Startup Life — The Good, the Bad and the Colourful!

Always got to end on a positive tone right?

So, the last while in M.Y.O has been a little tough, am not going to lie. Here I’ll run through what’s been happening, share any learnings and outline our hopes for the future! I’ve been close to publishing a few times, but then couple of weeks whizzed by, is now late July!

I (Sam) set up M.Y.O with my girlfriend Diana in early 2017. Quick recap on what M.Y.O is first, for full context. We’re an art gym for your creative muscles who is striving to provide a creative outlet to the world through arts and crafts. We host over 14 different creative classes in our studio in Borough and off-site, along with hosting tonnes of creative team building sessions, hen parties, company socials, birthdays, baby showers and stag dos! We want being creative to be how adults relax and have fun, whilst making nice things, but also so they can reap its mindfulness benefits, gain confidence and be proud! Every single day we are amazed at what guests create in the studio. Everyone is creative — fact.

Image for post
Image for post

The last blog I posted was a celebration of the 1st year ‘The M.Y.O Journey to Our 1st Birthday — Saddle Up!’. That brought us up to end of September 2018. Christmas was a whopper, we took a couple of weeks off and went to Egypt in January and really tried to get momentum going across both studios. But, it’s ended up with….

All change

So, the last few months (up to May 2019) has seen a lot of changes in M.Y.O. We’ve had some of the host team come and go, briefly had a part-time studio manager helping, left the 2nd studio in Peckham Levels after a year (more on that below), started lots of new classes, worked on a brand activation campaign for a massive FMCG company (Diageo) and Diana has returned to full-time work so isn’t involved day-to-day any more. It’s been full on to say the least!

In May last year we hosted 6 different types of creative classes and 250 guests in our Borough studio, during May 2019 it will be over 14 creative class types and 400+ guests in Borough and off-site. Things are moving upwards still and we’re so happy guests keep coming. Handling all the change has been heavy going for me personally. I have been solely responsible for operations and the business side of things, while trying to ensure everything runs smoothly, we’re getting there!

The Team

We’re super careful with who we bring into the M.Y.O hosting team and have been VERY lucky so far, everyone who has come in and we have kept has played a huge part in helping us grow, ensuring guests have an enjoyable and creative time and been patient with the rapid growth we have seen (sorry for messages at odd hours everyone!). In May 2018 we had just got the keys and started designing our 2nd studio (in Peckham Levels), still shared our Borough studio and the M.Y.O team was mainly Diana, I, Polly (calligraphy, illustration and watercolour painting teacher), Amy (lino printing) and Liberty (life drawing).

It’s now grown to over 8 part-time hosts! Charley, Georgie, Alex, Ros andAbby have come into the core team to help with general classes and Jamie Temple helps us host lino printing and occasional notebook making classes. Martha Paton, who is a very talented singer, was with us until recently for nearly a year too, but is now focusing on her music and busking over the summer (you may see her around Waterloo) — she is going to nail it!

Lesson #1

Hire slowly and if it doesn’t feel right / isn’t working, deal with it quickly and don’t let it linger as can impact the business and everyone’s energy levels.

Aside from potentially impacting guest experience, we always feel we’re one bad review away from a loss of momentum (at least in our heads!). We need hosts that are really into what we are trying to achieve — providing a creative outlet to the world! — and have had to recently let a host go as we learned over time this just wasn’t the case. Aside from being a source of stress having someone in the team that didn’t really care about our baby, it resulted in poor communication, tardiness, not doing the job that was asked, lack of innovation in the classes and a general uneasiness all round with the host as a result. We understand why it happened as the person was early on in their career, so was focusing moreso on themselves, but we need to do what is best for M.Y.O long term. If it isn’t working and after attempts are made to recover the situation no improvement occurs, an alternative needs to be found as we are paying for a job to be done after all. If they aren’t a team player, they won’t help us grow and need to go.

We’re very conscious that all of the team that have stayed with us / we have kept on are trying to carve out their own creative careers whilst helping grow M.Y.O, from theatre directing, to performing, to joining a circus to illustrating and lots more. We try to support where we can (accommodating shift cancellations if auditions / shows come up, providing studio space for rehearsals, having team socials and starting to now do co-working ‘hustle’ days in the studio so they can work on their own careers, get focus and help each other too). We always wish we could do more, but have their interests at heart and being flexible is important to us too and that of course has worked both ways. In the future we really want to be able to do more to support them as they are all very special and talented creatives who have been very committed to what we are trying to do with M.Y.O on our limited budget.

Image for post
Image for post

To find out a little more about the current M.Y.O team of hosts, check out their social channels below;

Charlotte (Charley) Ive @Chive26 — theatre director, all round maker

Georgie Jones @georgie_jonez — actor, poet, all round maker

Polly Crossman @pollycrossman — illustrator and stationer

Amy Williams @amywilliamstextiles — textiler, all round maker

Jamie Temple @templeprints — print maker, woodworker

Liberty Sadler @liberyantoniasadler — artist and filmmaker

Alex Woolley @woolleyjumper123 — film maker, all round maker

Ros King @RebelBunting — flag and bunting specialist, all round maker

Abby Hobbs @hobbbins — illustrator, all roundmaker

We’re always on the look out for hosts who believe in our mission, so drop us a mail on Hello@MYO.Place if interested.

Do you have any hiring advice that would be useful?

Studio(s)

We took over the Borough studio full-time since September 2018 and after a year in Peckham Levels, decided not to extend our stay — we’d have been locked into 4 more years there if we did as there was a 1 year break clause in the lease. Lots of important lessons learned from that experience.

Image for post
Image for post
M.Y.O’s Peckham Levels studio

In hindsight, we left ourselves too reliant on generating footfall from being in the building in general (through their marketing, signage etc) which never really ended up happening consistently and we were tucked away on the not open to the public Level 2, which basically meant we had to generate all of our own local audience on a limited budget. We could blame Peckham Levels (interesting Vice article on them here…), but the reality is that it is a startup itself, has had a lot of team turnover (over 5 different people worked on their marketing during our 12 months there) and clearly have their own challenges. The blame lies with Diana and I. We should have done more due diligence (visited their sister site in Pop Brixton and spoken to vendors there to see how it was a few years in), got firm / written agreements in advance on things (e.g. signage and marketing support — where, what, by when, by who) and spoken to more existing open to the public members there (many of whom have now left also). We took a chance on going there as wanted to have a studio we could call our own (we were sharing the Borough one at the time) and the idea behind the project is brilliant (a collaborative community of startups and creative businesses), but focused too much on the potential upside, rather than the potential downside and took what we were told on face value (e.g. footfall projections for upper levels and marketing support). This is a learning we’ll bring into the future for sure — always allow for the downside in your thinking.

But, we have to spin the positive and are genuinely really proud to have built a creative studio there with StudioHyte, from scratch, that guests loved and where 1,000s came to get creative, which was used in films and TV shows, along with M.Y.O surviving in the context of it all. We were sad to leave as it was getting a lot busier, but we have to think long-term with M.Y.O and I know a more suitable 2nd site will pop up in the future where we are surrounded by the right landlord and a thriving community.

Lesson #2

As an entrepreneur / founder, you kinda need a perennial optimism to get through the ups and downs and really accelerate growing (see Elon Musk!), but sometimes it’s important to add a tinge more pragmatism to it too, especially when self funding as each creak on the path can be dangerous.

It’s ok to think about the downside and to factor that into things. For example, with Peckham Levels, we took on a large monthly rent, needed to dedicate lots of marketing time to it and needed a much larger team to accommodate creative classes in both studios — it all turned into a big juggling act trying to ensure both studios properly stocked, classes had hosts properly rostered and all the bills were paid at end of each month.

That’s also where a mentor can come in (a sounding board), something which I have always wanted and now have through the Virgin StartUp program (who extended a loan to part fund the fit out in Peckham Levels). Thanks Sundeep! Having people to chat to who are on a similar path or have done it before can be invaluable and I feel lucky to have friends and connections who have helped on that front and it’s also why I try to do the same with others — offer startup advice and support where and when I can. The startup community in general is very supportive of each other and is so nice to be a part of. There is definitely more scope for creative entrepreneurs to work and support each other to help them grow, that is something I want to be more involved in next year, so they get the most from their talents. Tonnes of great startup podcasts out there too to get advice and learn from, like Alex Chisnall’s Screw it Just Do It and Holly Tuckers Conversations of Inspiration.

Is there any useful podcasts that you’d suggest?

Part losing a day-to-day co-founder :(

Image for post
Image for post
Diana and I

It was a difficult decision, but we decided at the start of the year (after our holiday) that Diana (my girlfriend and co-founder of M.Y.O) or I had to get a full-time job, as we were too reliant on one source of income — all our eggs really were in one basket with M.Y.O — and we want to own a house soon. As a couple, we needed to diversify. It’s difficult getting a mortgage if self employed in a new business. Diana has been brilliant and a real driving force in growing M.Y.O and it ended up that she got a job. I miss her lots. She is such a kind, creative and warm person, which I really miss being around day to day, although we did drive each other nuts at times, haha! She’s got a job in finance in a fast growing jewellery business which she started in May and is really enjoying. She is going to learn tonnes there too. She’ll help on M.Y.O in some of her spare time as things settle down and be a bit more of a sounding board now too (we still talk about M.Y.O all the time!), along with having more spare time to make. It’s a big change, but in the long-run for us as a couple, feels like the right one. To make up for it, we’ve just hired in Kirsty as our General Manager, we can’t wait for you to meet her! Find out some more about her here.

Lesson #3

You feel like it’s gonna get a little easier, then it nearly does, then you get a knock back, dust yourself off, recharge (quickly mind!) and go at it again! Those that just keep on going and don’t dilute on quality are the ones that eventually succeed — you just have to keep telling yourself that.

“Patience and persistence is what it’s all about.” My favourite saying!

Have you ‘lost’ a full-time co-founder in your business? How was it?

Hiring someone into your startup

Image for post
Image for post

Just the 14 easy steps! This has been a good learning experience for us also. With all the change, we felt we needed to bring someone new in full-time who shared Diana and I’s passion for what we are trying to do and had the skills to help us grow and increase our impact. The person coming in would hopefully stick around for the long-term and become a pivotal part of the business. Trying to figure out the best way to manage the process was new, but we ended up doing the following.

1. Quite a clear job description, mainly showing the nitty gritty of the role we were advertising (a general manager one). We wanted people to apply who were prepared to get stuck in!

2. We listed it on Escape the City, as felt the type of person with a businessy background who wanted to make a career change and was perhaps a closet creative would be there, along with posting on our social channels, newsletter and website. Again to emphasise, we really wanted people who were passionate about what we do, if they’d come to a class before, that would win major brownie points also.

3. To the 8 candidates who we decided to progress to interview stage, we sent 4 questions in advance:

  • What is current notice period
  • Is the starting salary doable for you — the hope is that as the impact of the role increases, this can go up. But, we didn’t want to spend the process with candidates who would never in reality be comfortable with what we could afford to pay
  • Do you have any questions about the role
  • Availability over next 1–2 weeks to arrange an interview, provided all appears in order with previous questions

4. If all appeared in order with the above, we then provided a FAQ with even further details on the role (which had started to change a little during the process as Diana and I started to get a little more clarity on what we needed — being honest, we didn’t fully know at the start, we just knew we’d need help with running things!). The FAQ had answers to questions like:

  • What do you like most about your job (this was us outlining why we like doing M.Y.O)
  • What are the biggest challenges of the role
  • What would priorities be in first few weeks
  • Why are you leaving Peckham Levels. This was added in case any concerns because of it
  • How soon would you like the role to start. Initially, as the process went on and we had tonnes of high calibre applicants (which we didn’t quite expect for some reason!) with quite long notice periods (2–3 months) and that we also felt we needed to spend a lot of time with the ones we liked the most as they would hopefully be in the business for the long-run, it went to over 6 weeks before we offered the role to anyone. Given that we were mainly dealing with applicants who were making big career changes, this also gave time for them to reflect themselves and ensure it was the right thing for them too.

Lesson #4

It’s ok for things to change and for things to take a little longer, provided you stay on the path to what you feel is the best outcome and keep people updated.

5. We then did the formal interview for 1 hour, asked practical example based questions (where you are almost reading more into their thought process and how they think on their feet, but also getting a sense for what they are like as a person), went through the role again, got a sense for what stage they were at in career and waited throughout for them to show a passion for what we do and the role, rather than trying to draw it out directly, which can tend to be for vanity purposes! I tended to ramble on a little too much about where we’d like to be in the future, so Diana was good at reining me in and letting the applicants talk! After an hour, this meant we had a good sense of the person, their passion for the role and also if they could think strategically / quickly on their feet.

All the applicants we brought to the interview stage were great in their own way and I could see them all really helping M.Y.O, but a decision has to be made ultimately and we chose to bring 3 to the next stage.

6. Applicants that were progressed were then invited to come to a class and sit in, just to get a sense for whether they enjoyed it, see what they made and also to get them to see what we are trying to do (a couple of them had already been to classes, which won them brownie points as mentioned above). It’s also a useful way to see does it excite them and for the hosts to let us know what they were like — the hosts will need to get along with them also.

7. We then spent 3 hours being creative with the 2 final candidates ourselves, asking lots of questions, seeing did we get along, ensuring all of us were totally comfortable with how intense the role will be and how important it is etc. It definitely can feel a little awkward in advance doing something like this, but is really worth it in the long run. What’s a few hours if you might be working with the person for years?

8. Diana and I then had a long chat about it all separately and what we felt we needed over the next 6 months to plug the gap she left and to make the most of Christmas. It was a hard decision, but 3 weeks in we feel we’ve definitely made the right one! And we’re sure that as we grow and need more core team members, we’ll involve some of the applicants we interviewed. M.Y.O will survive and thrive only if we get great team members.

10. Called to make offer to see if they still wanted it, subject to reference checks.

11. Reference checks with current and previous employer, asking questions like:

  • How long did you work with applicant and what was the dynamic (e.g. did you manage them direct etc)
  • Their main responsibilities
  • How would they describe the applicant
  • Strengths
  • Things that need improving / that I should be aware of
  • Would you hire them in the future? Don’t nab them from us! But genuine question and interesting to hear feedback to this (I read that on Google somewhere as a good question to ask and it was)

12. I then provided a little more context on the role and asked if anything else of note.

13. E-mailed across the ‘offer’.

  • Job title:
  • Reporting to:
  • Base salary:
  • Benefits: e.g. pension (a legal requirement now), unlimited access to classes (in our case)
  • Annual Bonus: If applicable
  • Probationary period: This varies, 6 months is typical in a new business / startup so everyone is protected if things don’t work out
  • Start date: Can be subject to agreement, can depend on notice periods

14. Met legal representative later in the week to start drafting the employment contract and all the other things (e.g. Non-Disclosure Agreement).

Again to emphasise, this was a huge decision for us, so we had to be super careful and ensure we made the best decision possible and were really comfortable. It took a little longer than anticipated and the role on offer evolved into a bigger one as we got more comfortable with the quality of applicants and the responsibility they could take on (we had no idea who would apply).

Would you suggest any other ways of doing this?

The pressure and a typical week

There have definitely been times recently where I feel overwhelmed having to pick up the extra work, whilst trying to ensure the team and guests are looked after and everything that needs to be in the studio is. I have been making little mistakes which bug me, but hey. Whenever it gets too much I do a little meditation on Headspace for 15 minutes in the morning to try and pause and slow down a little and it helps me to focus on what is really important that day. I miss playing sport, so recently bought a basketball and practice in my local park! It sucks not being able to respond to e-mails, return calls, do more marketing as much / quickly as I’d like, but my priority always has to end up being ensuring the guest experience is as good as it can be, which flows from having a happy and well trained team. Am learning lots on that front for sure too. Next stage though is focusing on rapid growth with Kirsty, the time to just keep the ship steady again has passed.

So what’s a typical couple of weeks like? I think this would also be interesting for my future self to look back on, but here’s a blast through the last 6 or so weeks from a quick look at my Asana (a tool to manage to-dos) and diary from April / May.

  • Packed up and left Peckham Levels, bringing everything back to the Borough studio and making that look really nice with Georgie, Ros and Diana. Updating insurance policy as a result of the change.
  • Dealing with attempted break in at studio, contact with police, getting broken window fixed (thank God they didn’t get in! Although, not sure how much glitter would sell for on the streets of London!), increasing number of security cameras on site and security measures.
  • Reducing our carbon footprint a little more by arranging for all glass to be recycled by First Mile, deciding to wrap ceramics in paper rather than bubble wrap, we already have most things go to recycling.
  • Agreeing to host a block printing workshop with Studio Bagru, which was on recently and was good fun.
  • Keeping an eye on the teams hosting of 20 different companies for creative time and 10 other groups for birthdays / hen parties / baby showers, along with the dozens of public classes we’ve had.
  • Having to clean the whole studio as cleaner cancelled late notice the day before filming by the Arts Council in the studio.
  • Progressing general manager applications, which meant I could make some nice things myself though at the final get creative interviews, yay.
  • Rolling forward our creative classes to end of August (from June) and listing on our website and partner sites.
  • Closing out group bookings, drafting and issuing newsletter (we use Mailchimp), issuing invoices, answering e-mails, taking calls, ordering stock, putting away stock, glazing & kiln firing, social media posts.
  • Providing copy for a feature in Mollie Makes, which is a proper crafty magazine, which is great, along with arranging hosting of a local journalist who is doing a feature on us soon.
  • Hosting a much needed team social as had been too long since the last one! I sometimes forget that we see the hosts all the time, but that they don’t see each other that often as is usually during the pre or post-class rush. They are an incredibly talented group who are all destined to achieve great things.
  • Paying various bills and the team.
  • Pitching for a 60 guest creative off-site session with a really well known magazine *fingers crossed we get it* and also to host creative sessions at 2 music festivals — which we got, woop woop! Standon Calling and Boardmasters here we come!
  • Having informal chats with the team to see how they are doing and if all ok / how the next few months are looking for them.
  • Sending out collection e-mails to the 100s of guests that came to make painted ceramics / pottery with us — we have to glaze and kiln fire them after the class, then notify guests when ready to collect.
  • Meeting Eventbrite to chat through ticketing strategies. [Update — Been chasing them since and looks like they have ghosted us, argh!]
  • Finalising the brand activation brochure that Diana drafted before starting work.
  • Partnering with a new corporate wellbeing platform to chat about listing creative sessions on there.
  • Issuing creative gift vouchers that were bought. Still done manually, agh! [Update — now using Gift Up, which works a treat with Eventbrite]
  • Mentoring an Irish tech startup I am helping — check out BidRecruit, a great piece of software that helps you hire the best!
  • Closing our first creative Christmas party reservation — crazy!

A lot of the above is just keeping things ticking over really, which definitely frustrates as is loads of new things I want to be working on. Word of Mouth has been huge for us as we spend a very minimal amounts on marketing. But, things are going to start accelerating again now.

The last couple of months has been the first time where I’ve really thought ‘why the hell am I doing this?’. I’ve pretty much felt switched on the last 2 years with M.Y.O with the e-mails / trying to be pro-active to grow things, 2nd studio and increasing regularity of classes (sometimes 7 days a week). Currently, it can feel like an absolute tonne of work (hours per week vary from 50–80) for pretty low pay when I look at it coldly, but then I realise self-funding and trying to build something special (a brand and business in a field we were previously unfamiliar with) whilst trying to make a real positive impact, just takes time and that I should stay patient and never forget why we do this -> because everyone is creative and we want to provide the creative outlet to guests to explore that side of themselves and feel its benefits. Just scrolling through my phone and seeing the images of what has been made in the studio, the positive reviews and smiles helps to quickly wash away any doubts and tiredness. This is from a couple of weeks ago, lovely!

Image for post
Image for post
Company team building session at the Borough studio

But, on a non-M.Y.O basis, all this has resulted in me up to this week:

  • Generally feeling a little uneasy / worried as it’s all very reliant on me now to keep it going (what if I get sick?) as Diana is at work during the day until late, so can’t call on her if stuck really (although her new employer is very understanding). There is comfort in knowing the team do a great job hosting, but everything around that sat with me. This is easing off thankfully after a few weeks of getting used to it and re-prioritising and getting some of the hosts to help on studio things, along with the prospect of the new hire, but my sleep was definitely been affected — which hasn’t been a problem since I didn’t like my accounting job in Smith & Williamson years ago.
  • Feeling a little lonely / tired and distant from friends and my family in Ireland (I haven’t seen them since Christmas!) as been so focused on keeping the M.Y.O show on the road. Diana and I have been able to spend more non-M.Y.O time together, which has been great and what we needed as a couple. I have recently joined Rebel Book Club, which has got me back into reading non-fiction, which I love and is great for meeting new people (cheers to Josh Renouf of the Bariseur for making me sign up). But, in general, have been a bit reclusive outside of work due to low energy levels — I think the 2 years caught up on me, but am feeling energised again now.
  • Out of shape and eating unhealthily! It’s summer time now, so hope this changes. Have started cycling to the studio (definitely a fair weather cyclist), going for runs twice a week and the basketball mentioned above — so getting there!

This is what setting up a startup is like, so is to be expected. With a lot of this, it’s all about prioritisation though, right? Health should really come before everything, so that is a focus for now (heading for a run shortly!). Really interesting podcast where Naval Ravikant talks about prioritising here and tonnes of other things — well worth a listen!

Reflection

“The purpose of life, is a life of purpose” I heard that recently on a @HollyTucker podcast. So true. Amongst the flurry of day to day things that need to be done, it does feel like there are little angels out there pulling us along through the good and the hard times. Whether it’s someone liking / commenting on a post, mentioning us to a friend, leaving a kind review, offering some advice, saying “contact me any time if stuck”, being positive at just the right time or a host going the extra mile (they always do to be fair!), there is a force pulling us along and we just need to keep going along with it. Diana and I are very lucky to have such a great and supportive group of friends, family, Team and guests / followers. You are all angels.

Image for post
Image for post

The future

As always, the vision is HUGE. More support for our hosts, more happy and creative guests, proper creative membership / loyalty program (we’ve done a trial), online shop potentially, more brand activation clients, more partnerships, more colour and more creative outlets for people everywhere (offices, retail sites, homes!?). A creative podcast potentially? Bring it on!

Image for post
Image for post
The M.Y.O rocket is about to launch!

Bit grumpy this, eh?

I felt it was important to show that it isn’t all magic and rainbows running your own startup, but I’m very happy to be doing it and am excited for the rest of the year and the many years ahead, I truly am!

How far we’ve come

So, since October 2017 we’ve.

Image for post
Image for post
  • Learned the ins and outs of an industry (creative) we were unfamiliar with.
  • Raised awareness of the benefits of being creative, that everyone is creative (fact!) and how enjoyable it is to experience.
Image for post
Image for post
  • Hosted over 6,000 guests.
  • Got 100s of 5 star reviews.
Image for post
Image for post
  • Hosted 100s of great companies (see left).
Image for post
Image for post
  • Worked on brand activations with Diageo’s Roe & Co Irish Whiskey launch, Beefeater Gin’s World Cocktail Championships, River Island’s Christmas blogger event, Vivahouse’s West London Launch and more.
  • Had our studio used for films, ads and TV shows.
  • Fitted out a creative studio from scratch and ran a year long creative residency in Peckham Levels.
  • Built up a team of 8 part-time hosts and now a full-time General Manager.
  • Soft launched London’s first creative gym membership!
  • Spoken on panels about setting up a startup and female entrepreneurship.
  • Had the studios used for meetings, theatre and comedy rehearsals.
  • Been featured in Balance Magazine, Business Insider, The Evening Standard, Timeout, Virgin.com, The Business of Everything, Lonely Planet.
  • Hosted company wellbeing events off-site with the Law Society, Warner Music and more.
  • Lots more in the 1 year blog here.

So, that’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed reading and if you have any comments or feedback, feel free to message in the comments below or e-mail Hello@MYO.Place.

Thanks for reading and have a colourful week, Sam

I’m co-creater (with Diana) of M.Y.O, a creative space for adults in London, where you can make things, have fun and enjoy the mindfulness benefits of being creative through arts and crafts. Think of it like an art gym for your creative muscles! If you’re interested to find out more about M.Y.O and our journey, be sure to follow me on Linkedin / Medium, subscribe to the M.Y.O newsletter here and follow us on Facebook or Instagram.

Image for post
Image for post

Co-creater M.Y.O — a creative space for adults, social entrepreneur, startup mentor, qualified accountant

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store