As you may have seen by now, I have taken the decision to take a step back from working at Freeform Dynamics.
When I first became an analyst some ten years ago now, little did I know what the journey would have in store. As far as I was concerned with my background as an IT manager, here was an opportunity to share the lessons and experiences I had learned with a much wider audience. Joining Freeform Dynamics at first glance appeared to be more of the same – of course I would get the opportunity to continue working with Dale and Helen, but being an analyst was being an analyst, right?
Freeform’s model was simple – to offer firms custom-designed research at a more accessible price than previously had been available, distributing it using media relationships and the still-nascent social Web. The ‘trouble’ came as a deeply shared goal emerged from our research programme – to focus on how organisations were really using IT, rather than how anybody might want them to. From within the company, this seemed a most natural thing to do, though over time it became apparent just how out of kilter this sometimes was with the broader landscape of IT marketing.
All the same, we plugged on, using the funding from vendor-sponsored studies to broaden our own understanding of how IT is done. We learned, we debated, we discovered, we tested hypotheses and opinions and we fed it all back into the machine. The partnership with online news site The Register gave us unprecedented access to those at the coal face of IT – from senior decision makers to programmers, operations staff and deeply technical specialists. Working with The Register has been a fantastic litmus test, as its audience does not hold back if what we are saying does not resonate!
Being small also made us nimble and we have been able to flex with the times, riding out both the downturn and the arrival of social media to our advantage. Early on, we had taken the active decision not to write white papers – these are vendor-sponsored short documents that actively promote a specific product or approach – and to this day I cannot get my head around how they are anything other than paid-for advertising.
However, we did spot a gap in the market for orientation guidance, that is, simple to understand, balanced explanations of a technology area – what was it, where it was useful, and how to start thinking about it. As the market for hard-core research dried up during the downturn, we identified alternative revenue streams initially founded on basic primers, which led to working with Wiley on the ‘For Dummies’ imprint. This in turn gave us the idea of setting up our own ‘Smart Guides’ – these in turn have been very successful, and much-coveted.
Freeform Dynamics has grown from success to success, even though it has gone through the same tough times as everyone else, and despite internal challenges such as dealing with Dale’s illness. When he offered me the CEO role two years ago I knew I had no choice – it was an offer I couldn’t refuse, not just because of the opportunity, but also that I couldn’t see any clear future to the company if I said ‘no’. And I haven’t regretted a single moment, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Internally however, we all knew it was not going to be forever. I would love to be the kind of person who could take a role and stick with it for twenty years, but I’m not – on the upside (this is what I like to tell my wife), it’s the breadth of experience that makes me what I am. I initially told Dale and Helen I would join for two years, and then we would see what happened; while I in no way feel I have outstayed my welcome, I have had to ignore or otherwise put off a number of other opportunities and activities. Even as part of such a sterling management team, running Freeform Dynamics has been a full-time job in every sense.
In practical terms, the timing of my departure was never going to be ideal. At this point however, we have defined a structure, approach and organisation which enables the company to lead with its own agenda, rather than being buffeted by the agendas of the industry; we have a more pro-active approach to growing client relationships; we have a renewed focus on research as budgets start to free up, and finally, a reputation that is second to none as a ‘voice of reason’ for the industry. The mainstay of the exit plan was to leave things in good shape, and I believe that is exactly what we have achieved.
I shall be spending the next couple of months dealing with some immediate side projects – yes of course, there is a book in the works, and I’ll be working with Dale and Andy on some research we have been doing into more consumer-related aspects of technology. I’ll also be taking the opportunity to stand back, do some research and have a proper think about it all, something that just hasn’t been possible until now. I’m delighted to remain an active affiliate of the Freeform team, and I am not ruling out anything for the future.
Above all, I am immensely proud of everything we have achieved as an organisation. The Freeform team is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever worked with, not just in terms of competence, which equals any analyst firm out there, but also philosophy. Rather than forming an ivory tower so common among analyst firms large and small, Freeform Dynamics occupies the same space as the people it ultimately serves – those who define, procure and deploy IT systems and services for their organisations. To my very core and whatever happens in the future, I will always be proud to be a card-carrying Freeformer and I look forward to whatever opportunities may arise to work with Dale, Helen and the team again.
Onward and upward indeed!