Here, Faris talks to AXA about launching a business during a pandemic, the best business advice he’s ever received and why ‘level of fun’ is the best metric of success in business.

Tell us a bit about yourself and how you started Shiageto Consulting

I set up my business in September 2019. If I’m honest, I was a bit unfulfilled in my previous role. I guess the frustration I had is that I’d spent 12 years as a strategy consultant where I was paid to come up with strategies and ideas, but then I’d watch those strategies and ideas slowly disintegrate and no one would actually do anything with them. And that’s quite demoralising because you’ve put a lot of work into it.

But I soon realised that my true skill was when you got me in the centre of people who maybe didn’t necessarily all agree on the same thing, and I could bring them all together to buy-in to a single idea. Getting teams working better together, basically.

At the time I never really thought anything about it, I just did it naturally but then the lightbulb hit me one day saying actually, maybe there’s a business here. So in all honesty it wasn’t a passion to build a business, it was a passion to do something that I really enjoyed and saw value in.

But that’s the easy bit, coming up with the idea. Actually making it happen is what running a small business is all about.

What would you say is the biggest difference between working for a company and working for yourself?

The biggest difference is that it’s much more personal; in all aspects. The first contract I won for myself as Shiageto Consulting was peanuts compared to the contracts I worked on for other companies, but it meant so much more. I punched the air, I leapt around, because it was mine. But similarly, when you get a lot of noes it feels so much more personal as well. When you get a lot of doors closed in your face it’s hard not to take it personally. It takes some time to get used to that, and how emotional it can be.

The highs are higher and the lows are lower. But for me the overall average level of joy is much greater, because I’m more in control and it’s all on me to engineer those high points.

You started the business in September 2019, and six months later the pandemic hit. What was it like trying to start a business at that time?

It was obviously tricky. I was slowly gaining some momentum and working out how to do things. I wouldn’t say I’d cracked it, but I’d won a few clients and I felt like I was getting somewhere and then overnight everything fell off a cliff.

I had about four projects I was working on at the time and they all said at the same time “Let’s just stop, because we don’t know what’s going on”. Of those clients, one of them was a small business which then sadly folded, the other three took several months before they were able to start anything again. So, I just had to relax, realise there was nothing I could do about the situation, and I just had to keep working on the business in the background. I was doing things like building the website, building stuff that will be useful when we do come back from this. Five months later clients started coming back, but keeping your mind active during that time was tough. I just flooded myself with keeping busy. Not necessarily business-related stuff, but I picked up loads of hobbies and had loads of structure to my day.

The other thing that helped me when I started the business was that, as a strategy guy, I planned for the worst-case scenario. And my worst-case scenario was ‘earn no money in year one’. And the fact that I had already banked four months’ worth of money before the pandemic hit meant I was already doing better than my own worst-case. So, in some ways this year has been a success, and that kept me going through during the lockdown. As I often say to myself: “If you can start and keep a business going during a pandemic, just think how successful it will be once we’re out of the pandemic.”

During that time when everything was locked down, how was your work life balance?

It was actually pretty good. You’ve got to remember why you’ve set up a business, and for me it was to enjoy the job more. I get enjoyment from doing the day-to-day aspects of my job, so actually I’ve built my business out of things I enjoy anyway. I love networking, I love helping people. I would always catch up with as many people as possible outside of work, hear what was going on in their life and see how I might be able to help; now I’m able to use that to my advantage as a business tool. So all that never really seemed like work to me. If you can bring as many elements into your work that you enjoy from your personal life, it won’t seem so much like work.

But also, you’re the boss. You can set your own limits. Don’t feel like you have to chase every pound. I always say that I only have one metric for success which is ‘level of fun’. So I’m not chasing every pound and working 24 hours a day. Ironically since setting up my own business – because I came from a high-pressure industry – now I’m sleeping more, exercising more, eating better and feeling happier.

How do you find your clients and get your name out there as a small business owner?

It’s challenging; you realise quickly that no one is Googling you personally. So it’s all about outreach. Particularly in my world where I’m selling a product that isn’t always really well defined. It’s not a physical thing like toothpaste – I’m selling better team meetings and collaboration. So I did a lot of test and learn. You have to grab people’s attention where you can.

I started off by sending people emails, that had some success but it was quite limited. I would write articles and again some people read them but it doesn’t always generate enough interest. So I raise my profile where I can, not only do I write articles, I create blogs and vlogs, I get on podcasts, I do radio shows, I speak at conferences and it’s really a combination of all those things. But what’s been great for me is LinkedIn. I can be highly personalised with my outreach and about 75% of the time I get a coffee from it which then generates some work. It’s all about meeting people for catch ups, keeping the conversation going, and it’s amazing where that leads me.

Do you think how people connect has changed because of the pandemic?

I think it has changed. We’re all a lot more comfortable working remotely. Some things have gotten better and some things have gotten worse. And I think that really, everything could be better if we wanted it to be, but a lot of it is do with our mentality and our ability to accept change.

In some ways the change in work culture has made us more productive. When I talk about networking, I can literally do 8 hours where I could squeeze in 16 half-hour meetings, whereas if I was physically going to meet clients for coffees I’d probably only be able to do 3 or 4 of those a day because of the commuting time and what have you. So right there, that’s a potential 400% uplift in my productivity.

When I go into offices, I see junior employees desperate to go back to the office. They want a social life, they want to learn quicker from those around them, they’re sick of working in a small space, they want to get back out there. And senior employees are back because this is what they’re used to, and that tends to be people later in their career by and large. The people who aren’t back are the 30 to 40 year olds, the ones with young families. They’re the ones saying ‘this works for us’. But it’ll take some different thinking from the leadership and the senior people if this is going to be a long-term change otherwise they will just force those middle management employees back into the office.

As a business consultant and a small business owner, what are some of the problems you see other small businesses making?

One common problem I see is people throwing money at things they hope to be true, rather than spending money on things they know to be true. So, for example, someone will say ‘I think there’s a big market out there for this so I’m going to throw loads of money at it and spend loads of time on this’. But they’ve spent all this money on something hoping there’s a demand for it, rather than focusing their efforts where they know there’s a market. I see that so many times. Too much wishful thinking. They’re thinking of the solution first and not the customer first.

We can all get blinded to that way of thinking. We can tell ourselves we’re doing the right thing and get lost down a rabbit hole. You have to follow the data. Follow facts over your own assumptions.

As a business consultant and a small business owner, do you find yourself suffering from imposter syndrome at all? And what advice do you give your clients about combating it?

Yes I do, of course. Feeling inadequate, feeling out of place. The number one thing about running a small business is mind-set. I see it myself: if I’m in a good mood, good things happen at work. I have more confidence, I have better meetings, I’m more productive. But when I’m in a not so good mood, I find myself being a bit lazier, I might not have the most engaging meetings, and then you start to think ‘oh maybe I’m not good at this, maybe it’s just luck that I’ve gotten to where I am’. But the key is to get through these little lulls in confidence quickly. Have these little techniques to get you back to being that more confident version of yourself.

Think back to your successes. Find the triggers that put you in a more positive mood, and they could be stupid things... Drinking from your favourite mug, singing a song to put you in the right frame of mind, looking back at a previous piece of work that was really successful. Get back into the groove and get back out there. And have a good support network around you. If you’re just doing this on your own all the time, it’s so hard and that definitely leads to imposter syndrome too.

Where does a business consultant turn for advice about running your business?

Everywhere really. You get advice from your network, your friends down the pub, your clients. Don’t be arrogant enough to think that you know everything. I go into meetings with clients thinking as much about what I can learn from them as I think ‘how am I going to help them’? There’s more advice out there than you may think, and that’s even before you get into the millions of articles and blogs and videos from experts online.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received?

It’s kind of the old adage that ‘there is no succeed or fail, it’s succeed or learn’. The sooner you start looking at things like that it helps you get back from your knocks and realise it wasn’t as bad as you thought. Something positive can always come out of it and you’ll be better next time. This too will pass.

For people who are thinking about starting their own consultancy business, what tips or advice would you give?

I’d say have an initial plan and then get going. It’s too easy to try to plan out the minutiae of everything before getting your business going. But it’s better to have an initial plan about what you’re selling, who you’re selling to, and how you’ll do it, and then refine it on the fly. Otherwise you could spend months building a website, planning the business… But it’s only when you’re actually out there in the market that you really learn. Take a test and learn approach.

What’s next for Shiageto?

Continue to have fun and enjoy it. I want to grow a small team – my team right now are all contractors, no one works permanently under me. But I’d love a small office, a small team, where we’re all pulling together. That’s my vision. To help more individuals and businesses to improve their effectiveness and how they work together.

Not a big business, but one where we’re in control of the culture and we can still have fun.

For more information about Faris and Shiageto Consulting, click here:


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