-age that he realised that running a research technology and insight business could mean just fuelling his love for people-watching and making things better (and making better things).
Right now Stephen splits his time between London, the US and the internet finding research and technology talent (that’s people), inspiring new clients to use his principles and technology, and helping people solve problems using design thinking.
He has a social conscience which is currently playing out in the form of support for clients genuinely building new products and services that improve the experience of living. A new commuter train and equality in cancer care are among a number of examples.
Stephen’s been in the working world now for over 20 years, so you could say he’s rather t-shaped. He’s built and grown creative, brand and tech businesses from the ground up, including proposition development, sales and business development, product development etc. He’s been part of creative strategy teams developing consumer brands and experiences, and finally, he’s a consumer insight expert.
Want to take part in our FFS series? Say hello at firstname.lastname@example.org.