Starting your own business is never easy, as Manyminds’ Founder Kirsty Hulse has recently discovered. I caught up with Kirsty to find out a little bit more about the challenges she’s encountered starting up a new business in the digital and SEO space, and to discuss her thoughts on how resourcing and teams could be improved in the industry.
First things first, tell us about your current role and the project you’ve been working on for the past few months?
I’m the founder and managing director of Manyminds. Manyminds is a collective of independent experts that collaborate together according to project needs. We’re fairly new, about seven months in, and our business model is that we operate entirely with freelancers, and are more fluid about the way we work and are resourced.
We’re similar to an agency in that we deliver against the same kind of work that agencies do, and our output is very much the same. But the big difference is we have no full-time employees, and it is essentially various different people working on a project basis that are used as and when we need them.
What have been the biggest challenges in getting off the ground?
Any new venture comes with it’s challenges. For us, because the model is so reliant on having the right resource, getting the right people to work together in the right way was difficult to begin with.
It was a challenge to make sure I was matching people’s skill-sets and personalities together properly. To begin with a bit of the work was being duplicated, and roles were being overlapped. That took some tweaking and fiddling, but I think we’re on top of that now.
One of the other challenges we faced was being a new business and getting through procurement processes. Being new in the industry, and not necessarily having established credentials and case studies beyond everybody’s individual expertise and experience, was something we had to overcome.
Also, learning how to do tax and VAT was the most horrendous thing. I felt like I’d climbed Mount Everest in flip flops when I finally finished all the paperwork.
What kind of team have you put together?
A lot of the work we’re doing at the moment is SEO related, more specifically tech-related stuff, and I work with some really incredible tech people across the world.
It does vary on a project by project basis, but at the moment we have about 15–20 freelancers, collaborating together on multiple projects. We have PR specialists, content specialists, data specialists, tech specialists, analysts — every element which you might see in any good digital agency, or specifically on an SEO content campaign, feature!
Personally, I like to keep the skill-sets quite niche and specific. SEO is a field where it can be really tricky to be good at everything. Some elements are super technical and other elements are really reliant on good interpersonal relationships, so there are always multiple different skillets at play in order to deliver great SEO.
What would you say are the main points of difference in the Manyminds model?
One of the key things I have noticed when working with freelancers or independent consultants, is that their work is very important to them. Ultimately it’s their reputation that is on the line, so their quality of work is always excellent. They’re much more invested in doing a fantastic job and delivering against expectations, because that’s incredibly important when you’re putting your own reputation and your own individual brand out there.
And of course it has it’s challenges but i think the raw concept is that there’s a whole world of resource and talent out there, so as a business owner who is trying execute good work, I don’t want to limit myself to a 20 mile radius of where I happen to be. I want to be able to access the huge talent pool we have in our industry.
Do you think agencies can replicate this to an extent?
Absolutely… first of all, it’s worth saying that agencies also have a lot of incredible resource too, but they can also use and rely on freelance resource to extend on that.
It might be that resource is thin if they’ve just won a new client, or they need some really specialised expertise. I think using freelance resource is open to everybody. The nature of freelancers is that they are discreet, can hit the ground running, and can dive into projects easily so there’s nothing stopping any brand or agency from accessing all the talent that’s available to them. It’s finding them that is the tricky part!
How has the brand response been?
Well the proof is in the pudding! As of today all of our clients are happy. And of course, it’s still early days and as always in business to win somebody’s trust and really get a client on board, you have to prove what you’re telling them to be the case.
But clients really like the model, can see it’s value and can see the benefits. People have been incredibly receptive and now it’s up to us as a team to make sure we’re properly executing long term.
What are some remaining sticking points in the industry you think probably should change?
I think the whole world of work is becoming more nomadic. Technology and the fact that we all work from portable devices now, means we’re not inherently tied to a single location nearly as much as we once were. And that is a mindset and way of working that’s becoming increasing popular.
I think at the moment, being freelance still has some negative connotations of someone working in their pants in their bedroom, but overall the acceptance and the understanding that people can be freelance and deliver excellent work is growing. I do think the world of work will shift to a more accepting model of people working independently and brands relying more and more on independent resource.
At the moment, it’s mainly a change in the digital and tech industries, but I think that will broaden out to all forms of management, and I’m even starting to see cases doctors and lawyers doing a similar kind of thing.
So I see a path for agencies to become more adaptable… but what about brands?
It’ll sound like a cliche, but the fact is that a lot of organizations accidentally end up working in silos, and that’s due to team hierachies, and existing organizational structures of having people in specific roles, with specific remits, where people tend to stick to that role and that remit.
Teams ultimately become siloed, and a lot of the brands I work with still work in incredibly separate teams across different channels. I think everybody has an awareness that silos probably aren’t a great thing for cross collaboration, and I do think it requires a shift in the cultural mindset to overcome.
The awareness is there though, and a huge global corporate brand I know, was a few years ago, in the process of changing their whole office to a hotdesking environment. The fact that a huge global organization was committed to changing their entire office to hotdesks is indicative of people starting to understand and acknowledge that you should probably work in terms of projects, rather that around specific roles and remits.
It’s more effective to have teams of people who work together and have a single remit of delivering against a project, rather than one individual person having a specific area that they look after. And I think that the culture within brands will continue to change to support that.
How do you keep the projects across channels consistent and also maintain that flexibility and fluidity of resources?
That’s one of the questions we get asked a lot, and there’s ways you can build that in. It’s important to be fluid, but at the same time processes are hugely, hugely important. As is having quite vigorous task management processes that are managed from a centralised basis. At Manyminds, I work with a couple of really good project managers, and they keep everyone on task and make sure the output is consistent.
Consistency is something that the brand would have to own. Working with freelancers tends to be on a project capacity where a brand needs someone super specialised for a certain amount of time to deliver on a specific area. So in that sense, for brands it is a little bit more easier to manage than having multiple different freelancers on a maintained capacity.
Also, I’ve realised that learning to write a good detailed brief is one of the most important things for anybody who ever works with another person. And something i’m still trying to get better at!
How do you approach internal culture?
In terms of building culture, we implement it in the same way any other agency does. We have team days, and recently we took a helicopter ride across New York. We hire houses and villas for conferences, and we try to bring about that idea of a team, or a culture, even when people aren’t necessarily employed by us or working under the same roof. So we still get that fun stuff from an agency that is building an internal culture.
Essentially we try and treat our freelancers with all the perks they might get in an agency but whilst maintaining that autonomy for them to manage their own workload, and to pick work that they want to do.
Do agency teams need to be more ‘fluid’ in the way they resource skills and expertise?
Talking about Manyminds is a tricky one, but I do firmly believe that working with independent resource to execute against a project, is ultimately a very powerful thing. I genuinely believe you can deliver incredible work when have flexibility and fluidity to get the best people working together!
Also, I wan’t to be clear in that I don’t want to come across as saying that traditional agency models don’t have a place, and that they don’t equally do excellent work. They have quality, scale and consistency, and that’s important.
However, I do think that agencies need to get better at being more fluid in terms of billing structures and how they deliver against and service clients.
At the moment, it’s not uncommon for some agencies to shoehorn clients into their existing agency structures, so clients get different levels of service, because that is what the agency offers. The agencies have their internal heirachys of account managers, client service managers, account directors and so on, and they can tend to slot clients into that structure. That’s not always good for a client and aligned with what a client necessarily needs.
So it would be good for agencies to start delivering against projects according to the specifics of what a client brief entails, rather than applying their structure!