24 June 2018
Sitting in the rare Manchester sunshine, taking an even rarer moment of peace after a big week at UKFast, I knew exactly what I needed to write about this week. I often sit with UKFast MD, my wife Gail and talk through ideas for my Sunday blog. What have we done this week? What’s been the main theme of the week? What stood out?
This week, without doubt, has been all about people. The extraordinary things that people can achieve working as a team.
What are your goals in business? To reach a turnover milestone? To earn a million or more? That is the assumption most people have about entrepreneurs, “they are in it for the money!” Actually if you ask any seasoned entrepreneur, the successful ones will never speak about money, they talk about solving problems and the difference they are trying to make.
As businesses grow, all too often people focus on the bottom line and making money; the real focus should be elsewhere. When you put your energy into the people around you, you quickly realise that the bottom lines takes care of itself.
For many years, I have been asked the question time and again, why we invest so much into our team and the community around us. In fact, that’s what we’ve always been built on. Albeit harder to spot in the early days when we were small. Our mission as a business is to help our customers to grow their businesses. When we achieve that, our business naturally grows alongside. It’s that simple.
In fact, I am often asked what it is like to run a tech business. I wouldn’t know! We run a people business. People are at the very heart of all we do.
You may think it is easy for me to say that with the unusual workplace at UKFast Campus – with custom-made slide, Japanese spa garden, pool tables and gym, personal trainers and a beach. It would be natural to think that we always had these luxuries. However that’s far from the case. In the early days, when Gail and I were cutting back in every area of our personal lives to make sure we have enough money to grow the business, we made sure that the team always came first.
That might simply be with a trip to the pub after work on a Friday evening – a far cry from Beer Fridays in our own bar we now have at the UKFast Campus! Or it could be fish and chips for lunch. Small gestures always made a big impact.
Of course, I am not saying that we’re perfect. I lost many great people over the years as we grew from not widening my management team quickly enough and not empowering and growing my next generation of leaders in time. The result, we’re learning every single day. Whilst I still get decisions wrong, most of them now are based on scientific data and not on gut reaction. Also with the wealth of mistakes we have made, comes a wealth of experience.
The team around me are growing up too, just like me and the business. From the young kids we were back in the two-man office in the early days, we’re now about to welcome the first UKFast Grandchild! One of our first salesmen, Stephen, who’s been with us for more than a decade, came from another business of ours 17 years ago. He introduced his daughter to UKFast on one of our friends and family trips. Just a few years later, Chloe joined us on an apprenticeship and she’s now expecting a baby! Three generations! It may surprise you to know that it’s one of the things I am most proud of.
Speaking of family, I learned a valuable lesson a couple of years ago. A couple of young women in our marketing department handed in their notice. Chatting with them I learned a common theme – our maternity package simply wasn’t good enough. It was a steep learning curve and a moment when I realised we weren’t a small business any more and needed to grow up.
The result, we significantly improved maternity/paternity package and introduced every one of their great ideas and a few extra ones too. This includes 16 weeks at 90% pay, which you might expect from the big blue chip businesses, but from an SME wanting to punch above our weight, it’s essential to follow best practice, however hard. Alongside that, we have our onsite creche where new mums and dads can spend time with their littles ones. It’s proven especially useful for mums coming back from their maternity leave. They’re able to pop in with the children and have lunch with their teams, have a quick meeting and ease back into office life.
A proud moment for me was hearing that one of our technical team was to take up the government’s offer and take paternity leave, to allow his wife to return to work sooner. He took an extended period of time away from work and came back stronger than ever. This is more often than not the case – parents return from maternity or paternity leave come back with incredible focus, an unrivalled ability to manage their time and are always calm in a crisis. Early parenthood certainly teaches us some extraordinary skills!
This week we signed up to the Working Forward pledge set up with the support of GM Mayor Andy Burnham. The initiative is focussed on making environments the best they can be for working parents.
A decade ago our focus on looking after our people meant incredible parties, trips to Las Vegas and time in the pub. Now, we’re a true family business. Looking after our people means having the most flexible family-friendly workplace to make our team’s lives easier. It means trips to the zoo and Father Christmas in the office. It’s funny how our focus changes as we get a bit older!
“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
Our team and clients have always been the centre of our business. That being said, that level of kindness mustn’t just extend to our immediate team. Beyond that, there’s a whole community in need. We simply wouldn’t be the people or business we are today without the support of the Manchester community. Many years ago, we met with an IT teacher called Aaron. As well as playing some feisty five-a-side football matches, the team at UKFast helped Aaron to bring about new developments in the IT curriculum.
Now, Aaron is our director of training and spearheads our drive to continue evolving technical education in the UK. Working with 60,000 children across 50 schools in Greater Manchester and beyond, we hold workshops, Star Code Clubs, work experiences, school visits and beyond. We’ve also launched six Raspberry Pi cafes in schools and youth organisations this year alone. These ‘cafes’ are tech spaces built on the Raspberry Pi microcomputer – enabling kids to get hands on with the tech, without the worry of breaking a PC worth hundreds of pounds.
The impact is extraordinary. Many of these youngsters have gone on to become apprentices at UKFast, some of whom are now leading departments. By accident or by design, our work in education is paying off in more ways than one. It’s seen us recruiting some of the most incredible young people into the team and helping inspire many others who we have watched step in to the wider tech community.
The extra mile…
Through this closeness with education in the local area, we became aware of just how in-need some people right on our doorstep are. We’re incredibly lucky to be in a position to be able to pay back our community. So how do we find out more about who to help and how to have the widest, longest lasting impact? That’s where Russell came in.
Our new director of CSR, Russell’s job is to find out how we can do just that. Who needs our help and how can we make sure we make the biggest impact – although I am not a fan of that job title, it’s far too corporate-sounding! (If you have any good suggestions, fire them over!!!) Thanks to Aaron and Russell, we learned of children literally around the corner from UKFast Campus going to school without breakfast and with little for lunch. Gail and I knew we had to step in and we’re proud to launch a new breakfast club to make sure these primary school children get the best start to each day.
We’re also supporting Bitesize Bootcamp’s Battlefield Challenge. It’s a two-day event for little ones to take on a Tough-Mudder-style assault course to raise money for the Rainbow Trust. Helping kids to get active whilst raising more money for a charity that care for young people with life-threatening illnesses.
It was absolutely fantastic to see these tiny little children at the launch of this event, tackling a circuit that would make many adults exhausted!
Getting our hands dirty…
One of the greatest lessons that I have learned about giving back is that throwing money at something isn’t enough. The business world has a huge amount of resource – the kind of resource that most charities and schools dream of. Having big teams on hand to help out with projects, having specific skills or networks, access to physical resources; the list is endless.
Russell arranged for our first opportunity to be at the Children’s Adventure Farm Trust. This is a beautiful place, home to goats, donkeys, ducks, alpacas and more. Children are invited here for a holiday – these children are carers, disadvantaged, unwell and often terminally ill. For many, their holiday on the farm is the last. It’s a truly magical place.
The farm is only able to provide these holidays and day trips thanks to donations of both money and time from the community around it.
So, our team headed over there on a minibus and got stuck in. They redeveloped the goat and alpaca play area, repainting fences and sheds, building tunnels and climbing hills. It was tough, manual labour but everyone loved every moment of it.
There’s value here for both the charity and the team. Nothing beats seeing the impact of your time and effort first-hand. Seeing the little ones on the farm and how their faces light up seeing the animals, it was clear we’d chosen the perfect place to donate our time.
Invariably, there’s always more that can be done. Unfortunately, there are always more people in need. That’s why it is so important that we do all that we can to give back to those around us.
I know that when you focus your energy on giving back, to your team, to the community, to your clients, the success you strive for follows. Our extraordinary team, clients and 18 years of continued growth are proof enough of that.