9 October 2016

lawrence jones mbe

Seventeen years ago we were sitting in my tiny spare bedroom trying to register and host a domain name: TheGallery.com.

We eventually managed it but, in the process, realised that the bigger opportunity was in helping others to avoid the stress we’d just encountered, and so UKFast was born hours later. But providing a service is not enough. Whatever you do everything has to evolve. Products and people alike.

It’s taken me years to understand why UKFast managed to work against the odds, with a fraction of the resources many of our competitors.

Staying power is key if you want to be successful in any walk of life. But what is it made up of?

According to business strategy expert Martin Reeves, the key is to treat a business biologically. In a TEDTalk about staying power, he talks about six key ingredients that make anything stand the test of time, and they’re all based on the human immune system; redundancy, modularity, diversity, adaptivity, prudence and embeddedness. These 6 principles can be seen in biology and successful social systems, and they’re also seen in long-standing businesses.

If you think about it, it makes sense. Many years ago, Facit mechanical calculators were thriving; they were the best in the world. So what happened when electronic calculators came along? They believed that there would always be a need for accurate mechanical calculators and refused to change. Sure enough, they quickly went out of business. Bizarrely, it was only when they closed their doors that they realised that the Facit engineers had been using $7 digital calculators to check the accuracy of the expensive mechanical ones!

It’s all too easy to rest on your laurels when you are at the top of your game, but innovation is key to keeping a competitive edge – especially in such a fast-moving industry like tech. That being said, it isn’t the only element of success. I am certain that the UKFast team is our business’s greatest asset. It’s undeniable.

Great people make great businesses. American sales legend and motivator of millions Zig Ziglar once said: “You don’t build a business, you build people and then the people will build the business.”

People make the difference, and for a long time I thought that money was the key to retaining people and making them happy. Then, I learned that that is not the case at all. In nature, everything is either growing or dying. Similarly, people need to continue learning. We invest millions into training and development. Our team collectively passes hundreds of exams every year – from top industry qualifications to shorthand exams for our communications team, and management training for the future leaders of the business.

When people are growing and are passionate, they thrive. And it is these people who are key to your succession plan. Who will be there to lead the business after you? How do you create a legacy to ensure that your culture continues?

Seeing people develop is one of the greatest parts of being an entrepreneur. Growing the business and splitting off key areas as we develop new strands enables us to retain talent and develop individuals who feel the need to take on more responsibility. It’s a style that is working and it is helping grow the team at an extraordinary speed. Not losing talent is crucial if you want to keep momentum; keeping the smartest and most passionate individuals in your team engaged and focused is an absolute prerequisite of success and, if you look at the great entrepreneurs, they have this gift of inspiration and the ability to hand out freedom in abundance.

Your top talent is much more likely to come from within, from a pool of driven, passionate teammates who understand your company’s culture. It’s very rare to helicopter in a big hitter and for it work. I have only managed to bring in a big hitter successfully on a handful of occasions, yet my success rate for nurturing talent is far better.

My biggest frustrations are always over the loss of great characters, people who may not have been at their peak or who took a temporary dive in performance but, over time, had the talent to make a significant difference. These are the ones you have to work to hold on to. If I knew what I know now, I know I’d have been a great deal more patient. My expectations as a young businessman were probably a little too “immediate”.

No one is the finished article, myself especially, and we all need a break.

It’s incredible to think back just three years or so when we hired Aaron, our director of training. It was a huge gamble justifying a full-time, dedicated teacher from the public sector. Within weeks, he’d convinced me to double his team. It was a scary investment, but one that on reflection was one of the greatest decisions and I know now, it’s a huge part of the company’s accelerated growth and crucial if we are to create a lasting success.

Now, we have five full-time teachers and three trainers.

What’s interesting is that our training team spend just as much time working with external schools and universities to bring real-world opportunities to young people in education. If we want our business to be around and thriving in 100 years from now, we need to ensure the schools are teaching our future generations the skills to meet demand.

We’re working with 57,000 children across Greater Manchester providing workshops, work experience, visits and tech masterclasses. We also run a Code Club every school holiday for kids of all ages to get hands-on with technology. It’s amazing to see and extremely exciting to know that the next generation of incredible tech engineers is already engaged and excited.

I am sure we could make more money immediately if we focused all our resources on purely generating more income, but I don’t believe that to be the answer to what makes a business survive and thrive for decades; the goalposts are always moving and the landscape is always changing so there’ll never be a ‘one size fits all’ answer. All we can do is be agile, evolve and do our best to have a positive impact on the world and the people around us.

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