15 March 2009

Maybe it is because I have never been to university. Maybe it is because I have no formal qualifications? I don’t know, but I seem to have a desire for continual learning. A search for what drives all things, past and present.

You can learn a great deal from the results of everyday life. If you can learn from your mistakes in time you will get to your chosen destination. If you can learn from your successes you will arrive a whole lot quicker.

One of the things that puzzled me and still does to a degree is “what makes UKFast more successful when my previous businesses didn’t come close?”

It is the same person at the helm, older and hopefully a little wiser, but essentially the same. It had no more money, in fact it probably had less. I put in longer hours with my first businesses.

I think one of the differences is, now we are growing a business as opposed to a set of products. UKFast is the focus as opposed to making money. It is treated like a living breathing entity. You are probably thinking “now he has really lost it!”

Certainly any accountants out there are reeling in agony at my naivety. “Just make money fool” I can hear them say. Yes they could run this business more profitably and find ways of cutting cost and speeding up production, but at what cost?

In time, if I am correct, and UKFast is nurtured properly, money will be a by-product of happy customers and a happy team.

But what about the product? What we sell? Well that changes both with time and careful consideration. When we first started UKFast we sold all sorts to make ends meet. It was this method that helped us find our feet and then direction.

I remember coming in to the office and saying “Gail, find me someone who can build and network computers; and pronto!” I had just sold some computers to Avis Car Rental across the corridor.

At that time we were focussed on selling reseller space and domain registrations, but that job set us on a search that would change our lives and eventually lead us to Neil. The great Neil Lathwood, now IT Director and a whole lot more. It was no simple journey either, and Neil, Gail and I would still probably argue we are still trying to find ourselves a decade later!

So what about the product? (You can read that in two ways.) That eventually found its rightful place, but with the nature of our industry it is almost as alive as we are. It evolves daily and has it’s own team of landscape gardeners in the shape of an R & D team.

So what is my advice? Well if you are destined to be in business and you are daft enough to want to work for yourself, then don’t procrastinate. Forget university, Get an office and start choosing the team. As Jim Collins says, get the right people and put them in the right seats. Then when you have great people around you, the product will show itself.

It is crazy to think UKFast was born from frustration when, one after another, each hosting provider let us down. I sometime question my own sanity. What sort of man dedicates his life to providing a service, just because he felt the people in the industry were not doing it right?

But that was the opportunity. It wasn’t about money, in spite of some pretty big ambitions. It was as much about honour and delivering on a promise. When you charge someone for a product or service, you should deliver. Not in part, but in full. And if you really want to be great, you should over deliver and excel. This is truly where the real excitement lies.

The hosting industry was very underdeveloped and driven mainly by technical people. The ones we came across did not feel the need for touchy feely customer service or in some cases, any customer service.

After an eternity in the incubation egg stage, one day, unannounced we were suddenly there, frustrating competitors who previously had not acknowledged our existence. Even more impressive is that we now hold centre stage in our competitor’s offices with posters about us for all to see. They have even doubled commission for any of their sales staff who can win business against us.

I suppose this should stress me out, but to the contrary it is flattering and an honour to be part of their interior design scheme. Increasing bonuses may win the odd battle but the truth of the matter is they just stopped competing/evolving.

Their company grew so large, so quickly, without competition, they began believing their own hype. Their desire to be the biggest and out-market the rest of the industry actually lead them from dry fertile ground in to treacherous swampland.

They were offering huge amounts of bandwidth with their solutions, with the knowledge at the time that “no one could possibly ever consume that much bandwidth.” It became a double-edged sword.

I remember our first full rack, housing 40 servers in Telehouse. The combined traffic of all the machines and thousands of domain names was less than 50 Gb’s in traffic. These days website use this much just for stats and back up. Suddenly the desire for bandwidth exploded and they had to make good on their promise and their network ground to a near halt. To date, I still don’t think they realise the extent of the problem.

We have servers on their network, which we use to analyse their performance and sure enough, as the day progresses and the internet wakes up, they slow down.

We have known for a number of years that a faster network is the most important ingredient to a successful online campaign. It is not about the specification of the server. The fastest machine on the planet plugged into an over-contended network will run incredibly slow. We have basic low end machines that out perform massive servers on some competitors networks. As Neil Lathwood, IT Director puts is, “A website or database can only run as fast as their slowest component.” The rest is just marketing flannel.

There are other issues too. They have replaced maverick entrepreneurial characters with less dynamic ones, but most of all, their service stopped evolving. Where they talked about value, they now slash prices. Somewhere they stopped believing.

It is a lesson to us all, never become complacent. For me this is the beginning. We are just hatching, our product is evolving and although we believe our product to be light years ahead of theirs, we are by no means the finished article. Where they copy specifications and marketing initiatives, they cannot copy people and passion.

You can argue that this is just a natural evolutionary stage common in the business world. First to market usually ends in disaster or mediocrity. (I will come back to this as this is a chapter in itself.)

So whilst competitors wield their sword I am reminded that the pen is mightier.
So for us, it is back to the drawing board, where we first started, and our quest for the Holy Grail of businesses continues.

So what is the lesson for this journey? Remain focussed, driven and passionate. Do not be scared of something just because it is bigger than you. Stand tall, fight with dignity and pride and remember your core values. The rest will be history, one day.

If you have experiences to share or questions to ask, I’d love to help. Please feel free to contact me. Lawrence DOT Jones@ukfast.co.uk

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