Our latest Building Better Business guest is a leading expert on creative strategy and the business value of design.
Emma Sexton has supported 80+ successful start-up ventures with design, creativity and branding, founded the UK's first (and only) awards for in-house creative teams - The Inside Out Awards, supports students at Imperial College London and King's College London, and achieved B Corp status for her own creative agency, Hands Down!
Emma joined us to talk about the motivation behind starting her own agency, the Inside Out awards, her B Corp journey and why community is an integral part of a successful business.
Emma, your Guild profile makes for incredibly impressive reading. Can you tell us about who you are and what you do?
They're the UK and Europe's only awards for in-house creative teams. And then I'm also an Expert in Residence at King's College London and Imperial College London, where I advise start-up ventures in the university accelerators."
I've admired you as an extraordinarily creative thinker and doer for many years. You've always looked at ways to build better businesses and brands. You were one of the first B Corp agencies and developed a remote working model years before the pandemic. Why were you one of the earliest outliers?
"Well, to cut a long story short, I think I always wanted to have my own business. But at the same time, I'd been doing a lot of work around women in the creative industries.
I was a director of She Says in the UK for ten years alongside founders Laura and Allessandra. I was having deep diving conversations into the challenges that women were facing in the creative industries. I could see the problems that we all faced, and it came down to the fact that work basically wasn't a place where women were thriving.
I also felt that I didn't thrive at work. I loved work; I was ambitious and very motivated, and I worked extremely hard. But I always liken work to being a school for grownups; I didn't like the rules, I didn't like being told I only had X amount of days holiday when I was working like a beast most of the time.
Then there were some catalysts, like my sister moving to Australia. I knew I wanted to spend more than two weeks a year going to see my family in Australia. I'd also been reading a lot about the future of work. So many things added to my thinking – there was the feminist side, and then there was a future of work perspective, and there was my own desire about how I wanted to work.
I felt I'd read so much around the future of work I was able to lecture on it, but I didn't have actually any evidence to prove how things could be different and better other than "read these books; these guys have done it". I felt I wanted to do it, too.
So when I started my business, I knew it needed to be remote-first because I want to be able to work from anywhere in the world. I knew it needed to be totally flexible because I like to work flexibly and I have a real passion for people and people being their best selves. I wanted to make sure women especially were thriving in the business. And I thought if I could get it right for women, by default, it would be better for men too.
At the time, because I was using the freelance collective model, I was tapping into an awful lot of talent from stay-at-home mums who were effectively kept out of the workplace. They wanted to work, and they were brilliant at what they did. But they didn't want to do the commute or couldn't do the hours they chose.
It was an experiment that I was deeply and passionately committed to making work. And the result was that I redesigned the way we work to be able to work that way.
From the pandemic, we've all learned that you do have to lead differently and work differently to build a business that thrives in a remote world. So my hard work paid off.
But I did think I was mad for a long time because no one else was doing it!"
What about your B Corp journey? What motivated you to start and what did you learn?
"I knew someone working with another agency which was a B Corp. She encouraged me to go for it because she knew I wanted to run my business ethically, and I was doing all kinds of things to make that happen that were quite complicated to communicate.
Clients often didn't understand those efforts because it was impossible to tell them all the ways I was trying to make work better and to explain that they were buying into an ethical business.
It can almost become a bit boring because you're just ranting about yourself. So for me, B Corp was one badge that immediately explains and illustrates what we were doing. That was my driver.
I did the application myself because, during the pandemic, I had the time. There are a lot of consultants out there for B Corp, which I find curious because you definitely need time, but it's not a difficult process.
What it did change is that it set some stuff out in stone - a lot of it is about documenting things that, as a small business, we'd only recorded verbally. I really liked the way it codified the core business for me.
I've been able to go, "okay, well, that's where we're at, but if I put a bit of focus there, I could probably get a few more scores" B Corp encourages you to aim to push your score up when you re-certify every three years.
So it's been really beneficial, first, to say, "look at all the great work that we've done" - all I needed was a bit of documentation to prove it. Secondly, we could identify what we could improve. And thirdly, you have to create an impact report every year, which means we've got a lovely piece of collateral that we can share with clients that neatly sums up everything we were doing."
Tell us about your design and branding work. Have you challenged or advised clients to find better ways of working and doing business?
"Yes, I think as an agency, and also in myself, it is inbuilt. It was very important to me in our agency culture, and it was a reason we rebranded and renamed, and chose "we create better" as our proposition.
I'm a test and learn person; I'm not on a quest for perfection, I'm on a quest for better than I did the time before.
I'm always looking for incremental improvements, 1% gains. As an agency, we always had a culture of that. With my team, I'd say, "let's remove the friction". In the way that we work. With creative work, there's always unnecessary friction, and I can't tolerate it on any level.
I like to work hard, but I can't work hard on stuff that makes no sense or is inefficient. So in our client work, we looked at how we reshape their processes.
For example, when we were working with Google, we used to deliver these big events, and in the first year, of course, it's difficult, there are lots of unknowns, and you don't know who your stakeholders are. So we analysed how we worked and made an effort to do a wash-up on that project. Then we created a process to work for the next year that made it more efficient.
Everybody was on site the day before this important event for their top execs from around the world. We worked towards when stakeholders were available rather than having to wait around for sign-off. And everyone was saying, "that was even better than last year" because we put in the work to make it better.
We just work smarter, not harder. That's definitely something I think the B Corp and our way of doing business helps.
Over the years, businesses have sought us out because they like how we work and want to do more business with more ethical companies like ours.
Sadly, we have done business with businesses that want to work with more ethical companies, but they don't necessarily want to do ethical business themselves. I do call them out, not publicly. I have had to be very, very candid with some people.
There's business, and then there's ethical business. I think we're in a time when people aren't necessarily immediately aware of the difference or haven't experienced the difference.
I believe in entrepreneurship as a force for good – ethical capitalism."
You run your community on Guild – tell us about it and why you chose Guild.
"I actually have two communities, one of them on Guild, and the other is our creative community, which is all the freelancers we work with.
Our Guild community is built around the Inside Out Awards We wanted to really get to know our in-house creative leaders. We were running events, including breakfast clubs a monthly kind of coaching style call. But it was hard to connect people and create a community outside of the events. What's been amazing is the way that Guild has totally powered up the community and conversations.
Everybody who knew each other a little bit from events were able to connect. We could make introductions. It was a bit like connecting with people behind the scenes.
What we've built with Guild is a great space where everybody can connect and give. I think people love, love, love being able to give and be generous.
We've also now got a whole bank of deep insights and learning. Not only are people sharing, but they're sharing really deep words of wisdom. There's information that we can extract and package up in different ways and share with the community.
Guild is basically the steroid injection for our communities. That's the only way I can describe Guild, and it's just amazing. And with the hard work of Sarah Halfpenny managing it to this stage, it's almost populating itself. It's a lovely hive of activity."
"Building a community has made a hell of a difference."
That's lovely to hear! Continuing around business and community, is it possible to build a business, a social enterprise, or a charity without thinking about how community will support it?
"I think no, it's not possible to build a business or something like it without building in a community element. In the past six months, my thoughts around community have crystallised a lot more.
Looking back at my career, I started as a graphic designer over 25 years ago. I was in my local hometown of Ipswich, in Suffolk, and all the agencies knew each other. You had competition, you would stay in your lane, and that was it.
You rarely did business beyond your locality or your personal network, which was hard because you didn't have LinkedIn or Guild in those days. So, therefore, competition was rife.
Competition was really important but, then when I set up my business things had changed. I was running an agency in the back bedroom from my laptop, and I had access to the whole world.
When competition isn't so important, then it's much more about collaboration. And collaboration is something you have to work at.
It's amazing that we have this access to the whole world, but there's a cost – we can all build mailing lists with millions of people on, so now we all get inundated with messages and emails. We can connect to everybody – log in to LinkedIn, and you can superficially connect with hundreds of 1000s of marketing directors.
I feel like the pendulum has swung, and we need community now because it's about deep diving – thinking back to Kevin Kelly's article about 1000 true fans.
I do feel like we need community in our businesses, and community is the answer to lots of different problems we face.
Remote working is one – employees need belonging, they need purpose, and they need to feel part of something that they can contribute to. I feel businesses are now running communities, not enterprises.
Secondly, I think you need community with your customers. How can you build content, get insights, make your business better, make your marketing relevant, or get close to your customers so your sales team can form leads without community?
So those are just two examples of why I think you can't run a business without community-building skills. I can see that people are going to think, "oh, I need to hire a community builder". But no, what you need is community-building skills.
As a leader, I need to know how to instil purpose and belonging in my employees. I don't necessarily need to be a community manager, but I need to understand community, I need to understand the very basic fundamental human traits of community.
We're in a world that's so big and complex that we need to simplify it, which means developing those skills that help everyone work together.
So for me, 100%, yes – you must understand and bring community into a successful business in today's environment."
Now on to our quickfire questions. Are you a fan of business and management books or podcasts? If so, what would you recommend?
"I'm a terrible business geek – I'm trying to think about what I'm listening to and reading at the moment. The Courage to Be Disliked is a brilliant book - as a leader, whether you're doing sales or running a team, particularly if you're a people pleaser!
And another book that totally changed my trajectory was Paul Arden's "It's Not How Good You Are, It's How Good You Want to Be". That was life-changing for me. It's a very easy book, and it might have dated a bit because he's assuming everybody's coming from the same starting point."
Note: There's a free to join community for Business book fans on Guild -'Best Business Books'
What advice would you give your younger self or any young entrepreneur starting a business today?
"I would say, "don't wait". I didn't start my business until I was 37. I kept thinking, "if I just had more experience, more and more and more experience".
But nobody can tell you about starting a business, and if anything, I think the younger you start, the better.
You almost need to run a business once and learn the hard way. I feel like the ten years I've had as an entrepreneur has been like the ten years I had establishing my design career; I've been a junior entrepreneur, midweight and then a senior entrepreneur. It's a never ending journey, and I could have started that ten years sooner than I have.
Just do it."
Final question: What would you do if you weren't doing what you do now? Or where would you be?
"That's a great question right now because as I'm sunsetting my business, I'm in this liminal space where I don't know what's next for me. I know I'm only going to do work that brings me joy and allows me to work with interesting creative people.
I'll find out soon what the answer to that question is – TBC and watch this space. We'll all see what happens."
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