“I avoid looking forward or backward, and try to keep looking upward” — Charlotte Bronte.
Every year since 2021, I try to condense the high-points and low-points of my year into one single story.
This year however, I would deviate from a diary-style and rather share the key lessons I am taking into 2024.
2023 began for us at SentientXT with full gusto!
Our key client monieworx was set for a major product launch, we had only just produced the commercial for nomba (November 2022) and we were in advanced consideration towards becoming the agency of record for one of Nigeria’s top 3 fintech brands.
To add to our adrenaline, we had set our sights on a major player in Nigeria’s telcoms and it seemed near certain that we were going to win it.
There were a lot of calculated assumptions, significant prospects and it looked like a fantastic start to the year.
Concurrently, we had expanded our team, recruited more talents to bolster our passionate team of magicians. New faces, new energy, new clientele… oomph!!! Sweet!
As an individual, I was elated, and doubled down on trying to elevate a culture of happiness (more on this later) within the company, whilst applying concerted efforts with Iyke to turn this idea into a business.
I was wrong.
My elation didn’t last.
Enter Lesson One.
Lesson One: Never let a good crisis waste.
In the weeks leading to January 2023, as conversations and deliberations with what was to be our key client number 2 trended positively upwards, I had intensified efforts to bolster our capacity to deliver in favour of the prospective client.
By mid February it was clear that I was holding on to the short end of the stick and for reasons beyond my influence/efforts, there was neither the opportunity to work, nor the opportunity to earn.
We had a stronger team and increased pressure on our financial projections. So, we became more daring. Courted new prospects, made cold calls, knocked on some doors, took on projects that increased our potential to earn.
As an Agency, we were freshly minted, unknown (this has significantly changed, we are fully ‘blooded’ now), and most of the projects we worked on in early days came in from people sub-contracting work to us.
Our business model and the full impact of the capabilities within our team was yet to be commercially deployed as intended.
It was challenging, very challenging to predict growth and steer the business forward as we were in reactionary mode, grappling with the curveballs the year welcomed us with.
Iyke and I intensified our pitches, in most cases, what we did was study our prospects consumer engagement and brand building efforts, identify areas we could optimise and then fashion out a brief for ourselves, with a simple expected outcome: how do we set up this business to win.
By May, we got lucky and a cold-call 360-degree pitch presentation unlocked the doors to 2 additional brands for us to work on.
As we stepped out of the pitch, I turned to Iyke and said “Now, our business model has been validated”. The context of this statement was based off the fact that every single aspect of our business had worked in unison and rhythm to deliver on this opportunity, starting with Iyke converting a lead off LinkedIn to me stepping in front of the boardroom to deliver our creative ideas and execution plans towards driving growth for the client’s business.
Beyond winning us new business, the clinical fashion in which delivered on every pitch served up ample opportunity for the team to develop their creative muscles. By my personal end-of-year review, almost everyone in the team had gone 2x/3x upwards in their ability to create magic for clients.
We created our opportunities, we expanded our scope and developed creative tensile strength team-wide.
Lesson Two: Respect preserves your business.
The power of respect cannot be underestimated in shaping the outcomes and sustainability of a business. One of my key findings this year is that what a company respects internally directly colours what it manifests externally.
A simple matter such as punctuality can affect how well a business can deliver on schedule, earn on schedule and maintain its path to growth.
what a company respects internally directly colours what it manifests externally.
Externally, it’s important to work with people who respect your business, skills, craft, essence.
As a creative business, SXT acts a trustee of the clients it serves in creating work that delivers tangible results. The absence of respect from the client/business erodes that trust.
It’s also critical that the Agency respects its clientele. No matter how frustrating situations might get, the leadership of any creative business must ensure that clientele/brands are never denigrated within in-company conversations. It’s always very easy for the team to adopt the CEO’s/Leader’s POV when dealing with clients.
Respect is evident in email etiquette, how your people are treated by your clients, how your client briefs you, and most importantly how your client defers to your internal process in getting stuff done.
Heck, it’s evident in how well your company name is written and pronounced.
The creative business is a co-creation affair. Never get in bed with anyone who won’t respect you, else you will wake up midnight in a cold sweat, locked in a nightmare.
Lesson Three: Your weakest link is your actual strength level.
I believe hiring is a unique art form. One that you can only get better at over time.
Hiring also works two ways: if you hire right and you don’t do right by that person, you lose that person… simple. If not immediately, you’ll eventually lose the person over time. In the same vein, if you hire a person and they don’t do right by the business, you will actually hurt the company by keeping them one day more than necessary.
2023 gave me enough scenarios to make the thesis that it’s not the performance of the most talented person on the team that pushes the business forward, but the contributions from the least experienced/knowledgeable person (or in rather unpleasant and extreme situations the underperforming fellow)… That person sets the bar of what’s to be expected from the entire team anytime, anywhere.
Character is a great leveler though, a weak link with great character and attitude can improve significantly over time, raising the level of the team accordingly.
Lesson Four: Work first, relationships after.
I have always believed that creative companies are defined by the excellence in the work that they do. We always seek to cultivate relationships that are empathetic, respectful and equitable internally and externally, but I am convinced now more than ever that the foundational criteria for this should be the work (the nature of it, the scope, the delivered outcomes and the commensurate rewards tied to it).
Putting the quality of our work as the most significant yardstick for tracking our performance and fairness in our dealings with our clientele has given us greater control over our business outcomes than we ever had in the early parts of the year.
Lesson Five: Culture gets perfect over time.
Building a company with happiness at its core is quite daunting. As a company’s identity/culture takes shape, the balance between co-creation and dilution becomes a sensitive one. There would be opinions, useful suggestions, my job at some point in the year required bringing everyone on board towards the big picture.
Our culture at SentientXT is spelt out in writing, and everyday Iyke and I (with the support of our Magicians) do our best to bring it to life.
We have developed certain platforms from periodic debates (SXT Versus) to Creative bootcamps (Creative Concourse) that have elevated morale and deepened our knowledge and expertise.
Within our team, we have seen friendships flourish, connections that are strong outside and inside the organisation. It’s a thing of beauty, really.
We were unable to maintain our ideal of a 4-day work week; dealing with our business disruptions have required a round-the-clock approach to our operations. I am a firm believer in the positives of a 4-day work week and I am confident we would revisit this soon as we improve our culture, become more efficient and deliver results critical to the continuity of our business.
Lesson Six: Don’t mess with the cash.
In 2023, our strategy was simple… get ourselves tested with a varying degree of projects to position for better performance in 2024. We believed that with a diverse portfolio, we would increase our potential to show future capabilities to future prospects.
In retrospect, that’s quite a stressful strategy. Partly because, we were not firm enough on payment terms/policies, prioritising certain projects than cashflow dynamics.
Every business traditionally works this way:
Value is created/offered, someone’s willing to buy it at a certain price , the cost of creating or offering that value is always lesser than the price for which it sells for. Also, this cycle occurs frequently enough to ensure that there’s cash flow in the business.
The challenge with moving from idea to a business is around the science of cash. How do you get paid, when do you get paid, how do you utilise debt and credit and the critical one: how do you charge?
It’s taken us 12 full months to have a crystal clear picture on the answers to these questions and this understanding is one of the top reasons why I am confident of our chances to win in the new year.
Lesson Seven: Never Stop, Keep it moving.
I have learnt first hand this year, that every challenge has an expiry date… so far, you are working at creating a favorable outcome for yourself, it would run its course and you would continue ever so steadfast on your journey.
No matter how tough it gets, never quit, never settle.
In Conclusion: Happiness is built brick by brick, and fought for inch by inch…
I have full faith in what’s possible at SentientXT…
We are no longer just another idea, we’ve gone full circle and emerged as an established business, fit for optimisation and transformation.
We closed the year with 2 new business wins. We are also redefining our relationship with some key clients, optimising around aligned perspectives around work, best business practices and value creation.
It’s a great place to be starting a new year: booked, busy and ready.
I am grateful for our team, for the hardwork and immense individual contributions that’s set us on the path of collective growth.
2023 was a year of immense learning, I made more bets, more mistakes and came out better prepared for a new phase of growth and meaning.
Some things have to end for better things to begin.
So I look upwards with optimism and gratitude for all things in 2023.
What a year!
It’s time to optimise magic.