Having started his work with a portfolio career, before it was even known as a portfolio career, Anthony Main has gone on to create The Distance, an award-winning App Agency, and is now looking back to his earlier roots to carve out his next chapter.
Lexi caught up with Anthony on our podcast series PortfolioCast to discuss fuelling your entrepreneurial spirit, disconnecting to create better balance, networking consciously – even online, sharing and keeping it human, and making little pivots, not full 180s.
Q: Before you created The Distance, you were a freelancer – the portfolio career path that many have taken. How did you use your freelancing portfolio career to your benefit?
A: I’ve never really thought about it like that. There was a lot I learned without realising it. When I had a full time job, I also had lots of freelance work on the side. So when I actually did step out into the business world of my own, with my business, I actually already had a wealth of portfolio and customers and everything else.
In my first year, I earnt the same as I did in my full time job. And that was only because I had already created this collection of existing clients, and everything else. So without realising it, I guess I did have a portfolio career.
When I stepped out, I relied heavily on my network. Before, I’d had six full time jobs at various agencies around Yorkshire. And if it wasn’t for those and the close relationships I built in every single one of those agencies, the startup business I had, and the immediate clients I had, I wouldn’t have got anywhere.
I didn’t know how to do sales, I didn’t know how to do marketing. It was simply I was inundated with calls from my previous colleagues and employers who needed me to carry on using my skills because they knew how good I was, at whatever I did, and it fit what they needed. That just became my client base.
Nowadays, I have a very different network. My network is now my peers, various other business owners, and especially in this uncertain time that we are all going through, they’re really, really important. I’m part of a growth group on the back of a course I did. We’ve known each other now for the best part of six years.
In the “real world” we got together every three months, and we’ve visited each other’s offices, and we know each other’s businesses intimately now. But we get together and every week, we have a call every Thursday morning, just supporting each other making, helping each other make some really, really big decisions this year. It’s been absolutely invaluable.
Q: You went on to create The Distance. This year, the business was named App Agency of 2020, which is amazing. Of course, like most startups, it wasn’t all plain sailing. I know that everything’s fantastic now, but would you mind going back a bit and talking about the pivot that you had to make to get to where you are now?
A: I guess those two things kind of came in the other way round for us. We have been through a rollercoaster over the last 12 years. At one point we nearly closed: I’ve been quite open and spoken about that in the past. But the first and the most major pivot we did was right at the start.
My skills were originally as a web developer, I stepped out as a freelance web developer. Within nine months, I wasn’t doing any web development. I was using my technical skills to embrace the mobile space, and I found it fascinating.
By that point, I’d been doing web development for a long period, and I wanted a new challenge. So I ended up merging my business with someone else, he took on the web book, and I focused purely on mobile. That’s where I planted my flag, and I’ve been flying it for the best part of 15 years now, dedicated purely on mobile development because the market just flourished.
I guess that’s one of the important things when you’re running a business, you have to look for those opportunities. I’m already seeing what potentially needs to be a minor pivot for us right now, based upon some changes in technology. And if Apple makes a decision quite soon, we’re gonna have to pivot a little bit, quite quickly.
Q: A lot of people are going to be facing the sort of struggles that you have done in the past and they may be looking with concern to 2021. What advice would you give to somebody who is having to make those decisions about what to pivot or what to change?
A: Everyone would love to have a crystal ball with the answers in, but they don’t exist! So the best that anyone can do is think plan, strategise, try and predict things.
There is a book by Richard Branson. and the whole topic of the book is basically how he’d make big gambles, but they weren’t really gambles because they’re always calculated. So he knew that he could spend £2 million pounds, taking a risk – and it was a complete risk!
So we have to be in that sort of mindset, we have to take the risks, we have to be very wary of what we’re doing. But there is always going to be a bit of a gamble. Just try and be as calculated as possible. Plan ahead, make sure that you do have a buffer or something to support the fallback plan: like we’re talking about here, portfolio careers – go for that.
If you’ve got fingers in lots of different pies, some may fail, others may succeed. And then you can quickly make your pivot decisions based upon the success stories and not the failures.
Q: Yeah, we’ve actually just published an article looking at how startups can be created from portfolio careers. What sort of advice would you give to someone who has that burning entrepreneurial spirit, and is looking for an outlet to create a new startup, potentially?
A: It drives a lot of us, and it is very, very tempting because people see the new stories of these massive success stories, that people have had with these side hustles and everything else.
The problem is, the big news stories are thin and far between in terms of massive success. 99% of startups need a lot of work, there is a massive commitment to get them over that line from a great idea to something that has longevity, as we all know, most startups fail within a few years. And it’s gutting to see.
So, any entrepreneur or an apptrepreneur, as I call those that want to focus on the app space, they need to be really, really committed. And that commitment needs to be thought through carefully because the time commitment is one thing but it will affect your family life. You have to have the support of other people around you, willing to let you have that. And as you sort of say, you need something else.
If you have plenty of cash and you can go all in, then great. But a portfolio career is the ideal way for people to support that ambition, that opportunity, but you’ve got to then try and get that time balance right. If you then look for VC funding, for example, they’re going to want you 100% committed. So you’ve got to think carefully about where your time commitment is and are you going to be resilient and patient enough to wait to get to that point of confidence. That is a long term goal, rather than just a short lived dream.
Q: On top of all of these different roles that we’ve been talking about, there is, of course, real life. Your wife is part of The Distance, and you’ve just welcomed your daughter into the world. How do you create balance between work and play and given that the boundaries are so blurred?
A: I think this is “hold my hands up” time and say I’m not a person to ask! I am absolutely terrible at this. So, it’s more of a do as I say, not as I do, answer to be honest.
It is really difficult. Running the business together has been fantastic. But it does add those sorts of challenges. What I’ve always been terrible at is being able to disconnect one from the other. And we would often be sitting in a bar, taking some time out for ourselves and over a glass of Cosmopolitan or something similar, we’ll be discussing what the next few months of the business looks like, which they would end up with heated discussion, not exactly what you want!
Now I have a daughter, I’m having to make sure I make that commitment. So I am taking more time, fixed out of the business to make sure that I get that balance. Because even after 12 years in business, the hours I have to put in every week is still more than most people would commit to their full time job.
No matter what business you run, you’re always going to find that and weeks will be long, and other weeks, you’ll have more flexibility, but you just have to have a try. I say have – try and have as much separation of those concerns as possible. And try and segment time, make sure you’ve got the time allocated in the right amounts, because work/life balance and health and wellbeing and everything else is becoming even more the headline stories of the news all the time.
I’m a very, very resilient person with pretty leather skin. But not everyone is. And you need to make sure that that balance is continuous, especially when we’re talking about the startups earlier, you’ve got to prepare for that. Because you need the people around you to appreciate what’s going to happen in the next few months of their lives. And what that disconnect is going to be like so they’ve got to think that through carefully. Make sure as a team, they’re properly committed to it rather than an individual.
At The Distance, we have lots of very, very conscious wellbeing and mental health check-in processes for our team. We recommend holiday time when we think they need it. We’ve moved to a four day working week, whilst everybody’s working remotely because they’re finding four days of solid coding etc is hard when they don’t have the general office banter in the water-cooler chat and a break over lunchtime and things like that, people do spend more time at the keyboard and we try and encourage them to to have more of a balance.
Q: As we’ve discussed, lockdown has caused a lot of changes, and I know networking is a big part of how you work. Without your original network, you wouldn’t have been able to do the things that you did when you stepped out. What advice would you give on making the most of networking in this new remote normal?
A: I think it needs to be a much more conscious thing for people to do. In the normal times, I’d be bouncing around London going from a client meeting to another client meeting and I’d have a few hours here or there to spare so I’d hit up one of my contacts and meet for a coffee. If I was down for the night, there would always be events happening, so I could find something to attend.
Those things don’t happen anymore. That spontaneity, the diversity of those encounters. You have to find them. And networks like yours and various other online professional places. We need to take advantage of them.
I think what are the events that I would normally be going to where I would do networking? I think quite a lot of them are missing out on actually having a networking session at the end of them. So it’s important, the event creators help create more networking opportunities, because the events become very dry, you finish and there’s 100 people you could have chatted to.
We all have to take advantage of it. Or we need to commit more to social media and put ourselves out there at least even on a common thread where we’re communicating, we’re still talking to people, we’re still sharing our stories and everything else.
LinkedIn is an important place for everybody right now, despite what people might think about it, and how some people are using it to share their family stories. It’s a space where people are, and they want to communicate, they want to talk, they want to engage in a conversation, because it’s just as important for them as it is for you to share it.
We need to take full advantage of these online platforms and make sure we do engage and not be scared to share because everyone else is in the same boat right now.