Both Mark and I were teachers at Hemsworth High School in West Yorkshire. I was head of humanities; Mark was head of creative studies. More importantly, he was my climbing partner. We taught in a school which had a large number of children who found learning difficult, and we used to invent all sorts of ways to get them interested and to give them an education. Then the national curriculum came in and said that we had to do everything in a particular way.
I knew that wasn't appropriate for a lot of our pupils and, after more than 10 years of teaching kids how businesses work, I decided it would be a good time to try to run one myself. Mark and I were on the climbing wall one day and I told him I was going to leave teaching and start a business. He turned round and said he'd join me. We had no idea what the business might be. It wasn't really important and to a certain extent it still isn't.
The theory is that in order to succeed in business, you have to be a bastard - which we fundamentally disagreed with. If we were going to run our own business, we wanted to run it in a form that we thought was appropriate, so we sat down and listed our seven ideal business philosophies. Then we wrote down a list of 50 to 100 business ideas and started at the top of the list, metaphorically. The main idea was that we would use theatre as a means of communication in business training.
We started off part-time. After three years we'd built up enough work for us both to be able to stop teaching. We hadn't taken any money out of the business during that time and it's still the way we work. We only take enough money to maintain a decent standard of living and everything else is ploughed straight back in.
Mark and I are totally different people. We are very close in age, but our temperaments are quite different. He has the stereotypical artistic temperament and I have not.
At the same time, we do have a very deep understanding of each other. Our skills on the outside look very different but are fundamentally quite similar.
We work on the premise that our friendship will last longer than the business. The business is a means for us to do what we enjoy and to make a difference. But the bottom line is that neither of us is terribly interested in money for its own sake. We hardly see each other at work. Mark focuses on the creative side and I focus on the business side.
We do have a strategic view of the company, but the day-to-day running of it is down to the managers that we have employed.
One of the keys to our success is that we don't have much in the way of ego. Ego is the biggest crippler of most businesses. It's perhaps ironic that we have that attitude in that we are working in two environments - drama and business - where ego is often king.
I do quite a lot of staff training and we did an exercise recently where the staff had to think of the worst-case scenario at work and how they'd deal with it. Someone came up with Mark and me being killed in a climbing accident. I think the conclusion was that it wouldn't make a great deal of difference, which is either reassuring or very frightening, but at least they've planned for it now.
I had a passion for acting, but a year of doing street theatre taught me that it wasn't quite what I'd envisaged. I moved into teaching drama. I taught in secondary schools for more than 10 years and adored it.
It is an inevitability of education, however, that once you show you can get results, you get promoted out of the classroom. I ended up as faculty head, devising timetables and staff rotas, which I was terrible at.
Dave used to go out running every lunch-time at school and at first I thought he was a nutter. Why would you spend your lunch-time running for miles and miles when you could be resting? But I got chatting to him at the staff party and realised he was actually alright! He's got a very dry sense of humour. Nothing ever fazes him. He's always very calm and centred. He's like Mr Spock, but there's something very warm about him as well: a wise old muse who you can go to for advice.
I was getting tired of managing anyway and then the national curriculum came in and drama was sidelined. It was something I believed in passionately and here I was being told that I couldn't teach it anymore. I applied for a scholarship and went to work at New York University for one year, doing a research degree and teaching on the side.
I was utterly inspired by the attitude and the energy of New York, of places like Brooklyn and the Bronx and Manhattan.
When I came back, I was determined to keep hold of that inspiration and to act on it. Dave told me he was thinking about leaving and setting up in business, and I said I'd do it with him. By the Monday he'd resigned and I thought, crikey he's serious.
We had a pigsty which we converted into a little office, four feet wide and about 15 feet long. Dave brought a computer along from home and we saved up and bought a fax machine. There's never really been much crossover between what we do. Dave has always looked after all the strategic planning and organisation, whereas I'm your archetypal long-haired creative type. It is one of the strengths of our relationship. Dave is a meticulous organiser and strategist and I have none of those skills. I rely on intuition and instinct. But that's the way it works. I've never wanted anything to do with the planning or organisation. I'm quite happy to let him look after all that as long as I'm able to do my creative thing - the writing, set designing, acting.
One of the things I learnt in education is that if there are very formal structures, strict management and regulation, it cripples the individuals. Our idea was the antithesis: we wanted to ask the individuals what they wanted, how they wanted to be motivated and challenged, to believe in them and let them do it, with support and guidance when they needed it. That ethos runs through the business.
It's about trusting people. Evidently, they are going to make mistakes occasionally, but if you tear a strip off them they are never going to want to try anything again because of the fear of the consequences if they get it wrong.
Dave and I don't see each other that much at work, but we know that whatever the issue we will have the same opinion: ego just doesn't get in the way. It doesn't matter who makes the decision as long as it is the right decision for the person and for CragRats.Reuse content