Elon Musk recently discussed the private struggles behind his entrepreneurial success. People tend to view the business-building life as a wild ride of achievements, and entrepreneurs often put a brave face on their difficulties. It’s easy to forget that they’re just human. Here’s another example…
The business he had started in his spare bedroom was growing year-on-year. Self-taught B2B digital marketing agency boss Mitchel White had a city centre office and an ever-growing list of clients and specialist skills. But when he was diagnosed with HIV in January 2016, it would have been understandable if the devastating news would have knocked him off course.
Instead, the 24-year-old says it has changed his outlook on life and business, and spurred him on to greater things. And he has called on others to be kinder in business, after undergoing tough meetings while coming to terms with what was going on in his personal life.
“I was going to new client meetings and being grilled on my ambition and my credibility in a way that made it feel like a personal attack,” he says.
“I’ve never wanted to take things personally in business but the point I want to make is that you never know what people are going through. Perhaps there’s a better and kinder way for business to be done.”
Originally from Wolverhampton, A-star student White left school at 16 and worked as an office assistant and then at a bank before deciding to move to Manchester aged 18. Though he was mathematically minded – and had aced his maths GCSE aged 14 – he had developed an interest in design.
Through a need to earn money, he started designing logos on a freelance basis from his spare bedroom, winning commissions via freelancing platform peopleperhour.com and work soon began to grow.
“I’d never been good at art so designing was a skill I didn’t know I had, but it came from a necessity to put food on the table,” he says. Within a year he had designed 500 logos and, when he turned over £6,000 in a month, it became clear it was a line of work he should pursue. He teamed up with a friend, whose print business was absorbed into his design offering, and LeftMedia was set up in 2014.
As work grew, White put himself through a Chartered Institute of Marketing level four qualification to expand their offering to clients, which included digital and print marketing, website design and branding strategy.
A life-changing event
Then came the life-changing event. As a gay man, he had always gone for regular HIV tests and, when he attended in December 2015, he had been feeling run down, with flu-like symptoms. Results were usually sent out within two weeks. When he didn’t hear anything, he says he assumed all was well and the Christmas slowdown must have delayed delivery.
On 2 January 2016, he received a letter asking him to get in touch, and he was given the positive diagnosis over the phone. Though inside he was feeling utter devastation, White says he kept a brave face for his family.
“It was my brother’s birthday the day after I found out and I had to try to not get upset in front of my family, even though I was in massive shock,” he says. “I did tell them eventually after a couple of months. It was a horrible time. It’s always at the back of your mind because there is an increased risk for gay people but it never crosses your mind that it will be you.”
White was able to pinpoint the time he had come into contact with the virus to a couple of months earlier and the fact that he underwent regular tests meant it was caught early. Though some damage has occurred to his liver, the effect on his immune system has been low because his medication of one tablet every night was started early.
A positive outlook
White is admirably positive about what has happened.
“I should live longer than somebody my age who doesn’t have HIV because I’m in the health system early,” he says. “Business owners generally don’t look after themselves and men particularly don’t go to the doctors between the ages of 20 and 40, so the fact that I’m going for check-ups every six months means any problems should be picked up.”
Through the traumatic event he was experiencing in his personal life, he also had to keep his thriving business running. Whereas today his role is in running the business, then he was working directly on client projects, which had to be done in between his hospital appointments. Growth stopped during that year and he was forced to let go of the graphic designer the business had taken on.
“As the boss, you can’t sit down and mope because if you’re not working nobody is, so you have to hold it together.”
“I took my eye off the ball for a number of months and it wasn’t the best year financially as a result,” he says. “Going to client meetings was difficult. They’re grilling you on your credibility and it feels personal but, as the boss, you can’t sit down and mope. If you’re not working nobody is, so you have to hold it together.”
Conversely, running the business actually helped keep his mind focused, he says, and along with the support he got from charities like the Terence Higgins Trust, George House Trust and his consultants, he was able to process what he was going through.
Eighteen months later, he took the decision to share his diagnosis via a LinkedIn post, which urged people to be kinder in business as well as reduce the stigma and misunderstanding around HIV.
A changed perspective
During that year and a half, he has also changed as a person. “Something like this challenges your outlook on life and on what’s important,” he says. “I was guilty of chasing money for money’s sake before but now I look to work with people I enjoy working with and on projects I can add value to.
“Money isn’t the be all and end all. Now I’m driven to grow the business even more than before but for different reasons.”
Indeed, White has set his sights on growing his workforce to 10, and turnover to £1 million within the next two years. He is eyeing work with manufacturers and professional services businesses to show how they can use marketing technology rather than the traditional methods they are used to.
Further into the future, he is also keen to pursue his passion for startups and has ambitions to invest in fintech businesses, harking back to his interest in maths and finance. He is on top of his health and feeling positive for the future.
“My personal health is in check and doesn’t affect me on a day-to-day basis, and there could be a cure in the next 20 years, which is really good for me,” he says. “Excuse the pun, but I’ve never felt more positive about my personal and business circumstances. I’m excited to see what the rest of 2017 brings.”