22 July 2018

The old UKFast office - back when there were just a handful of us on the team.

The old UKFast office – back when there were just a handful of us on the team.

I have never been one to sit on the sidelines.

A decade or more ago, I attended so many round tables and discussions that sounded the alarm for a real skills shortage in the tech sector. Without skills how could the industry grow?

So, we reached out to see how we could help. We worked with schools in Trafford to develop tech qualifications. This has evolved over the past decade to include courses, teaching teachers, installing tech suites (Raspberry Pi cafes) in schools and youth centres, and getting as many kids through the doors at UKFast Campus as possible. We even helped to change the curriculum. We currently have 75 apprentices and are recruiting more as we speak. Nowadays, I’m not worried about the skills gap anymore. It’s reassuring to see that we’re certainly not the only business to have got out there to boost tech education.

Yes, there are still many people sitting around talking about the problem, but I believe you have to get out there and make your mark. It doesn’t matter how small you are, when we ventured into the community, there were less than 30 people in the whole company. The schools we work with in Trafford now produce double the technically qualified students than those in Manchester and Salford, so we have first-hand experience of just what is possible when everyone gets behind an initiative.

Deeper pockets and bigger funds

Nowadays, there is a much bigger issue that compounds and actually dwarfs the skills shortage. It’s a topic I have been very vocal about. For a number of years I have openly complained about it not being a level playing field with AWS and Azure having significant tax benefits. It’s a huge problem that puts hardworking UK companies at a colossal disadvantage.

The damage done to the high street particularly by Amazon and AWS has yet to really take its toll. We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg. But, in spite of incredible efforts to raise the issue at a senior government level, there has been a great deal of rhetoric, but no real action.

I even went to the lengths of joining the Leaders Group for the Conservative Party. I hoped that a seat at the table opposite the Prime Minister, Chancellor and other significant politicians may actually add weight to our plea. Somehow, no matter how it is tabled, regardless of the billions of uncollected revenue they are missing, the government is immovable.

Changing business landscapes

When you exhaust all possibilities of levelling the playing field, you are left with few choices.

1. Give up and walk away, which I make no apology to my competitors, is not an option!

2. Set up offshore like AWS and pay revenue in a tax “efficient” way. That means no revenue is attributed to the UK, despite every penny of it coming from UK customers. This is not an option for me either. Despite of cynics like Owen Jones, who believe all businesses and business owners are bad, I am proud to contribute to this great country of ours.

3. Get stuck in and compete harder.

The third option is much more appealing and aligned with the type of competitive person I am. However, whichever strategy I look at, it all comes down to needing deeper pockets. After all, it’s a huge market and we are up against companies with very deep pockets who not only don’t pay tax, they seem to acquire huge contracts from the government too.

To expand ambitiously is going to require big funds. So, however I look at it, if we want to grow at pace and take on these US giants, which I do, we have to do something about it.

Interestingly, our cloud is growing at around 43%, which is the same rate as that of AWS. However, the significant difference AWS has with its market share means that we will always be falling further behind AWS when growing at the same percentage.

The old UKFast office - back when the business had just a handful of us on the team.

The old UKFast office – back when there were just a handful of us on the team.

I still remember our very first customer at UKFast, a lady called Bridget Postlethwaite. She paid us £19.95 + vat a month, a whopping £239.40 for the year. I will never forget how excited we were and what a significant moment it was. It signified we were in business. We both walked to the Natwest to proudly bank the cheque.

ClearCloud

Almost 19 years on from that momentous day, we announced the launch of a new startup this week, ClearCloud. A subsidiary of UKFast dedicated to supporting businesses with a multi-cloud strategy. It puts it in to perspective just how the market has grown when our first ClearCloud customer signed a deal for £250,000 per year. More than 1000 times the size of our very first customer.

When we started we were focussed on web development and shared hosting. Now our focus is very much on infrastructure and cloud. That being said, one thing that has never changed is our focus on support. And that’s what we are concentrating our efforts on with ClearCloud. Whenever you look at a business that has been around long enough to evolve with its industry, you will see the product change dramatically. But there is always a common thread that remains no matter how much the product evolves. What remains throughout every iteration of our UKFast journey, is service. It’s the reason we were inspired to set up in the first place. It is our differentiator in the marketplace. People are quite simply at the heart of all we do. No matter what service we provide, we’ll always do what we can to make our clients’ lives easier.

Whilst most of our competitors are happy to promote themselves as good at support, fortunately for us, they don’t have our passion, obsession or systems to deliver.

With AWS and Azure interested in growing their technical revenue, they rely on others to provide the service, so there is a huge gap in the market.

Watch this space

So what’s next? I always envisaged growing UKFast into a business that would one day become a PLC. Interestingly, in the early years, when I shared this ambition with  our accountants and advisors, they would tell me that I wasn’t cut out for it, that it wouldn’t sit well with me. However, over the years, a great deal has changed. In particular I have had to adapt my management style as the business grew and grew. Some might say I’ve become more mellow. I think I am just as passionate, but I am certainly a great deal more patient. I also spent years searching out the ingredients in the great leaders across the globe. One of the biggest factors that kept coming up was the importance of listening. “Two ears, one mouth,” as Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash used to tell me!

Floating UKFast now feels like an exciting prospect. It’s almost a necessity if I am going to take on the challenge of tackling and competing with global PLCs.

UKFast has such potential and, without doubt, can become the UK’s equivalent to Azure and AWS.

It’s a huge task and we have an immense amount of work to do but as, Tony Robbins said: “In nature nothing stands still. You are either growing or dying.”

Well, dying is not an option. If you are going to grow, you may as well aim high and shoot for the stars.

Growing pains

So what’s around the corner? Well it’s Sunday and all I can say is I can’t wait to get into work tomorrow.

Over the years I have spent my entire life learning how to deal with the growing pains and coming to terms with just how to run UKFast as it morphs into different sizes. Just as I feel like I have a handle on things, it grows again and so the challenge continues.

It’s what makes being in business so much fun. It’s important too because as a leader it’s our role to ensure we inspire everyone around us. If we are not excited about the opportunities and prospects ahead, then how are your team supposed to get energised?

This is definitely the most exciting era of my business career. When you consider the resources we had as a tiny start up in 1999, just me Gail and Neil, and compare that to the resources and opportunities we have now, its a different world, a different planet! It’s a universe of potential.

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