25 June 2017

When is it time to accelerate your growth and start to scale?

It’s the million dollar question and one that needs to be thought through carefully before putting your foot on the accelerator. All business owners, myself included, dream of a utopian world where everything is working perfectly and growing beyond belief. The reality in business is far from this vision and I often joke with my IT director Neil, wondering when that time will come. He always reminds me that by our very nature, being perfectionists and striving to continuously improve, getting to a point where we can sit back and congratulate ourselves, is not something that is possible to happen.

It’s actually at this point when established brands, household names who have defied gravity in their growth curve often start to fail. Success does have a habit of making people take their eye off the ball.

Whilst UKFast has grown considerably over the years, as it’s a business that we have self-funded from its profits year on year, we have been naturally restricted to the speed we are able to accelerate and grow. Each year as profits increase, we have been able to swap out potential problems and large costs with solutions and cost savings, creating a stronger more profitable business year on year.

Our data centres are a good example of this. We could have taken out the profits and spent them elsewhere, but taking the decision to buy land and build data centres doesn’t just help us now controlling the service levels, it helps us massively in decades to come as competitors are hit with rising rent prices. This problem may seem small now, but as your estate grows, so do these spiralling costs. I appreciate this is a long term strategy and will inhibit initial growth.

When we first adopted this strategy, it was financially painful but on reflection we’d be wasting millions of pounds now that we have grown our DC estate to tens of thousands of devices across 4 huge data centres.

It’s true that we could have used the money to accelerate the business and yes, we’d have made significantly more revenue, but UKFast was never about making money, it’s about creating the perfect environment for people to host and work and on reflection, I’d recommend getting your environment right, planning for the long term before considering any short term and aggressive growth plans.

UKFast Campus wth newly installed slide

UKFast Campus wth newly installed slide

Accelerating any business brings huge challenges. Recruiting and housing people is one of the biggest and again by adopting the same principal to our offices, the decision to acquire our campus building as opposed to rent it, is turning out to be one of the best decisions we have made.

We have grown across the group from 100 team mates to almost 400 across all the brands in less than four years. We literally could never have afforded to grow at that speed if we’d not taken the choice to buy our building as the cost of the extra rent would be crippling us right now.

We are the sum of all the decisions we make. Skyline from a shot from Necker Island

We are the sum of all the decisions we make. Skyline from a shot from Necker Island

I have tried a few times over the years to scale various departments at speed; not with much success on occasions. The biggest lesson I learned attempting this, is if you don’t have the right management in place to accommodate and care for all the new starters, they will quickly get distracted.

I’m also reminded of something Steve Diamond, Sales Sharks’ coach once said in a discussion about leadership that really hit home. “If you bring in too many people in to a squad at the start of a new season, you run the risk of seriously damaging the set up you have spent years building.”

My Gran used to say, “the devil makes work for idle hands” and it’s a great adage because when people are not busy enough, they start to meddle and disrupt. If you are considering an expansion, I’d highly recommend having everything ready before you press the button.

A few years ago I tried something similar with my sales team and whilst we have a profile that we know and understand works in sales and we psychometric test everyone and work hard to find the right characters, on this particular occasion we went with the recruitment company’s recommendations thinking, “well maybe we need to learn how others do it.” It turned out, what works for others, doesn’t necessarily work for everyone! The results were terrible and only one of a large number of people we hired remain and funnily enough, the one that stayed is the exact profile of the type of the rest of the team.

I can only blame myself. Not having the processes ready or enough of the strong leaders in place, it was destined to fail from the outset. We should have also stuck to our formula and not adapted it under any circumstances.

We are in a position to scale a few of the departments over the next 18 months, but this time we have spent two years preparing; building a Graduate Training Program and our Apprenticeship Academy, testing it in small steps to ensure we have it ready.

I am a great believer in sharing ideas, this is one of the reasons I do my blog and vlogs. Anything I learn that I can pass on, if it makes a difference to other business owners and entrepreneurs starting out, it’s hugely rewarding knowing we are helping to strengthen future businesses and entrepreneurs.

I collaborate with some incredible business owners and entrepreneurs. I always get “take home value” as we call it. So when expanding, who better to listen to than James Timpson, who is arguably one of Britain’s top experts in this field. James, who along with his father (and I have been excited to congratulate him on this as he’s just become a knight!) Sir John Timpson, have expanded their family business together to something like 1800 shops. When James talks about expansion, you shut up and listen!

I remember him telling me: “It’s good to grow in spurts. Grow as fast as you can for a year and then just stop and take stock, get organised.” It makes huge sense. With growth comes responsibility, not least to your existing team mates and your clients. It’s imperative that service to either of these two crucial groups of people who you rely on never deteriorates.

Sir John Timpson founder, father and partner of successful entrepreneur James Timpson

Sir John Timpson founder, father and partner of successful entrepreneur James Timpson

Growing at speed requires feedback back and your clients and teammates are the ones who will see the problems and solutions long before you do. It’s easy to look at the numbers and think things are working well, but its only your clients and team who can really give you an honest view of this. If you are planning an expansion, ensure that you remain close to your clients and make sure you listen to their feedback.

The most important thing is “just go for it!” Life’s too short and when you feel you have your ducks in a row and you have your team around you ready, trained, waiting, throw yourself in the deep end. Don’t look at the problems you have right now, anticipate the bigger problems you are about to create from an expanded version of your current set up and recruit and plan for this.

Make sure you are physically and mentally prepared; success requires stamina and staying power. If you have any questions at any point on this journey, fire them over, it always helps to hear an outsiders view point as we all see things from different perspectives. I am always happy to answer any questions on this subject that you may have in the back of your mind. Feel free to send them over or better still post them in the comments section.

Whatever you are planning, have fun in the process.

Best LJ

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