Episode 4: The Founder's Story with Jonny and Richard Townsend
Having grown tired of the constraints of the corporate world; brothers Richard and Jonny decided to embark on their own journey to disrupt the digital training industry.
Each brother brought a specific skill set to the table. Jonny was commercial and operationally minded, while Richard was a creative strategist with a proven track record in the media industry.
Fusing these skill sets together, the only specialist provider of online training in digital skills specifically designed for global enterprises was born. And they decided to name it: Circus Street.
In this episode, Jonny and Richard Townsend reflect on the humble beginnings of Circus Street. Sharing significant markers that contributed to their personal and business success; from having to pick up new skills on their own as founders, to the big deals that transformed the company and helped them achieve their dream of taking the company global.
Let's dive in!
To learn more about Richard Townsend, connect with him via LinkedIn.
Transcribed by Otter.ai
Hi I'm Richard Townsend,
CEO and co founder of circle Street, now, CEO of three businesses under the internal moniker of workforce learning, circle, St. Cloud Academy, and Q A's corporate learning division.
And I'm Johnny Townsend. I'm the other founder of circus Street. And I'm now the Chief Commercial strategist for the group of companies that Richard just mentioned. So I guess when we started circus trees, I'm just diving in now, I don't know if you care. But when we started circus Street, we realized that we had different skills that we could bring. Mine was commercial and operational. And your as a thing really can be summed up by saying it was, initially it was content and product direction, and also strategy, wasn't it?
Yeah, I think I think I would sort of describe myself as a creative strategist, with a background in the media industry, and your operations and commercial. But also quite creative. So there's some crossover areas.
But the distinct
core competence, you know, I think I'm reasonably commercial. But I haven't trained as a commercial person, and I don't have your experience as an example. So there's some commonality. But there's also distinct areas where it's our core competence, basically.
Do you know I think what was interesting, if I look back to when we started the business, you know, as you said, my background was commercial. I'd been in the telco sector for a long, long time. I'd basically been in sales, sales, management, sales, leadership roles, senior sales, leadership roles, pretty much all my life since about, well, moving up through the ranks, I guess, since 20, I suppose. And then we started circuit Street, when we first started coming together to discuss the idea of what certainly street could be. I was 39. So I've been doing commercial stuff for nearly 20 years at that point, I'm not 39 anymore, I'm coming up with 53. But we've been working together for quite a long time. But I don't know about what you think. But when we started circus Street, as as a small business, when you when you build a small business, you then have to lean into as opposed to bet phrases, you end up falling into other areas that you previously never considered, right. I'm thinking in my own experience, you know, I had to learn all sorts of legal stuff, to be able to create our first contracts, and, you know, negotiate with solicitors when we couldn't afford them. And you know, and then hire lawyers and solicitors and find out who were good and who were bad, because there's many bad out there as there are good not in terms of nefarious, but in terms of just a lack of skill, right, you have to be able to understand enough of it to be able to monitor their skill or lack of skill, and then you learn production. And then you learn about animation. And then you learn about all these different things. So while you said, you know, you were really in kind of strategic roles in the media side of things, as well as planning and buying and all that kind of stuff. Did you find that you by starting a business, you also just learned stuff that you were never in a position to have to learn before or even wanting to learn before? Yeah, I
think so. You know, for think back. I mean, often when we tell the story about circuitry, kind of for simplicity reasons, we sort of say that you're the commercial guy, and I was the product guy and, and all that sort of stuff. But it just it just wasn't as simple as that. You know, if anything, I'd probably say that you were more responsible for the early kind of vision of a lot of what happened with the product that I was. I had a sense of the content and the curriculum that we were producing, but the way that the product was delivered, and was more you than me. I mean, you found the first presenter, you found a production company that built the first prototype, you found Paul, who, you know, we all know, Paul Simon is our was the first product person that we hired and then became, you know, the chief designer, really of the business, you were very much directing the length of the lessons, all that sort of stuff. So in some ways, you were picking up an awful lot of stuff as COO, COO, because you were CLL, but also responsible for sales, you're very good in the detail. Whereas, you know, I was probably resting inside of my core competence for for a lot of it. Albeit, you know, the, the requirement to deliver certain things was, you know, there was a, we needed to do a lot quite quickly. So I suppose we needed one of us to stay at our core core area a bit. But you were doing, you know, doing a lot of heavy lifting, I'd say. Because, you know, sales requires a lot of time and effort and the product we will sort of feeling together. I mean, I think in the early days, we were very much running the business together. There wasn't that much between us I was where it was different was I was writing a curriculum, and you were putting you in front of customers more. But a lot of the rest of it. And as you said, you were doing a lot of the, the detail. So later, I'm gonna say, Well, what did I pick up later? You know, running the business, understanding where the finances really support, the performance of the business was something that I hadn't really done in great detail. So I suppose it was, it was that area. to certain extent, I think we were both thrust thrust together, you know, you know, it'd be interesting to hear what you think about that. But we weren't, we weren't really ever planning to work together. Right. That wasn't a natural thing.
No, absolutely. It wasn't the natural thing was to not lumps out of each other. On the weekend, you know. And you you'd gone a different route. To me, we're in totally different industries, totally different parts of the UK as well. I was up north, you were in London, you've been in London forever. Yeah, you know, our password we're forging in different directions. It was, I think it was kind of genius. I think what brought us together was this was this was this weird thing that I'd ended up as MD of an elearning business in the education sector. So I'd come out of the telco sector in all of these Senior Commercial roles and commercial leads, and ended up initially a sales director and then managing director of, of a learning company in the education sector. That was that was about elearning. And you'd left the agency world, and then we're working with large businesses to help them understand the impact of digital and how to prepare themselves for a digital future. And you'd cottoned on to the fact that actually what was really needed, you know, this is way ahead of people talking about digital transformation you'd worked out and what was really needed for businesses to take advantage of this was large scale rescaling of our workforce, rather than just the kind of the pockets that you were doing as a consultancy, you know, the digital team or the leadership team or whatever it needed to get right across the business. And as a consultant and a consultancy that you built, that consultancy, didn't have the scale to be able to do that. And then I and then we started talking about elearning. And could you take what you were doing in terms of helping businesses upscale in digital, and transfer this to a new learning environment. And what I was able to bring to that is, this is where elearning is today. And this is why it just fails time and time and time again, this is why people don't engage with it. This is why they don't want to use it. This is why they never lean into it. And so it was kind of as you say, it was kind of thrust together but it was purely by accident. It was never by design was
it? Now I think the design thing is and this you know, terms of the founders story, there's always a part of it, which is, you know, the human part of it, you know RL Chairman David always used to say, you know, people think that things are logical. And they're going to follow some form of process. But the reality is a lot of its emotional. And so. So I think what it was also underpinning that was that we both
had had enough of the sort of corporate life.
At that time, we've done a lot of stuff, we've worked with a lot of people. So there was also a desire to do something different for ourselves. That was fun. And that presented an opportunity, because that that might have been the case 15 years earlier, but we might not have taken it off. Because we would have been thinking, Yeah, but we've got this career, we're doing these things, and things are going pretty well. But you know, like all of these things, there's a bit of timing in everything. And also, you know, as a founder, there's a reason why founders are often 20. But because they're foolish enough to believe that it's possible. But also, they've got time to make the mistake, if you get if you're 40, which essentially, we were both of us around about the age, you really are running out of time to be a founder, we did it right at the last minute. And there's some benefits of that, which is you've, you've got a lot of experience in, in my case, I had quite a lot of contacts, that in relation to this particular business that I could bring to the business. So lots of lots of those things, but, but it's never one of the things that people don't really understand is there's never really an easy time to be a founder. But if there isn't one, it's probably in your early 20s is the easiest. So I think when we came together was we kind of had enough of the status quo. But if we were ever going to do it as it had to be now, right. And there was a lot, there was a lot of risk in that the it had, it had to be good enough idea that we were prepared to go with it. But you never really know. But I think at that point, there was some things that you could be reasonably certain of, there was a lack of skill, there was a lack of knowledge around digital in the corporate world, and the impact of digital on the commercial aspects of business. And there were lots of indications of that that was true. And we knew that the problem was bigger than you could do. You could you could do in a classroom, you know, but also that if you're going to build a business, you want to build something that's scalable, so technology seems to be the right answer. And also, if you're going to teach people about technology, you should do it with technology. Right? I think that was our sort of premise, but it was all very, very uncertain. But then I would say,
did you think it'd be global sort of, you know,
so you think a lot of things that you sort of, you know, remember when we first started, and we were sort of our idea was, you know, the selfish part of our idea was, if we get this all up and running, and people can buy it online, we can make money while we sleep, you know. And they could come from anywhere, you know, if this was good enough, and people who was useful enough that someone in Finland could buy it overnight, and we'd wake up in the morning and make a sale. And that wasn't really the business that we build. But there was a notion that anything you put online, can be digital, but I didn't really, once you start to build the business, it seems to be very domestic, because just because of the relationships and the companies that we were selling into, but there was always there was always an eye on it. But it wasn't, you know, the initially where I thought we would go in, I think that's an interesting thing as well. We, you know, one of the things about founder story is it kind of changes direction, right? You don't doesn't follow the path that you think you're gonna go in. You know, where did you think we were gonna go?
I mean, I, I'm a bit of a dreamer, right? So I kind of felt every business in the world could buy this. But there was no evidence to say that. That was the case. You know, nobody was the closest. The closest successful example we had of that was a product that was called lynda.com. Which later because became LinkedIn learning. You know, it was started by Linda. Linda Wiseman, I think it was an artist and she had been a teacher. And she built this fantastic product that was all about engaging the learner in delivering just in time learning, but it was very, it was very focused on the individual whereas we were much more focused on business because we both got business background and we understand business right? So I kind of kind of dreamt that it would go global, but it didn't necessarily know how it would go global. And I think there's an interesting point as a, as a founder, where you have this ambition, and you're struggling to get your business to meet that ambition, you know, those, those hard yards of the first kind of four or five years where it's just every day is an uphill battle, you're constantly running out of cash, you're constantly not paying yourself, you know, you're you can't do the things you want to do the Batman's, you know, sending you threatening letters threatening to shut you down, because they don't understand that cash flow works in a business and all this gun isn't up. And the and your ambitions are always ahead of the business. But then there's a point where the business, if you get it, right, the business starts to go ahead, and your ambitions and your ambitions are kind of left behind, you know, whatever you thought the business could be is, it's already been that, and it's gone way beyond that, you know, but though, and those, and what's also interesting is those, those initial challenges around growth in particular, then then disappear. And in some ways, it becomes easier. But those initial challenges are brutal. You know,
it's not for everyone, you know, because I mean, we used to describe it is, you have to do your day job, which is pretty difficult, because you basically charting a course that no one's ever been on before. But you're doing it with a monkey on your back and scratching your eyes, which is, you know, the stress that you have to live with, you know, often described it as, you know, probably a bit cliche, but you know, it's a bit like, you know, having a child and at that point, it's a, it's a baby in a special care baby unit, and you have to sit next to it all day, every day, make sure making sure it's fed. Otherwise, it might die. You know, I think it feels like that it's constant is a kind of constant vigilance. But if you're 40, you have all these other complications, like you've got children or a wife, or, you know, and we are the classic founders in the sense that we put everything on black and we had no money and no savings. And we'd put loads of money on credit cards, and I think actually forced you to take out a credit card at one point, put loads of money on it.
Now that was, I'd already maxed out all the credit cards, what you did is, we said we need a bank loan, I can't get a bank loan. So I went and got background and gave you half the money.
Which is ironic, really, because as you said, like you were the one who actually believed in the business, and I was kind of worrying a lot at the time, they might not work. Whereas you had this sort of belief, from the very early days that they would work in some way or another. I think that was your commercial instincts of what the requirement was in the market, and the lack of competition, and ultimately, our ambition, our ability to execute something.
But it was interesting, because I think, at some point, we
realized we were better at this than we thought we would possibly could be, you know, and I think that level of humility is quite useful, right? You know, like, you know, you know, if you think you're brilliant, then you're often going to make mistakes. Whereas a lot of times, I think we thought, I don't know, if we're good enough to do this. But in the end, we, you know, without being arrogant, we were more than good enough to do it, you know? But, but it does take a lot of look. And, and you do make your own look, there's that cliche as well, by working hard, but it's, it's an awful lot of things that have to come together to make it work. What would this in your mind, what would this significant markers along the way? Interesting to see you in a way where you're starting to make a success of things?
Do you know I knew. I mean, the stats are, you know, people talk about, you know, the percentage of businesses that fail in the first year and the first two years and the first three and all this kind of stuff. And they always focus on the early stuff, right, which is 50% of businesses fail in their first year. Right? When you go, Oh, my God, why would you bother is horrendous. But it actually gets worse. Right? 90% of businesses fail in their first 10 years. Right so businesses can get beyond five years and they're still not out of the woods. They can still fail 90% of businesses that start failing in the first 10 years. I mean, that's like It's like playing Russian roulette with an autumn static, you know, it's not, it doesn't make it doesn't make any sense, right. And obviously, there's no forgiveness. And, you know, if you think back to when we started the business, we set up a limited company, which is limited liability. But everybody gets rounded by just making you sign personal guarantees. You know, so they kind of say, oh, yeah, you're a limited company. And because you're a limited company, we can't come after the company, if anything happens, and anything goes bust. And, you know, if the company is on the hook for 100, grand, we want to be able to come after you directly. That's the point
that says, now just decide to jump through. But it's an interesting point that because they do also make it harder for founders, right? So it's harder anyway, cuz you haven't got any money, and you don't really know if the products gonna, you don't if you're gonna get the market fit that you're looking for, and all those kinds of things. But it's kind of seems to be made harder for you as well. Right? So it makes a hard thing even harder.
Yeah. Yeah. And I think, I think the what, what determines whether or not people actually start a business, is their risk tolerance. And then what determines whether or not they're going to succeed is it's all execution. It's not an idea. It's not even a product, it's all execution. And it's all managing that risk through the process. I think the key to answer your question, the key mark is, for me, the key milestones for me. Were when we got our first decent sized deal. No, let me go back a little bit, getting David Mansfield and his chairman. Yeah, because he invested some money, but it wasn't about that. It was about it was about him having a book of contacts that we would never get access to him without his introduction. So they
also but also searching Trump's against also is it what proved to be true was his experience. Yeah, he's Yeah, he's experienced was a big part of that is calm hand. And he's understanding what to do in in certain situations. And although we've been in senior positions in commercial organizations, running a business is a different thing.
Yeah. And he'd be chairman of Europe's largest Radio Group. And he did chief executive, Europe's largest Radio Group, and he was on the board of ingenious media, you know, they're made, they make all sorts of great movies. And they've been on the board at Carphone Warehouse, and he was chairman of the game group. So is this really seasoned, big business veteran, but he also had a really entrepreneurial small company blow and got scrappy approach. So we would kick the door down for us, in certain, like Bauer media, he would be kicked the door down there, you know, global radio, we kicked the door down there, Sky telegraph, you made the introduction, you still had to go in and have a decent product and a decent story and a decent sell. But it was just being able to be taken seriously as a fledgling business. You know, it was it was a significant was a significant contributor to early success, then getting the money from the first deal that we did with EGS. And Rob Haller signed me off. And being able to kind of pay the salary bill for the next six months, which allowed us to go and hire some people
was just astonishing feeling at the time, if you remember, you know, just being able to have that kind of runway, which isn't very long. Seemed, you know, seemed like everything at the time.
Yeah, exactly. And we, you know, our first order was 144,000 pounds. And that lasted us for six months, you know, but, you know, when we, towards the end of the journey, before we're required by QA, I think our salary Bill was a million pounds a month or a million dollars a month or something, you know, so it wasn't even paid for a few days in the in the businesses whilst but at that time, it was life changing, you know, and, you know, we could go and employ some people then. And then it was it was then bringing in people like Paul Simon, who just who is just a visionary, right, and the team he built and that that obsessive addiction to quality that he had, when every time we'd send in cut corners for make it cheaper, he would go No. And he would retain the quality of the product. And then it was, and then it was, you know, bringing people on like Richard Hurst, who, who we tried a few salespeople to kind of bolster the efforts that I was doing, but they never really delivered anything. him. Richard had a very entrepreneurial spirit of that. And as well, you know, he, he basically said, you know, I want to come work for you guys. And we said, well bring us a million pounds of the orders, you can have a job. It's interesting because yeah, and he did what he did, you know, did yeah, people, the people that believe the
people that changed things and the people who had the similar belief that you had, you know, Andrew Mendoza, you know, who was our first real sort of external investor outside of David. He was one of the only people that at when we were raising that really could see where things could go. We, we weren't very good at raising money, I don't think I think there's a there's founders fall into a number of different groupings. So some are brilliant at raising money and not very good at running businesses. Some are great at running businesses, and not very good at raising money. And a very small number of great about, you know, and I think that I think I think we will be better at it now. But at that time, I don't think we really were great at it. But Andrew was another one of those people that saw the potential in the same way. But like you say, Richard, really believed in it very early on. And so he put his heart and soul into it. And he had a similar approach to us in terms of being entrepreneurial. And it's got excited about that. And not everybody gets excited about it. Some people find it very difficult, because they like everything done and sorted and, you know, provided to them. And we were market makers, and he's a market maker.
Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think that that initial raising money, you remember, when we would go out and we would, we would talk to people about raising money, we didn't raise a lot of money over the whole life of circuit Street. Yeah. Which was great, because we retained ownership of it. And we were able to steer it in the in the direction of travel that we wanted it to be, but are always remember, sitting down with people in VCs and, you know, not so much private equity, but certainly venture capitalists. And you know, those people saying things like, of course, you raise your first million from friends and family. I mean, what friends, in fact, we didn't have, all of our friends and family didn't have two pennies to rub together, you know, we saw some of it was to deal with the fact that we just didn't really have any access to people who had money, who were willing to take a bet. And so it was it, like you said it was Andrew Mendoza. And some of the people he represented, that were really taking a bet on the opportunity rather than the business and then backing us as a management team to realize that, but I think all the way through, you mentioned you need luck. But I think you when it comes to the people in your business, and because ultimately the business is built alongside the people that you bring in, in the business, right? The founders bet is, you take all the risk, you sign all the personal guarantees, you borrow all the money, you're on the hook for everything. You have the idea that nobody else has had and you decide to get behind it. But once that foundation, founders foundation, it's a very similar word. Once that foundation is in place, the success of the business is dependent on the people that you bring in. And I think where our expertise was really good. Whereas maybe it's different when you're 20 is spotting the really good people and then finding a way to attract them to the to the business. You know, we've talked about some of the early people like Paul and hursti, but then later on people like Julia deer and Sarah Gilchrist and Barry and all those all those folks and then everybody that kind of reported into them, you know, in the in the commercial teams and the production teams, people, you know, Matthew Cooksey and all that, that they were really the the, they were the layer on lab directors that built the thing. Do you know what I mean? Yeah, well,
I think in the early days, we were doing everything. So we were sort of responsible for the culture responsible for the product, responsible for the sales responsible for the marketing, you know, you're responsible for everything and you actually doing a lot of it. So there's key there are key pedo Joe, Joe Roberts coming in and taking them transforming it. Cooksey taken over all the production side of it, after Paul had kind of built it and created the vision for everything. And Sarah obviously was very pivotal in terms of her taking over his car when he went out to America, and really sort of building the culture or building out the culture, some of which we'd set in place but Bill They're out. And then, like we say, just talented people like Julia and Barry, and loads of others just coming in later. I think one of the other things, you know, deals are quite important. It's quite funny that you know, when anything good used to happen that we used to go to Nando's. And that became our thing like it was a. So we got sick of Nando's, and then it became a bit problematic. But anything, anytime anything good happened, it became superstitious to do that. And we did that after the Aegis deal, because that was such a monumental thing to happen. I think David came in after we, after we done that, it would prove that we had something that was market worthy. But it took a long time to to really establish the market fit. But one another deal that was very important was the Unilever deal, because it was moving out of our first customer base was really in the media industry. So it was a TV press radio, outdoor, etc. And then the people serving that industry, the media agencies and little bits of advertising agencies. But it's really when we got into the brands that the business started to really transform. And Unilever was that deal. And we will possibly six months early to get a Unilever. But that's probably the best time to get a Unilever because it transforms your business. And you really have to accelerate forward to meet the expectations of a business like that. And we were sort of partway through building out the platform, the curriculum, we were finding a lot of things. There was there was always lots to do. So I think you know, we had something like seven or seven offices in about eight years. So we were constantly constantly growing and doing things but Unilever transformed this because we had to meet that expectation, and it changed the business. And while we if we look back, we both would probably agree that we could have done things better. We still went really well. And lots of people who experienced the product inside that company then went on and became advocates for the business, which meant that we moved out into into the world of the brands and picked up some of the world's most amazing brands, really, you know, the McDonald's, the Nikes. The Coca Cola is the Procter and Gamble's demands, I mean, the list went on, which, you know, obviously was a huge then a huge asset for our business, because we could point to the client base and say, we don't just these aren't just logos that we put on a chart, we've got a meaningful relationships with these people, where we're making a difference to their business, right?
Yeah. And it was it was Unilever and GSK. That made it who both had quite a significant user base in the US. That made us decide, Okay, now let's have a go at the US. Because it again, just building the business up from scratch. You know, we we had an art, we always had an eye to the US. But it was this scary place. I remember one somebody saying to me somebody that I knew from a long time ago, he would, you know, worked and became very successful guy called Roy Skinner said to me, if you ever go to the US and you drive through the US and you drive down roads like route 66, and all this sort of stuff. He said, you'll see these these mark what look like markers, they look that mile markers on the side of the road. But if you pull over and look at them, what they actually are is the gravestones of British businesses. Because because you can't play at it, and you can't, you can't just turn up and go where this buy it from us. You know, you have to adapt to the US. And when I did move over to the US to to open up the operations there. And we did we built a great team out there. And one that delivered fantastic success. But also the knock on effect was that I think it also had an impact on the business. We were trying to win in Europe where you had a European Center, like a headquarters, but they were a US business too. You know, they had a US presence. It helped with a lot of that, but but certainly when we went to the US, I think as a business, we were about 25 people, maybe 30 people, so we're still a really young fledgling business. We didn't have a huge amount of content. You know, we were we were getting good at what we did. And we were getting a reputation certainly so you know, that was that was good timing.
Yeah, A couple of decisions, you know, that we made between us that, you know, should probably reflect on quite big decisions, you know, me to be chief exec, then you to be COO, is, it was probably quite an easy decision for us because we there was an ego in it. But on the outside people go, you know, he's the younger brother, and he was Chief Exec. But the reality is we did it, we didn't do it based on ego, we just did it based on which bits We're each gonna do. And it was the same with the decision to go out to America, which was, you were never going to send me out there. Because I wouldn't have been able to do what you did, which was, in a very short period of time, genuinely build a business out there that was successful with very little. I mean, I think I sent you over there with one contact, which then you turned into a multimillion pound business in that market in a relatively short period of time. So those commercial skills and your that those business skills were super valuable. And, you know, it wasn't, it wasn't a difficult decision in a way, because it was obvious that you were the person to do it. But also, it's also a massive personal commitment. So there were those those things that are part of the story as well is, you know, some people are not prepared to do that, you know, and the same with with hursti. I suppose when, you know, we, he went out to Singapore, took his family's three kids, his wife, you know, it's a massive, it's a massive commitment to do that to move into another country so that they were they were also big. They were very big stages in the in the success of the business, because, you know, I think what we worked out was, it's not really in a global world and a global business world. It's not a, you don't think about domestic regions, you think about how do you bring in a global account. So when we brought in the likes of Nike, that's a global assignment that you're bringing across the world rather than, you know, there were obviously brands that you brought in like Hershey's, that were, we weren't really necessarily going to win anywhere else in the world. But we were starting to think about how do you create a global business?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, no, I mean, I think Jill her brought in her she's actually but I know what you mean, is, we brought in Campbell's, you know, we brought in she Shado, which is a Japanese business that had all of its operations in the US, we brought in all the agencies in the US that weren't signing up to lists that were part of the agency groups that had signed up to us in Europe that saw themselves as very different operations like PhD and density, just network, etc. You know, we brought in a few others, we run a few other, you know, really iconic US brands, just brands in the US as well, you know, and then we brought in, you know, multinational brands like Colgate and what have you from the US. So, it was definitely a success. But, but I think, you know, it comes back to you that you look at Hearst, you're going out to Singapore, you look at me going out to New York. And I never, I can't speak firstly, but I never saw it as a as a terrifying thing. I just saw it as an adventure. And I think that's the that's the entrepreneurial spirit that you need. You look at something like that and go, you know, here, here I am. I've got an opportunity. I've never been to New York, but I've got an opportunity to live there and work there. You know, I'm from a mining town in in north north Nottingham. Sure. Yeah. Isn't that an amazing adventure that I can end up doing that and so you do, and it and it pays off. But and this, you know, everybody talks about the cultural differences between the US and the UK. And then he kind of asked him what they mean. And they come out with a loaded kind of spurious answers. And I never found there were really cultural differences between the one I never found there were cultural differences between New York and the UK. I found there were cultural differences between New York in London. But there weren't many cultural differences between New York and Sheffield. You know, being in business in Sheffield and Leeds is remarkably similar to being in business in New York. They're kind of cut from the same cloth. When I first moved to London set in this business with you, I used to get frustrated at the lack of urgency and the lack of directness because I was used to that, you know, being a salesperson in in the Yorkshire region. When I moved to New York. It kind of reminded me of my first territory, you know, as a as a, as a as a b2b salesman in the mobile sector, you know, selling click on us backs, you know, and that kind of a triangle there is very, very similar to sell it in in Manhattan and pound in the street, you know, going up and down Madison Avenue pounding the streets, having half your meetings canceled, you know, an hour before, is the same as you know, being a salesman in Leeds, you know, there's, there's an insight
for you, if anybody's listening who's from Halifax, you're gonna go down a storm in New York. But yeah, I'm think Gil is somebody you know, we should we should, you know, talk about more, because I think, you know, people also represent sort of the culture that you want to build. And Jill, was your first hire, right?
It's tiring, first hiring in the US. Yeah, yeah.
But, and she was just really cut from the same cloth as us as well, right, and had that natural enthusiasm and personality. And, you know, while she was very young, when she joined, you need that level of enthusiasm in the people. And that level of belief, when you're when you when you're building a business, you know, and the, you know, there's lots of really good people, but there might not be those people, you do need those type of people when you build a business?
Yeah, you know, it's kind of it's quite a formula. It's, you know, intelligent, driven, hard working ambitious. Yeah. You know, that's kind of this gel. And but it's so many other people in our business as well, it's Mike forest, it's, it's all sorts of people in our business, you know, it's, it's, it's Christie, it's whoever, you know,
yeah, when you, when you look back at those, there's a story about all of the people you know, I remember, you know, Mike, you know, being next door to us in one of the offices and was, was selling in a quite a difficult environment, there was always somebody with him selling, and that person would invariably be changed out every month. And the the only person that was left standing was always Mike, and you kind of as a founder, you've constantly got your eye on different people. And you're constantly thinking about how you can do did things differently. I mean, one of the other things is, you know, that we haven't talked a lot, but it's just a lot of fun, right? Is, there's a lot of fun along the way, and there's so many fun stories, we probably haven't got enough time for the for it now. But if you were, if you're ever going to write the biography will probably say something like the Jaguar, the one eyed man, the hotel room, and the panda suit, you know, definitely called that won't mean anything to the people listening to this. But there's a story behind all of those things. And it's funny, because when you first start out, you look back, and you really did have, that's when the fun was, it was really, really fun. But you've got no money, and the stress levels are ridiculous. So you'd never choose to go back there. But if you if you reflect itself in there that you go to in terms of where the real, very happy memories were, because it's all in front of you. It's a bit like, you know, being a kid, you know, it's all in front of you, and the dreams are out there. But there's a there's a lot to do. And then along the way, you just you just do have a lot of fun, right?
You do. And I think one of the reasons why a lot of it goes back then is it's much of it is discovery. Whereas as you get more advanced, you you're kind of discovering less, I suppose, because it's not everything's brand new. And the other point is in and I'm not just talking about us as the founders, but everyone who worked for us at that stage. You would get up in the morning, and you would start work wherever you weren't, he would start work. And you wouldn't start work until somebody said, it's what I am that you're going to bed. Yeah. So you would just at work and everybody that worked for us at the time. Remember, we had initially when we had that first office in North Greenwich, we had camp beds in there, so people could sleep at the office. So they didn't have to waste time going home and coming back the next day. And we didn't bring in the camp beds. They did. Yeah. You know, and it was it was kind of self propelling like that, you know, everybody who was in the business at that time just just went for it. It was crazy early.
Yeah, you can't you can't scale that later. You know, if you had a policy, which is we're only going to hire people, you know, bringing a cat bass. You know, people would think we were sort of, you know, West Coast tech type tyrants or something. Because it's certainly sustainable for a period. But I think that I hope anyway, the people that did that with us, they would look back at that that was the really fun times as well. They were doing it because they wanted to do it. You know, people like Paul, you know, he really he had the same passion as us to build something really good. All of those Have kids around that time, people that Jackie was a remarkable young kid who was only 22 years old, and really helped change our business from the moment he walked through the door, there was just just a lot of talent. I mean, one of the things, you know, eventually, then you build this business, it's successful. And we ticked off just a lot of boxes, you know, just things that, that we wanted to achieve, you know, we built a great product, great culture, we brought fantastic people into the business. It had become global. We're working with the world's best brands, you know, we got voted one of the most innovative places to work in the world, by Fast Company and Accenture. It really, it was, you know, pretty heady journey. And we, we had fast growth. But we also, you know, I think we can look back and say, we ran a great business, because we did do those things. But we were also, we became profitable, you know, and there's a lot businesses that get the fast growth and the bringing the investment, but they never, they never crossed that Rubicon and become a business that starts to generate profits. And without huge amount of investment, we did that. But we also became a profitable business. And then obviously, that made us very saleable.
And then we sell, right?
So what's that, like, as a founder, you know, when you, when you do get to that point, and somebody, you know, you built this amazing thing. With the dream of eventually, one day selling the business, because like everybody else, we needed to pay our mortgages, and look after our families and all those things, but we built this amazing thing. And so just reflect on that. What was your experiences of selling the business and then being on the other side?
Well, we never, we never we never just wanted to sell it to anyone. Right? It was that sell process to me, was much it was as much about us deciding who was going to buy from us. You know, as who as who was going to who was going to buy us you don't I mean, I'm kind of phrase that badly. But Hello, you know, we didn't we didn't put from my point of view, being acquired by QA was really about just being able to realize the vision of what our business could be. But accelerating it by probably five or even 10 years. Right. And it was and, and the process itself. Everybody talks about everybody we've spoken to who'd built a business and sold a business had said to us is the hardest thing you'll ever do? I don't think it was. It wasn't really, it was It wasn't pleasant, you know, you were kind of kicking and fighting and biting all the way through it and getting hauled over the coals a little bit. But that's just due diligence. Right. And, you know, no one was out to get anyone in that process and you work crazy hours and long hours, but you were doing it anyway. Right. So it wasn't it wasn't particularly hard to say, okay, QA is the right buyer. You know, but in terms of then, in terms of them becoming part of something else. For me anyway, it's, it's not that much different. Because we've all got the same ambition I think, you know, you probably have quite a different experience because you know, you've gone from I guess, making all the decisions backed up by by people who are like minded and thinking the same way. Right. So it's a kind of, you're making these decisions based on everyone's continuous contribution. And though therefore, the decisions are just kind of obvious through to it's now a bit more complicated and you can't just make decisions in the in the way that we made him before, but I might be putting words in our fair, I don't know. What do you think? Yeah,
I think I think it's a slight it's it's a weird experience, you know, you put you kind of push push to the line. And somebody asked me what it was like recently now that someone said, you know, you sort of you got across the line and, you know, a lot of the stress went away, you know, No, and, you know, and what was that like and, and into service, then it just felt the same. You build and build and build for what you think is this moment, you know, and this, you know, it's kind of that thought of is the journey that matters, not the destination, you know, sounds quite Buddhist, and we all have heard something similar to that probably on LinkedIn, or Facebook, someone's posted that, something like that. But it's true. But when you actually get there, the destination you get across the line, it's okay, that was interesting. But as the it's the process of building the business, and all that kind of enjoyable, and then it is a risk, because by that stage, you're obviously thinking about, you know, the financial aspects of things. But you're also thinking about, you've got this group of people that you've built, you know, you built this thing with, and you care about, and you've got this thing that you've built, and you care about, and you've got to make this very big decision, you know, so it's all about what happens after and making sure that you work really hard to make that work. And you have the right mindset, and your team has the right mindset to make that work. Because, you know, joining two things together, it's not easily. So I think we've been pretty lucky in that respect. And, yeah, my new job now is the same but different. You know, I dealt with, as you said, earlier, we owned the business. So ultimately, while we had a board of directors, and we took that very seriously, and we had investors sitting on the board, and we had a chairman, who would hold us to account, even though we were very close. And again, we took that very seriously, ultimately, was our decision. Now, I'm very much working for the owners of the business. And so it's different, but the principles, the principles are the same, it's about building something great. And think the way that we build businesses is the finances are very important. But what happens there is really just a reflection of what you do, in terms of running the business. And the performance of the business is not one person or one group of people's responsibility, performance is not the responsibility of the sales team is a responsibility of everybody, including us to have a clear vision, to have a clear strategy, to build great products that involve the commercial team, to think about what you stand for, and turn that into a really clear marketing proposition. And everybody being engaged in that in a culture that everybody shares in, that's ultimately our philosophy of how we build a business. Right? And not everybody, not everybody does it that way. And I think it's probably, I don't know about you, but this, you know, the, the philosophy of how to run a business and the understanding of all those component parts and what your management style is, and they're the lessons that you learned from running a business from literally bedroom, you know, up to 20 million turnover. And, you know, there's, it's the great is the greatest university in the world, right?
Oh, yeah, it's, I think I learned more in those first five years and developed more in those first five years than the previous kind of 20 years that I've been working easily, easily and leaps and bounds, you know. And I think you continue to do that. And I think you've, you've hit on some really interesting points there. Because if you think about, certainly in the first five years, the motivation that keeps driving you forward in that, in that way that's quite self harming. Right, in terms of the tax it takes on you. Much of that is driven by fear, because you are on a daily basis, you are at risk of losing everything, not just your job, but everything, you know. And that itself is a huge motivating factor. That's that fear that just gets you up every morning just keeps you driving through. But later on, as the first aid never dissipates, well, you know, before you're required, because you've still got no money and you still haven't got a house and you still have all these sorts of different you still haven't got the savings or any pension and all that sort of stuff. So it can still disappear. But along the way you build it a different motivation alongside it. And eventually that motivation to excel which is everything that you've said about, you know who how many people get to I get to do that get to do what you've just said not many, you know, it's a rare, it's a rare space, you know, for people to be in? And you know, that's kind of what makes it all worthwhile and keeps you in the game, you know? Yeah. But
it's it is quite romantic idea, you know, is the hero's journey. And also, as you pointed out earlier on, most people don't get to that point is very, very difficult. And it does require a certain amount of look to get there. But there is, there are clear principles that you can learn. And it's why it's very important for people who have experience to step in and help mentor young businesses, particularly those with young people. Because there are lessons that you can learn that enable you to do this. Well and better, and it does take huge amount of hard work, but you can you can learn the lessons. And, you know, I think David, our Chairman always had that philosophy of giving back, you know, he spotted in some something else, which was ultimately going to deliver him a financial return, because he's an investor. And he's, you know, he's pragmatic in many ways. But he also enjoyed that process of helping us to develop in areas which we hadn't yet developed. So I mean, for me, that's something that I still enjoy doing, when I can find time is to just give some of those lessons to other people, not in any kind of egotistical benefactor kind of way, but just I know how helpful that's been for us at points, right. It was really helpful when certain people stepped in and helped us do certain things.
Yeah, we call them the other. We call them the other brother didn't meet. David. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Cuz he was like that.
Yeah, I think one of my other lessons really was our sort of management style, to think was very important, which, you know, we often refer to, you know, the team as an including ourselves as broken biscuits, which is this principle that, you know, broken biscuits is something that we grew up with, which was that, you know, in the shop, you'd have these broken biscuits at the front that they tasted the same, but they were a bit cheaper, you know. So it's this idea that, really not, people aren't perfect. And you're not looking for people to be perfect, you're not looking for them to be brilliant at everything you're looking to find out, you find that thing that really does make them great at what they do, and trying to maximize that as much as possible and give that air to breathe. And I think there's just a lot of examples in our business where we did that really well. And it's very clear. Now, when you look back who those people were, we still felt our way through to that style of management. It was based on us as people as much as anything else, rather than some philosophy about effectiveness. But it did, it did become very effective as a style of management. So we perpetuated it. And it didn't always work. But it worked more times than it didn't. And that was for me, that was another that's something that you can sort of take on and share with other people. It doesn't just help to grow your business, it just creates a nicer place to work. Which ultimately, yeah, was always a thing that we cared about as well, there were there were times when we could have probably raised a lot more money once we got to a certain point. But we also we also did prioritize, I just want to come to work and enjoy myself. But
we don't often get time to reflect that there. So think, in the 13 years or so that we've worked together. We've probably had conversations where we've looked back at this kind of extent, I probably count on one hand, everything's about looking forward. And you know, you don't it's when you look back, you kind of realize, you know, that you were part of something special, right. Do you think there's anything that that we've not covered today that we should talk about? I mean, we could talk about, you know, what, what's technology going to do to our business and all that kind of stuff, but and we can talk about that if you want but I just think you know, there's enough out there that talks about that already. Isn't that? Is there anything that we should talk about that we haven't done? Well, I
think just on that point, you know, I think it's quite interesting that we've never been the people that look back. You know, we've never been you know, when you go back home sometimes you've got those people who could talk about school, you know, a lot and it was a period of time which They obviously love to certain extent, perhaps get trapped there. But I've never looked back. Really, I don't know what that's about. But as you said, I'm always looking forward. And maybe that is, there's lots of different types of people make entrepreneurs, but maybe that's one of the flavors. You know, maybe that's one of the things, you know, we both people that we very rarely look back, we always look forward. But in terms of the future, I mean, I think there's some interesting things that we could talk about in terms of our our sector, you know, because we've got a sort of vision for stuff that we're developing, but lots of things will happen in technology, but in our sector in the learning sector, I think was clear is that, you know, moving into a world of, you know, making online learning work really well, and really established its place. In education, it has to be multi modality, you have to really get into lots of different styles of learning. And I think that's pretty exciting, because we've been always very interested in product and the role of products and building a successful business. And we just like building products. And so you know, the stuff that's happened in the business now, I think it's really exciting because we're really moving into gamified learning and labs and self paced learning and live learning and bringing all that together, as I think very exciting. I think the fact that we've recognized that learning in the corporate world really needs to now establish itself as something that matters to the business. And the way to do that is to attach that to business outcomes, I think is certainly where we're gonna go. But a lot of businesses are going to go in that direction, as well. So there's lots of kind of exciting new areas for, for our business to move into as we go forward. So, you know, I think I think that's, I think that's great, that part of our story is about, you know, where we're going to go next.
Yeah, absolutely. And I also think it's, it's interesting to see how lots of businesses around the world are now starting to backup what they say with with their action, right. So you know, every business that I've ever worked with, has always said, our most important asset is our people. And then there's a economic downturn and the layoff 25% of everybody. Yeah, that maybe doesn't add up. But you start to see now, more of a, you know, we've always had a people focus. And we've always thought about, you know, what's going to engage our people and our best people and bring people in? And how do we look after people and all that kind of stuff, because there's just all sorts of, there's benefits to it, but also, because it's kind of the right thing. But as we move into, you know, this next phase of digital transformation, which is, which is all about people, all the barriers now towards digital transformation, they're not tech, every business has bought tech. Every business has integrated their systems, every business is driving efficiency shoots. And that's not the barrier anymore. It's, it's, it's the people is getting people to realize the opportunity and want to do it and want to embrace it. Right. And that's forcing many businesses to say, what is it our people need? Right, not just from a learning perspective, but from a wellness perspective, a work life balance perspective, everything, you know, and that's, you know, it's good to see in many, in many respects, all the way through this, we've, we've done stuff on a hunch, which later on years down the line, you talk to an expert that you would have never previously had access to who talks to you about all the scientific reasons around why your hunch has worked, or why your hunch is working? Right? And, and you can kind of glibly say, oh, yeah, well, that's why we did it. But it's not when you did it, you just do it on a hunch, but a hunch is based on decades of experience of, I'm pretty sure if we do it like this, it worked better than it did before, you know. And I think, you know, we had a hunch early on that, that actually, when you build a great organization, you have a duty of care to do certain things with the people that work for you. And so that's always been a focus. And, you know, I think, you know, now we're part of this wider organization that that I'm sure He's just going to permeate through. Yeah, I think that's right.
I think, you know, for threatening, we reflect back, this exciting at the start of the founder journey, because everything's in front of you. And, you know, as a group of small group of people, you can get a lot done, there's not a huge amount of bureaucracy, and there's no politics, really, you just you just get stuff done, but you're limited in terms of the impact that you can make. But, you know, now at this point, now, there's so many new and exciting things that are in front of us. But, you know, we're just in a position where the business we're in now is much bigger, to be able to go and realize some of those things and the lessons that we've learned and experienced that we've got to genuinely changed the way that education can help people and businesses. You know, it's a real topic opportunity to leave, leave a mark or do something that was really worthwhile. So, I mean, it's Spin, spin an amazing journey. We're still very much on it. And it has been good today that about how you feel to reflect on it, because as you say, we don't really reflect on it much, but it's probably a good good time to end. The conversation at least.
Yeah, exactly. He's gonna say that sounds very final, but yeah, and this and this conversation and, you know, just continue the adventure. Right. Exactly. All right. Well, see so Talk soon, bye. Bye.
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