Panic, spite and satisfaction: My job now

Wednesday, August 21st 2019
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The memory that comes back vividly is cycling over to the Drake’s office, on a Boris Bike. I was going to see Matt and Nathan for some reason, and then going for a drink afterwards.

I had a moment of sheer panic. Riding along, I started freaking out about what would happen if this all went wrong: if I had quit my job for irrational reasons; if I was irresponsibly risking my family’s future just because I really like clothes.

The experience ended well. It led to some minor revelations and resolutions which I jotted down as soon as I arrived. And in a way, I miss those existential moments. They’re stimulating in a way nothing else is.

Eighteen months on from quitting my job, it’s easy to feel that this new life is normal. 

Both readers and friends have asked (frequently, actually) what it’s like now Permanent Style is my full-time job. So I thought I’d try and put something down about it.

Actually, the impetus for writing it now was a reader who recently asked for my advice about starting his own business. I realised it could be useful, rather than just interesting.

Today, I have constructed something akin to a 9-to-5 existence around the process of running Permanent Style.

I work out of a club called Mortimer House in Fitzrovia, just above Oxford Circus. It’s part of a new breed of workspaces, which includes a restaurant, a gym, yoga classes and frequent events.

It was a luxury choosing to be a member here, rather than WeWork or similar. But I genuinely miss it after being away for a week. Which I can’t say of any other office I’ve ever worked in.

Half of the building is small offices. The other is flexible space where I pick a desk, take my laptop from a locker, and sit down to work.

Permanent Style publishes a new article every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and has done for over 11 years now. 

I’d say roughly a third of my time is taken writing, researching and illustrating those articles. It takes anywhere from 2 to 5 hours each, depending on the combination of calls, visits and photography.

I tremendously value the articles and what they represent. They are what I’m proudest of – the body of work, 2105 of them now – and they feel like a unique resource.

A lot of the rest of my day is less satisfying. Publishing and answering comments is worthwhile, as it adds to the value of those posts. But answering emails is a pain, and social media is far from fulfilling.

Instagram is a necessity. I know from the analytics that it’s the biggest source of new readers for the website. But the transient nature of it (how do you search old posts?), superficial content (all image, often just republished) and puerile comments (what’s the point of an explosion emoji rather than a strong arm?) is very off putting.

I just keep telling myself it’s cheap marketing.  

The rest of my day is spent visiting people – tailors, factories, shops – or doing the more serious work of running a company, such as writing a media pack and sending invoices.

Somehow, this manages to fit neatly into a five-day, 50-hour week. Or more probably – the work has expanded to fit that time, and no more.

Fifteen years of working in a corporate office has given me good self-discipline. I find it hard to take time off or go home early. But on the flip side, I also don’t really have the passion of a start-up entrepreneur – enough to work long into the night.

The only thing that’s significantly different to my old corporate schedule is the fact Permanent Style never stops.

So while I don’t work at home in the evening, I feel bad that readers have commented on the site and I haven’t published them. So my first task every morning is moderating. And it means I can’t completely switch off at the weekend or on holiday.

At the weekend I try to spend no more than an hour each day doing comments and Instagram. And I find it helpful to go to a specific room to do that – a physical as well as a mental separation.

But it takes discipline to keep up. So much easier to do it on the sofa while the kids are playing.

On holiday, I write articles ahead of time, so I save myself that third of the work. But again, separation is hard – particularly as I have a tendency to get bored on holiday, missing the stimulation of work.

That tension between work and family I would classify as stress. The feeling I had on my Boris Bike last year wasn’t stress – it was panic.

It still happens. Usually when there’s some fundamental question to consider, such as whether anyone will actually be reading websites in 10 years’ time, or whether suits will soon be as outdated as frock coats.

One way I deal with this is through an informal board of directors.

Every six months, five friends give up their evening to let me talk to them about Permanent Style. I give a presentation, I update them on the numbers, I set out our objectives - and I ask them to throw rocks at it.

We’ve done two so far, and it’s gone pretty well. They come from different backgrounds – menswear, media, marketing, finance – and all have a surprising number of views on what PS should be doing.

As with many things, it’s as useful to reinforce opinions I already have as it is to suggest new ones.

I really recommend it to anyone in a similar position. And keep the numbers small. Five is a lot, three is fine, but more than just one – that’s a mentor, and you need to be absolutely sure you want just one voice.

 

The finances of PS are pretty healthy. Advertising continues to grow, and the shop overtook it last year as a share of revenue.

It also feels like a good combination: advertising is steady and highly renewable; retail is profitable but volatile.

As I’ve always said, I never want the shop to get big – it should always be a minor offshoot of what Permanent Style does. And having the two revenue streams makes it easier to do that: there’s no pressure to get a product out early, or even a big problem if one doesn’t work out.

It’s all helped by the fact that traffic continues to grow slowly. A million visitors a year, up 8% on the previous year, up 11% the year before that. I’m sure some of it is down to the fact there are so few good websites left.

So it’s all healthy, in other words. Indeed I could and perhaps should hire someone to help me. That’s still something I’d like to do in the next year or so.

There’s one other thing: I was talking to Daniel Wegan at Gaziano & Girling about it recently.

Whenever I meet people and they ask how it’s going, they frequently use the phrase ‘living the dream’. As in, ‘what’s it like, living the dream?’

It doesn’t feel like that.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be doing something I love, and in particular to produce something that people appreciate so much. There are few jobs where someone – every now and again – will tap you on the shoulder at a bus stop and say how much they like what you do.

But most of the time it feels like a job. Daniel put it well - he said, “I love making shoes, but if I spent every minute of my 70-hour week ecstatic about how beautiful shoes are, I’d be a crazy person.”

You can do that when it’s a hobby – when it’s the exception. Not when it’s the rule.

Daniel again: “Every day you have work to do, and you have a set of problems to solve. A good day is when you solved them all, and you made what you knew you were capable of: a beautiful shoe. But you knew you could do that, there’s no surprise. It’s satisfaction, not thrill.”

I still get thrills and inspiration – products (our white oxford), photography (the current cover of Esquire), or people (Gauthier Borsarello). 

But not every day. And that’s how you get the sad situation that praise from readers seems normal, but spiteful comments hurt. (Though that might also be the evil of social media.)

Most days, when I get into Mortimer House, get my laptop and sit down, the feeling is of doing a job.

So it’s nice to write something like this and remind myself how well it’s all going – eighteen months on. Thank you for indulging me – I hope you found interesting at the least, and perhaps even useful.