Three cheers for the bureaucrats!

June 25, 2021

Our culture celebrates those who come up with ideas far more than those who translate them into reality. Yet, says our founder, Katharine Hibbert, it’s the diligent administrators putting ideas into practice that make for a successful, sustainable business.

As we celebrate a decade of Dot Dot Dot, there’s one thing that would astonish ten-years-younger me.  You might think it’s the fact we’re still in business – but I had a hunch that property owners and guardians would choose a better quality and more impactful option if it existed.  You might think it’s our scale – but although we’re now one of the biggest 10% of social enterprises in the country, I made spreadsheets in the early days modelling what growth would look like.  Although at the beginning I wasn’t sure I could make my plans a reality, I drew up the vision of what success would look like, then I put aside my doubts and acted as if it was possible.  It turns out that what I imagined wasn’t too far off the mark.    

But the one thing I never imagined and didn’t predict was just how much I would come to love excellent administrators, thoughtful bureaucrats and reliable middle managers.  Like most entrepreneurs, I’ve always been fairly comfortable with chaos and uncertainty.  You wouldn’t pursue a dream of building an organisation from scratch offering something that doesn’t exist yet, let alone doing it with zero start-up capital and minimal business experience, if you didn’t secretly quite enjoy being well outside your comfort zone.  My personality had always led me into roles which lacked structure and where no one really managed me.  In my previous career, as a journalist at the Sunday Times and as an author, I was more or less given free rein as long as I produced decent writing on time.  If I’m honest, I found all forms of administration a terrible bore, and I avoided it as much as I possibly could.

However, almost as soon as I started working on Dot Dot Dot, I realised that it didn’t matter how good my ideas were if I couldn’t overcome the practical hurdles to realising them.  That meant things like making sure that our properties met the relevant health and safety standards, that staff had the right employment contracts, that the books were balanced and that we had enough insurance cover.  And all of that meant bureaucracy and administration.

I found that there was lots of fantastic support available to would-be social entrepreneurs to help them develop their vision and imagine their business model.  There was rather less advice available focused on the nuts and bolts of actually making things happen.  I repeatedly came up against hurdles like the difficulty of finding an insurance broker who would construct a bespoke policy for a new business model, and that of identifying a reliable accountant without having an accounting background myself.

Some of it I managed to do myself.  But a great deal of it got done through the efforts of my colleagues.  Dot Dot Dot’s very first employee, Sam Norwood, joined as a paid intern and stayed on for more than a year afterwards.  He helped me to figure out how much support to give guardians in finding volunteering opportunities that suited them, and wrote our first volunteering handbook – he has since gone on to become a teacher and launch his own charity, Write Back.  Our second employee, Saffron Clackson, took a two-year career break from her job in the Civil Service to work on Dot Dot Dot from 2012 to 2014, and built us proper HR, book-keeping and property-management systems.  And Ben Richardson – now Managing Director of Caring in Bristol, a homelessness charity – put a huge amount of effort into working through tricky issues in guardian management during his time with us as a Relationship Manager from 2013 to 2016.   It’s the same story today – Dot Dot Dot’s success is thanks in large part to our excellent team who methodically work through problems and solve them step by step.

Before working on Dot Dot Dot, I would probably have seen that kind of work as an unglamorous distraction – something that ties you down and takes you away from the big ideas.  Now, I see that building a business involves constant triangulation between the ideal vision and the practical constraints you’re dealing with.  Doing that successfully requires system-builders who pick up new ideas and translate them into practicalities, not just a room full of charismatic generalists who love to solve problems on the fly but who also don’t mind creating new ones along the way.  Crucially I also had to get my chaos-loving tendencies in check and learn to cooperate with people who like to create order. 

I also learned – the hard way – that it’s administrative details that are most likely to trip up businesses like Dot Dot Dot.  Our worst crisis, when we came the closest to failing as a business, was caused by a string of book-keeping errors when we outsourced the work to an inadequate provider and didn’t check it thoroughly enough.  It led us to underestimate the costs we were accruing, which could have made us insolvent – we were lucky to catch it in time.  It wasn’t ideas and vision that saved us in that case, it was colleagues diligently combing through the data and putting the mistakes right.

Our culture celebrates those who come up with ideas far more than those who translate them into reality.  Ten years ago, I felt the same way.  Today, though, I am full of appreciation for thorough, careful people who quietly get the job done right day in and day out.  It isn’t a toast that you hear very often but, on our birthday, here’s to the quiet, diligent people who get things done.  Cheers!

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