Making Meetings Matter: Darren A. Smith

Startup profile: How boring meetings led to an exciting opportunity

Darren A. Smith promised himself he would have his own business by the time he was 30. Four days before his 31st birthday he decided to go it alone, and set up a company designed to make business meetings more productive. He tells how he did it.

Startup profiles go straight to the hub of the action by speaking to entrepreneurs who have literally just started up. We find out what made them decide to start their own business, how they got it off the ground, the obstacles they’ve overcome and the barriers they still face. We’ll look at their hopes and aspirations for the future, and then, in six months time, we’ll go back and find out how they’re getting on.

Name: Darren A. Smith Age: 31 Business: Making Meetings Matter Type of business: Taking companies from ‘meeting madness’ to ‘meeting happiness’ Start date: August 2002

When did you first decide you wanted to start your own business? At college I had always been fascinated by innovation, risk and entrepreneurship and made myself a promise that I would run my own business by the time I was 30. I resigned from my corporate career, after 12 years, with four days to go until my 31st birthday.

Tell us about your business I wanted to combine a passion and a frustration. A passion for training, coaching and developing people combined with the frustration of 12 years of mind-numbing meetings. Making Meetings Matter was established to provide the solutions to make meetings consistently effective. Through training workshops, one-on-one coaching and facilitation we aim to bring meeting happiness to a company.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from? Like many creative people I was always bursting with ideas – I guess you either think like that, or you don’t, with few people in-between.

Was your decision to start a business inspired by any other companies or individuals? My inspiration grew over the last 12 years from hearing and talking about great people but mainly from reading biographies. I always found it fascinating to get into the mind of a great person and to know what made them tick. My first heroes were James Dyson for his creativity and downright stubbornness, Richard Branson for his risk taking and Einstein for being so ahead of the game.

What makes you think there’s a market for your business? Simple, how often have you heard someone say, ‘Great meeting, got a lot done’?

Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first? The first thing I did was start to write a business plan as all the books and advice said this was the right step

What research did you do? I commissioned two people I knew to ask a bunch of commuters what they thought of meetings. It did help but I would have to say there’s no substitute for trying out your service.

What advice did you seek? I have always been a big believer in continually learning, particularly from others. I began with friends and family but there is always an element of caution when you speak with people close to you because they think they are helping by putting a positive spin on their thoughts, but of course they’re not. The best advice I received was from the forum and it was from there that I started using a coach.

What other help did you get? Friends and family were fantastic but they can only motivate and support from afar. At the end of the day, it’s down to you.

Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? Yes, we have some fantastic ideas in the UK and my own experience is that the services available, whilst appearing plentiful, just aren’t able to spend the time you want listening.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. It was a disaster! I spent months before resigning from my well-paid job writing, honing, pondering and reflecting on my business plan, only to realise that the offer had changed beyond all recognition and it was a worthless document. However the thinking was invaluable in terms of getting me into the right mindset, but I am sure there is an opportunity for a creative and visual person’s business plan, rather than the dry rows and columns pull-out pages from an account’s book!

How much did it cost to start the business?I read somewhere that starting a small business will take longer than you think and cost more than you think and that’s absolutely right!

How did you fund this?It was funded by my own savings because I always knew that the proposition would always change and need to evolve and that meant that I just wasn’t comfortable discussing my business idea with an investor.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off?Cash flow is obviously imperative and I am lucky that I have built-up enough experience in my previous working career to be able to offer consultancy, which helps.

Have you made any provisions for business not being as prosperous as expected?I wouldn’t be sold bold to say that I ‘burnt my bridges’ but you either are going to be successful, or you are not.

When did you stop working? I have always been fairly adaptable and didn’t really notice the change, even though I’d swapped a multi-million pound blue chip office in London for a chair and a desk next to the gardening tools in my garage! However, I was working for a client when they mentioned their Christmas do that evening and I realised how much I missed the office parties. I took my wife out for a meal that evening and vowed this time next year we would need to hire the entire restaurant!

Are you working from home or from premises? I decided to work from home to cut costs buts also because it would give me more opportunities to see my family.

How many hours are you working at the moment?Before I started I read numerous small business interviews and books and was amazed how many hours these people were working and remember thinking I couldn’t do that because my wife would kill me! However I am working those long hours but I enjoy it and that’s the main thing.

How are you managing your day and what steps have you taking to ensure you’re able to get everything done without working around the clock? Anyone that can solve that challenge has my full respect. The bottom line is, it’s your business, you’re going to work hard to look after it.

What about staff, is it just you? I enjoy working with people and the lack of need for employees in the short term was a downside but I do have a ring of associates that I use to bring in the appropriate skills, when I need them.

Is the amount of red tape that comes with taking on an employee something that concerns you? Red tape was certainly a reason for not having a burning desire to employ people early on. I have a huge amount of material to read on employment but that will have to wait for now.

What marketing and advertising have you done so far?In truth, very little. The business is steadily expanding through word of mouth recommendations whilst we continue to pioneer and learn in this new field. I did invest some money in a website – – early on, partly to make me feel good but also to provide a porthole for potential customers.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time? Having moved meeting madness to meeting happiness for many companies, working from a large office complex and employing many people.

What are the main obstacles to growth?Being a small company and dealing, in the main, with large companies, cash flow will always be a challenge. In addition I have had to develop my personal skills as I am not a born salesperson

How do you plan to overcome these?I overcame the cash flow problem by supplementing my income with consultancy work and being very honest with clients about the short term cash flow needs of my business.

Tell us about your website. My business is not obviously reliant upon a website, but I believe there are other reasons for having a one. It strokes your own ego, which, let’s face it, needs to be done now and again and it provides potential clients, those on the fringe of your awareness, to take a look at your company without obligation.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do?It is important to make a difference for people. That sounds very grandiose, but my business is really to enable people to be happier in what they do.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently?I wished I’d enjoyed more of the tough very early days and seen them as a learning curve, rather than as failures.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business? You need to be stubborn, persistent, have self belief and prepared to accept failures.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business? Gain as many perspectives as you can about your idea, and accept that you will need to overcome their hurdles in order to make it work. See every problem they throw as your opportunity.

Thanks a lot and the very best of luck. Will you come back and tell us how you’re getting on in six months’ time?I would love to!



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