7th April 2020

Culture / Charlie Gladstone

Building Businesses to Live the Good Life by Charlie Gladstone

75 20 mins 9

FFor Charlie Gladstone (founder of Some Good Ideas) living The Good Life is a serious business. It is the ultimate goal and most important thing. He asks the question, why is success so often attributed to how much money you make? Success is to be happy. Although his methods may be simple; be kind and do it for the love of it, it is not the easy way out. It takes strength and effort to pour your heart into your work, but what you will have gained is something you are truly proud of.

I wrote these words on a Tuesday morning at my kitchen table with two of my adult children beside me. The table was like the rest of the house; utterly, chaotically messy. Stuff everywhere. A bit like my head that morning.

I was on my knees with exhaustion but simultaneously blissfully happy. Why? Well because 24 hours before, the last of the 4500 people at our family festival – The Good Life Experience- had left the site. With no full-time employees, we create a four day annual celebration of food, music, craft, the great outdoors and ideas. It is seriously, brutally hard work. We push ourselves absolutely to the limit, physically and mentally. Putting on the festival is almost a madness.

But when everyone leaves on Sunday night after four days and nights, we sit around one of the many giant campfires on site with our families, friends and inner circle of crew and we talk and laugh and drink way too much (I stayed up until 5 am this year, which was a massive, if unavoidable, mistake). We celebrate what we -together- have created and we remind ourselves that all of the brutal hard work was worth it because the guests LOVED it.

This is the essence of mixing the Good Life with business. It’s hard work but it sparks creativity and joy. That evening, social media was aflame with positivity about what we’d just achieved. As my group head of marketing, Tom Cronk, put it “there are so many positive comments on social media, it’s almost entirely impenetrable”.

Imagery by Department Two

That evening by the Campfire is the moment. The one that all of the hard work leads to. The stress, the arguments, the nasty moments with the banks. This is why I do what I do. And it’s strange to reflect that it all started differently for me.

When I was in my mid-twenties, newly married and with one small child, I took up the reins of my family business. I had no specific training, but through a mix of circumstance it was time and so that’s what I did. Our business is not large, but neither is it tiny; we own and manage significant assets in Wales and Scotland and, at that time, had a team of around 60 people and two offices. This was my destiny and it came earlier than I had imagined.

My wife Caroline and I moved from London to Scotland. She left her job as a designer of gifts and homewares and went freelance. I left my job at Warners Music and we started renovating a large, near derelict and equally remote and beautiful house at Glen Dye in the Highlands. I continued to work part time with Warners but my main focus was on the family business. It was odd really, because not only was I the least qualified member of the team but I was also the youngest.

What I soon discovered was that the Scottish business was completely on its knees; run by an incompetent, lazy, chaotic, dishonest team and up to its neck in debt and neglect. The atmosphere in the office was toxic; my uncle was a director, for example, and often refused to turn up to meetings if I called them. This same man was in charge of a department but failed to speak with them for a year. You get the picture. The next 15 years in that office were hell; I sacked the management, I clawed our way out of debt, I re-shaped and I restructured. It was -truly- horrible. It was incredibly difficult, incredibly unpleasant, brutal and strange. But I grew up quickly. I learned a great deal. It was a bit like a tough, immersive MBA. But an MBA that caused near complete nervous breakdown.

Today I still run that business and I am happy with it. At last. It’s all fine, more than fine. It’s pretty good and I love it deeply.

But, in the intervening 30 years, if truth be told, it was the other businesses that I founded and run that enriched and excited me and brought me to where I am today. I mention the family business not just for context but because I think that without the toxic environment that I inherited I would not have tried to create businesses that felt entirely different to the one that I inherited.

Sometimes you need to see what you don’t like to understand what you do like. I decided that chasing money was not my principal goal, but that chasing happiness and creativity and joy (for us all and for our customers) was. From the beginning I called this The Good Life; a life of creativity, hard but enriching work and a focus on what matters. Where I was able to work as hard on the children as the business, where feeding the chickens and walking the dogs were as valuable as doing a stock take. Where kindness, empathy, fun and community are valued above money.

The world of business is, I think, largely split into two camps. In one are those that chase money first and foremost; those that work to retire, whether in splendour or mild comfort. And in the second are those that work for love and passion and joy. And while I pass no judgement on those that sit in the former, I sit firmly in the latter. And this decision enables me -and this is crucial- to be free.

Society may view me as a weakling compared to the Masters of the Universe. And, frankly, I couldn’t give a shit.

Charlie Gladstone

Today, my other businesses, the businesses that may well define The Good Life are: our festival The Good Life Experience, two substantial food shops with cafes, a pub and restaurant, a series of luxury cabins and cottages for rental, an events space, a wedding business and a series of small retreats or micro festivals in Scotland. My wife and I have written a book on The Good Life too; The Family Guide to the Great Outdoors was published by Random House in 2012. I also do a podcast to support these businesses.

And all of these are bound together by, I think, four key characteristics.

First, that through the way I run these businesses I have redefined what I see as success. As we all know, success is so often -nearly always maybe- measured as financial success. Oh, she’s really successful. She’s got two houses, three children in private education and a Range Rover.

Yup, a Range Rover. That’s success.

Well, in our businesses the key metrics are not financial success for individuals or the company, but they are about how the people that work with us feel every day (an important distinction that; with not for). Are they happy, are we kind, do we value each other, do our businesses bring joy to customers, is our workplace fun? We encourage chatting at work and laughing. We discourage any form of gossip.

Sure, we are not creating life-saving medicine or anything except, let’s face it, indulgence and comfort. But I see it like this; we have to work, so honestly, we might as well create joy and be kind and respectful and creative and gentle and funny in our work. Yes, we need to make money and we do, or we wouldn’t still be here. But by starting from this base we create the sort of businesses that I believe are good and from good business comes profit. These businesses employ around 120 people, but they are not going to make anyone rich.

And we are not some ghastly cult of pseudo hippies. We work hard. We have systems and hierarchy and rules.

But we try to behave at work as we would at home; with decency and respect and kindness. We praise each other as often as -more often than- we berate them. We believe in praise.

And, on the whole and despite the fact some people do not thrive in this environment, the majority of people enjoy working with us. And that is huge. After all, what on earth is the point of all of this -of business, of life even- if we don’t enjoy it, if we’re not kind and try to be cheerful? I encourage people to make friends at work, to be silly, to make mistakes, to challenge themselves. Human connections at work create connections with workplaces which in turn build loyalty and commitment and turn every day -and not just the office paintballing jamboree- into a team building exercise.

This works. Happy people function well. Happy people stick around. Happy people add value. We now have several people who have been with us for over 25 years and many have been with us for over 10.

I decided that kindness would be at the root of everything we did. Even if we had to reprimand people it would be done with consideration and the understanding that everyone is someone’s brother, sister, mother, lover, boyfriend. Everyone is as important as everyone else.

Secondly, all of these businesses are defined by my taste and my enthusiasms. Now, I am not saying that my tastes are better than anyone else’s. What I am saying is that they define how our businesses look and what they sell. If I don’t like it, we don’t try to sell it. If I’m not happy with the way things look, we change them. There is no grey area; it’s either black or it’s white; it’s either in or it’s out.

This gives us a clear focus and a definite purpose because everything ties together, everything works as a whole.

Of course, this is a risky strategy, both personally and professionally, because if my taste isn’t popular with our customers then we are in trouble. But I believe in what we sell and how we sell it and where we sell it and of my confidence is born the confidence of my teams and -in turn- our customers.

I believe that there is no such thing as good taste, per se, or rather that good taste is not the be-all-and-end-all, but rather of confidence of taste.

Charlie Gladstone

This, it seems to me, is how two of the greatest and the nicest and the most beloved British retailers/restauranteurs/hoteliers -Sirs Terence Conran and Paul Smith- do things. And while I wouldn’t consider myself to be remotely in their league, there must be something to learn here. Believe in what you sell, accept no compromise, choose it for passion, do it for the right reasons.

Now, third, provenance.

I am proud to say that we have thought carefully about the origins of what we sell for over 25 years. It has always interested me simply because I have always loved French food markets and to love these is to understand the value of where things originate. As a young child I loved pottering around these markets; these were places that sold penknives, but only penknives that were made in France and places where an apple wasn’t just an apple, it was an apple that had been lovingly grown by the very person that sold it. And that person was happy for you to hold it and smell it before buying it.

So, when I set out to create my businesses, this was something we thought about from the start. And, now, 25 years later, I am pleased to say that the conversation is widening, though it has a long way to go.

You truly are what you buy. It’s just a fact. Just like there is no escaping the fact that you are defined by the company that you keep. We are not perfect, far from it. And we don’t shout too loudly about it, because the louder you shout the further you have to fall. But we believe in the power of provenance and, let’s face it, it’s hard to live anything approaching The Good Life if your clothes have been made by people working in foul conditions, paid a pittance or all of the vegetables in your trolley have been flown to your supermarket or, and this is the big one, everything that you buy comes from Amazon. You don’t need to be completely pure, you can’t, really, be completely pure, but you do need to think. You need to be aware because if you aren’t aware then -well- none of us would be here would we?

Do as you’d like to be done to.
Sorry, this wasn’t meant to be a lecture. It’s meant to be a story.

But, if you are starting a small business and that business is a lifestyle choice then you need to think about the origins of what you sell. First because you can actually make a difference, no matter how small you think you are. And secondly because you will sleep better if you do that. If you want to be rich and stretch your margins to breaking point, then don’t worry about this. But that’s the choice.

Fourth, customers. The root of everything that I want to do with my businesses is this. I want to make my customers HAPPY! I believe that the customer is always right.

Of course, some are complete arseholes but very, very few. So let’s discount them for now.

Actually, today I think customer service in many areas of British life is very good indeed. There are airlines and banks that are spectacularly bad but some of the big new companies (such as Monzo and Uber) are really good at this because they understand that the customer is everything and that in treating them well they can actually disrupt the old, tired, arrogant monopolies that see customers as something to be exploited.

A slight diversion here, but when Monzo recently suffered its second massive data breach in a year the news had virtually no impact on customer satisfaction. Had the breach happened at Barclays, imagine the furore. Again, I am not diverting from my story of The Good Life Business, I am simply illustrating what happens when you treat your customers like people, not commodities.

So, I think of my businesses as being the Village Shop. This will sound pathetic to many. Don’t you want to rule the world? Don’t you want to be the biggest?

No. What I want is a small functioning business that pays the bills by listening to its customers; to what they want, to what they like, to what they don’t like. To when they want what they want. And I want my businesses to foster community; to be a place for comfort and friendliness and warmth, online and in real life. Because community is everything. We need somewhere to hang out, to feel safe and welcome and while we need this online, we also need it in real life because without it, our future is genuinely, frighteningly dystopian.

Imagine a world without safe, happy places for old people to hang out and chat or imagine the same for young people. That’s a world where people are locked in their houses and -linger on this for a while- it’s terrifying. So, whatever you are doing with your work think about bringing it to life as not just a portal for commerce but as a community and then just think how you might do this in actual, real, physical life, if only for an afternoon a month or a day a year. Think about the Village Shop or the French Market and understand that we absolutely need these and that we can -with a little imagination and spirit- create these somehow and make the world a better place.

If we want to create the Good Life we can, but we need actions not words.

Charlie Gladstone

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Charlie Gladstone and his wife Caroline, are the founders of The Good Life Society (The Good Life Experience, Camp Glen Dye, Camp Hawarden and Some Good Ideas), Pedlars, Hawarden Estate Farm Shops, Glen Dye Cabins & Cottages, The Glynne Arms and more. Throughout all their businesses, Charlie champions integrity and sustainability.

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