In the summer of 1987 I wrote in my diary that I could never imagine being happy again. The newspaper I had helped set up, News on Sunday, was on the verge of collapse. Our 200 employees would lose their jobs and the backers would lose their investment. I felt totally crushed, and close to a breakdown.
30 years on, life feels rather different. Happy is a thriving business. We help people become more productive with their software and we help organisations to create happy, productive workplaces. It gives me a lift every time I walk into our colourful, friendly training centre.
When people ask what led me to set up Happy, it was a response to that failed venture (the book of which is titled, appropriately, Disaster). I learnt there the importance of management and workplace culture, for we created an environment in which it was impossible to succeed.
The newspaper was followed by a brief spell at an ethical pensions adviser, where I was sacked after 12 days for “having the wrong attitude”. 1987 was not my best year. I decided I liked my attitude and, instead of working for others, I would create my own business to find out how you created a company that was effective and principled and a great place to work. Thirty years on, we’ve discovered a lot but I’m still learning.
I like to think we were ahead of the times in many ways. We started carbon offsetting in 1989, long before the term was invented, by endowing rainforest. We committed to only using recycled paper in 1994. We made our salaries transparent in 1997. And we recognised the importance of both a happy workplace and of social responsibility from day one.
We started as Happy Computers, a name suggested by my friend Martin Rosenbaum in the summer of 1988 “because it reflects your character”. I must have recovered a bit by then from the low point of the previous year.
Involve me and I will understand
The first key turning point was when I attended a Dataease course that year, delivered by Simon Irwin. It blew me away. The way he involved delegates, with endless questions, laid the basis for the Happy Computers approach that we still use 30 years later. Our guiding principle become the age old saying:
Tell me and I will forget
Show me and I may remember
Involve me and I will understand
Or, as we often put it, “Don’t tell when you can ask”.
Wicklow Mill: The first training centre
Our first location, on a back street in King’s Cross, was set up in February 1991. It only had one training room but I still remember the real pride I felt as I sat there with the six Apricot PCs in my own training centre, running WordPerfect and Supercalc. With a whopping 16 MB of hard disk space, I had to delete and reinstall the software – running round the room with floppy disks – when we trained any other packages.
That original centre was established with just a £5,000 loan from the bank. We had a six-month rent free period, and all the equipment was bought on leases. Though when I calculated the interest rate at 33% a year, I decided we would never do that again. All the equipment at Happy now, even the photocopiers, are bought with cash.
We did take on outside investment later, and I am very grateful to the family, friends and members of staff who bought shares in 1994 and 2001 and to Gareth Quarry, the angel investor who made a major investment in 2003.
The Maverick approach
Happy Computers was founded on a fundamental belief that people are good, that they come into this world intelligent and loving and zestful. But we only really started to base our culture on that belief when, in 1992, I read the book Maverick by Ricardo Semler. This Brazilian businessman described how he turned his father’s factory from one where workers were searched on the gates each day, to one where they were completely trusted – to organise their work, set their own targets, choose their managers and even set their own salary.
It was a revelation. At the time I was a typical small businessman. We employed just three people at the time, but such was my level of micro-management that even when on holiday I used to ring back each day to check how things were going.
Every member of staff since then has received a copy of Maverick on joining Happy. And it set the scene for the culture we have adopted, always trying to find new ways to build trust. Now, I get much more restful time away, leaving my laptop behind and not checking my email.
Manager as Coach
Another key point was when Cathy Busani joined, who is now Group Managing Director and is celebrating her 23rd year here. She had a crucial impact in creating flexible working, and a coaching culture. We decided that, for any work request, we would change the onus of the decision: Rather than the employee having to justify their request, it would go ahead unless we could think of a reason why it wouldn’t work (and I don’t think we ever did).
By 1995 we had grown to 12 staff and moved to Rosebery Avenue. I asked the two departments to select their managers. Cathy was elected by the trainers. Some months later I was surprised to find she was holding one-to-one meetings with her people every two weeks.
I was puzzled as I thought the point of our approach was for managers to get out of the way. I found that what was happening were coaching conversations, that people looked forward to and valued for their support.
This switch of the manager role to being a coach, who helps people find their own solution, has become key to the leadership and management we now provide. 15 years later Google, in Project Oxygen, discovered that the most important behaviour of a manager was to “be a good coach”.
Over the years we received widespread recognition. We were named Training Company/Learning Provider of the Year twice (and runners up four times), were rated the best company in the UK for customer service, the most family friendly company, the best small business for social impact and – for five years running – one of the top 20 workplaces in the country.
It seemed that we were fulfilling one of the more ambitious elements of our original mission statement, to “set an example that others would follow”.
But even more important are the people who take me aside to tell me how our training has transformed not just their capability but their pleasure in using software. Or those who have created more vibrant, happier and more productive workplaces. One software coder told us that his Emotional Intelligence training had saved his marriage. And some of the young Apprentices we have supported have gone from stacking shelves in Tesco or Sports Direct to long term careers in coding.
Three decades of change
It has been 30 years of change. We set up our eLearning division in 1999, we have used Live Online Interactive Learning for remote delivery and we have a range of short two-minute productivity videos for MS Office. However, the core of our provision remains in the classroom and in facilitators enabling learning – whether to make better use of software or to be a leader or manager that multiplies the abilities around you. Great learning, it seems, still comes from live experiences with other people.
We have had our challenges. We only survived a difficult time in 1996 because the local council didn’t get around to collecting our rates for 18 months. Thank you, Camden. If it had been deliberate I think the £1 million Happy has paid in rates since then and £10 million in taxes has more than justified it.
Our most difficult period was under the supposedly small business friendly Cameron government of 2010-2015, which hit us far worse than the crash of 2008. Austerity hit our clients (especially the charities and local authorities) hard and the government decision to outsource all its training to one company led to an instant 25% loss of business.
I guess those challenges are part of running a business. Our team pulled together, made savings and turned things around, created new products and new opportunities. And this year is set, touch wood, to be the most successful in a decade.
Where Happy workplaces are the norm
Three years ago we moved into our fourth training centre, our second in Aldgate in Central London. Designed to be “quirky but professional, more Google than HSBC” it is a joy to work in.
That original principle, “don’t tell when you can ask” is still at the core of what we do – and actually a very good basis for management.
My book, The Happy Manifesto, was published in 2013 and sets out what we have learnt – in our journey and from others – about how to create a happy workplace, that people will look forward to coming to and be able to perform at their best. You can download a free copy on The Happy Manifesto website.
What next? Our Happy Computers and Happy People divisions are now of around the same size, with eLearning and Apprenticeships in addition. On the software training side we see ourselves as “the Excel experts”, creating new ways to enable people’s capability. Happy People is focused on transforming organisations by creating cultures based on trust and freedom. Our aim is a world where a happy workplace is the norm and not the exception.
And, after 30 years in business, I am proud of a company based on the core belief that people are good. Believe the best, we have found, and great things result.