Nick Smith is the Managing Director of Diary Rooms, a social enterprise working in partnership with Happy Days, a Halifax based homeless charity. Diary Rooms provides engagement services for businesses, charities and local authorities. With their mobile campers and pods, Diary Rooms allows these groups to engage directly with their audience and get important feedback on their products and services.
Why did you start your business in the first place?
When I was made redundant from my previous job, I knew the next time around I wanted to do something different. I’ve worked in operational teams for a long time, but over the last few years in my previous role I felt I was using my creative side less. Sometimes it felt like I was producing reports for the sake of reports. Conveniently, Dave Fawcett from The Happy Days charity had an exciting business idea and no time to run it. I loved the idea of Diary Rooms and the face to face side of things, as well as being able to listen to people from different social backgrounds about their aims and aspirations.
What is your business motto?
Our business motto is ‘Totally Different Engagement’. We offer a face to face street research platform which can be positioned in almost every environment. We’ve found that this is ideal for social housing locations, fun days or festivals, supermarkets, city centres and more.
Totally Different Engagement is more than just a motto, it goes in to everything we’ve done from the founding of the business. From the feedback we’ve had from our clients nobody is doing what we’re doing, and engaging so directly with people who want their voices heard.
What advice would you give to anyone starting their own business?
The advice I think is most important is to make sure that your business is unique in some way, to stand out from the competition. It might be something as simple as your pricing, but you have to be innovating to be a step ahead of the rest.
What was the biggest challenge you faced starting your business?
As we predominantly deal with large organisations, the hardest thing we have found is determining who it is you need to be speaking to. If you can get in contact with the right person to discuss your service that’s great, but finding that person isn’t very easy.
Another challenge we’ve faced is to be as detailed as possible regarding our financials. It’s important to know what you’re spending and where your money is coming from so you have some left to spend on things like marketing to grow.
What do you enjoy most about being self-employed?
I love that I can make decisions quickly and change the direction the business is going in. We consider ourselves a start-up, so we can pivot without having the need for a lengthy discussion.
Another great part of being self-employed is that I get to choose who I work with. I can ensure that my team have the right attitude and drive to develop. Not only is this beneficial for the business, but it makes it a nicer place to work as we’re all on the same page.
What do you enjoy least about being self-employed?
Being self-employed means that you don’t have a safety net, and that’s the most challenging aspect. Nothing is guaranteed with your own business, even your income. Not to mention it makes it hard to borrow money! Aside from that, I love being self-employed.
Which business figure do you most admire and why?
I’ve always admired Peter Jones, who people will most likely know from Dragon’s Den. He’s able to look at business across a variety of different industries and apply sound logic to the benefits or pitfalls of each one. His family trusts’ theory of giving his children an allowance based on the type of work they do (e.g. a greater allowance if they work for the NHS) is genius and good positive reinforcement. He’s using his money to improve his children’s social values and that’s very admirable.
What achievement in your career are you most proud of?
In 2008, in my previous role, we won a National Service award for Field Service Management, beating big businesses such as Wessex Water and Fujitsu. We improved performance by 25% in less than 12 months, which improved the customer experience, created more income and made the business run more efficiently.
Where do you see your business going in the next five years?
We would like to have our business model located in various cities around the UK. We want to offer homeless or people from troubled backgrounds the opportunity to help us with street research. We can help to improve their self-confidence making integration back in to the workforce and society much easier.
We would love to be able to create our own research programs for subjects which relate to the Happy Days Charity. With Diary Rooms, we have the power to make a difference by improving the understanding of homelessness, poverty, mental health and addiction. Also, it would be great to expand in to new markets such as supermarkets and football clubs to provide them with the engagement they need from their customers and fans.
If you could invent one new product, what would it be?
A time machine! Knowing what I know now at 16 years old would have made my life so much easier. Being able to look at (and change) the decisions I’ve made, and numerous people have made, over the past few years would be amazing. Particularly with previous governments, being able to go back and change things with hindsight would drastically improve the lives of everyone in the UK.
If you could work for one company, who would it be and why?
I don’t want to work for anyone ever again, but if I had to I’d like to work in the NHS. From a management and operations point of view I think there are things that can be done to improve it. We have amazing people who work for our health service, and being able to tweak certain parts of the service would create a better experience for staff and patients alike.