The Founders of Design in the Shires, Ben and Jess Williams, share how they used their darkest days to create the bright, vibrant and progressive agency you see today.
As we continue to immerse ourselves deeper into this digital world, the harder it is to differentiate reality from fantasy.
Honesty and authenticity are becoming increasingly rare to find. Yet, we all have our own stories to tell and lessons to give.
The purpose of this article isn’t to gain sympathy or plaudits. Instead, we want you to get to know the real us. And understand how our sufferings as a family and our personal mental health struggles have helped shape us into the company we are today.
This is our story.
Through grief, clarity was born
There are watershed moments in life that shape us.
For us, it came on 15th May 2018 when Richard Williams, Ben’s Dad, took his own life in his home in Malta. Coincidentally, falling on Mental Health Week.
During this time, both of us had left our secure jobs and the agency had only been operating for a matter of weeks. We also had our three-month-old firstborn to think about. The pressure was on.
However, we truly believe in moments like this, you learn more about yourself. And knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.
As the Swiss American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, once said,
“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”
This challenging time taught us both to re-evaluate life and what’s important.
Having grown up around a family of healthcare professionals, I [Jess] already had a firm grasp on the debilitating effects of mental health illness.
I’ve always struggled with anxiety and depression too. So, I’m aware of how important it is to recognise my triggers and deal with them.
Ben’s journey was slightly different. Incidentally, one of the first arguments we ever had as a couple was on the topic of mental health and suicide.
For me, I always thought it’s impossible to understand how every suicide victim felt in that moment of deep despair. Only that person will know. Every situation is unique.
But for Ben, he viewed suicide as a selfish act and would empathise with the people who were left behind to pick up the pieces.
Things changed on 15th May 2018. The aftermath was a cocktail of emotions. Sad. Angry. Numb.
Ben started to understand the severity of mental health and experienced some of his lowest days. The pressures of managing multiple clients and trying to get a business off the ground while fighting his personal demons were taking their toll.
For me, the journey of becoming a parent for the first time was challenging and transformative. I was at my most vulnerable stage, juggling many different roles. By day, I was a happy-loving Mum stroke business owner, and by night, I was a supportive wife.
Ben hadn’t just lost his Dad; he lost his mentor. As the owner of a multi-million-pound business, Richard Williams was the epitome of hard graft and success. He had always been there to advise Ben. Richard’s pearls of wisdom and loving support were critical in helping Ben step outside of his comfort zone and realise his dream of running a creative agency overlooking the Malvern Hills.
But strangely, what unfolded gave us both a moment of clarity. For years, Richard worked relentlessly – probably too hard.
His passing taught us a lot about our strength and the significant role work can play in a person’s wellbeing.
We were determined to bring positivity out of something tragic.
Using yesterday’s lessons to shape today
We used our lowest moments as a family to build something special for us. A business Ben’s Dad would be proud of.
A big part of our evolution as an agency comes down to Ben’s brother, Ali Williams. He’s been there from the start, supporting us in every way possible.
When dealing with mental health issues and loss, one of the biggest challenges is opening up. It’s easy to become imprisoned in your thoughts and lose all sense of reality. Collectively, we learnt that grief isn’t a monologue, it’s a dialogue. By working together as a family, we had a chance to air our grievances and learn to smile again. Design in the Shires was, and still is, our therapy.
“Grief never ends. But it changes. It’s a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness or a lack of faith. It is the price of love.”
We didn’t just want to set up a successful business. The tragic event and our personal battles inspired us to work towards creating the best possible workplace for our employees.
It’s not about the money. It’s about building a positive environment and space where our team loves to work. By placing people at the core of what we do, we know our work will shine and we’ll be able to give our clients more in return.
We set up DITS so people don’t have to worry about the usual things at work, such as needing time off to take a poorly pet to the vets, or driving dangerously just to beat the clock in the morning.
If they finish all their scheduled work for the day 20 minutes early, they leave. After all, what are you going to achieve in those final few minutes?
Similarly, if anyone needs to work remotely for personal reasons or take a bit of extra annual leave, they can.
We want to be different and take away the stress. Having worked in a high-pressured environment in a local GP surgery, I appreciate how stressful work can become. It’s one of the main reasons I wanted to run a business with my husband.
Believe it or not, we believe life outside of work is more important than their time inside work to us.
British employees will work for an average of 84,365 hours over a lifetime. To put that into context, that’s 3,515 days.
We don’t want the idea of earning and living to be seen as two separate things. Why can’t we do both?
Our experiences have made us think differently and want to redefine the workplace – from how our studio looks to how people feel.
When we go to the pub together as a team, it feels like we’re with a group of mates. We have a dedicated Head of Happiness who organises fun activities for the team. We often go for runs together and have been known to do the odd yoga session too!
Our office design includes inviting wooden furniture, vibrant colours and a wall of quotes and pictures from every team member to make them feel comfortable.
The mental stresses of lockdown and our past experiences encouraged us to introduce a weekly ‘Wellness Hour’, where everyone gets an hour to do something that makes them happy.
As a person, Ben learnt more about the world after his Dad’s passing. It changed the way he worked and how he managed the business. He became more confident in his ability, better at communicating and more comfortable living a professional life.
When we wondered whether it was a good idea to take on two new employees during the first and second pandemic lockdowns, we put our anxiety aside and reminded ourselves that life is too short.
Looking to the future
We’re immensely proud of our journey so far. We’ve progressed from the days of working late nights and weekends in our living room, to working with international clients in a stunning office studio at the Malvern Hills Science Park.
.For Ben and me, the key to turning our mental turmoil into a success wasn’t to try and overcome the issues. What’s happened has happened. We cannot undo the past. But what we can do is take our experiences and find better ways of doing things that don’t lead us and others down the same path.
We’re also firm believers in sharing knowledge to help other people. That’s why we recently started doing some free work for a suicide charity in Hull called Mysterious Minds. Despite having over 200k followers, they had no website or branding.
We wanted to support an organisation that isn’t well established but has the power to make a huge difference to people in crisis. Our work of building them a website, developing a brand and supporting on social is a passion project derived from our journey as a business. It’s a way of us learning from life’s hardest lessons and giving something back.
We’re very fortunate to be where we are and count our lucky stars every day.
For us, Mental Health Week and Richard’s passing will forever intertwine. A tragic turn of events ingrained into who we are.
However, it doesn’t define us. It’s simply made us stronger as a business and better as human beings.