The Importance of Process

I think people often have the wrong idea about process. To many people, process is boring and corporate, but I actually believe it’s essential to make you efficient and to prepare you for high growth. Every organisation, no matter how entrepreneurial they are, has to have processes to be able to grow with speed. It’s really important. If you look at your organisation, you’ll see that you have a whole bunch of processes in whatever you do. It’s up to you how much detail you want to go into with each process, but what I’d like to share with you in this blog is how we created our processes at Cake. You can then decide how you want to approach your own processes. A good process will not affect your ability to be agile, creative and innovative. A good process provides flexibility and your culture should ensure that you do not lose your creativity and innovation.

Creating your key process

Cake was a software development company, so the key process for us was our software development process. I’m a big believer that process should always be owned. Not only that, but it should be articulated and owned by the people who are carrying it out on a day-to-day basis. It’s no good me, or another member of the senior team, coming up with a process and forcing people to use it. When you do that, there’s no ownership, and the process is probably wrong and not fit for purpose because you’re not close enough to what’s going on. 

The way we developed our software development process at Cake was to put together a panel of five people that went right across the software development team. There was no hierarchy or anything like that, it was just five people who volunteered and said they’d be happy to help because they felt it was an interesting and important task to work on. This team put together a process. Then they circulated it and discussed it with their colleagues. After about three weeks, we had a really detailed process that had been developed by the team. 

Once we had the process at the point where we were going to use it, we took it to a design company who made it look really nice, simplified the way it was presented and added some creative flair to it. Over the next six months, this process was refined slightly. But I would say that usually after this initial period, your process settles down. As the business develops and as the business world develops, there will be changes to your process. It might be that new technology comes along, that you have to build a new product, or offer a new service. In these cases, some things may have to change along the way, but the fundamentals will probably remain fairly consistent for a reasonably long period of time. 

Always have your process in a live document

It’s really important that your process is a live document. This document should continually be reviewed, tweaked and updated. That said, there’s nothing wrong with printing your key process on a perspex frame and hanging it on a wall in the office once it’s pretty stable.

I’d say you could do that once you have a key process that’s been around for six to 12 months and is pretty stable, which is not to say it’s set in stone, because they never are. But the fundamentals of the process aren’t likely to change drastically. 

Having your process on the wall in the office can help new employees, for example. It’s also useful for established members of the team, just to have it in the background as a reminder of the way that we want to do things to ensure that we maintain our edge, maintain quality and are doing everything in the right way. 

We found that customers also like to come in and see that you have a process. Clients love it when a company has processes because it makes them feel like you’re organised and know what you’re doing. 

At Cake, we used to have our software engineering process on the walls of the meeting rooms, as well as on our engineering area wall. It made sense to have it where our engineers sat, because it acted as a nice reminder to everyone. But we also put it up in our meeting rooms because we wanted our customers to see it. Your customers aren’t likely to look at your process in great detail, but the fact that you have something will give them confidence that you’re organised and know what you’re doing. 

Look at all of your processes

As well as creating our development process at Cake, we also looked at our sales process. This process went all the way from spreading our notoriety as an organisation, through to what we’d do when we received a phone call, and then to when we signed a contract at the end of the process. This was also important for us as a business.

We had a finance process too, which changed over time as the business grew. In this case we needed more management information and we needed more strategic support to change the finance process, so we worked with our FD and non-exec on our finance process and the strategic planning for that finance process to make sure we got it right.

One of the key things we benefited from as an organisation as we grew was having a recruitment process. In the end, once we had about 40 to 45 people working for us, we hired an internal recruiter and they developed a really great recruitment process. In a competitive area like software engineering, where there are more vacancies than there are people to fill them, you, as a business, have to be pretty impressive. 

Once we had a job applicant that we wanted to find out more about, our recruitment process kicked in. We began by getting the applicant excited about what we were about as a company, what we focused on and what our ethos and culture was. We talked about all of this, not in a salesy way, but just in terms of explaining who we were and what we were about. On the whole, this got people excited about joining Cake and then they wanted the job even more. We took them through quite a detailed process after this, but we did that as quickly as we could. This process involved some technical work with the engineering team, where people were assessed by the team using pair programming and an on-line technical test. But we also had a non-technical chat, usually with a member of the senior management team, where we would find out what that person wanted from a career point of view, what their aspirations were and what they were trying to do in life. Our aim with this part of the recruitment process was to get a feel for what they were about and make sure they were a good fit for our culture and the way we thought as a company. 

By combining those two elements, I would say that we made very few bad hires. Don’t get me wrong, we made some, but I think in comparison to a lot of companies we did pretty well on that front, but I believe that was because we had a very well defined recruitment process. It just goes to show why having processes in place is important.

As well as these bigger processes, there are also other smaller processes that you’ll require.  

Different companies will have different key processes

I’ve talked about the key processes that we had at Cake, which were our software development process, our sales process, our recruitment process and our finance process. These might be the same key processes that your company needs, or your key processes might be different. 

It’s important to remember that different companies have different key processes. Or it might be that the key processes fall broadly into the same area, for example sales, but that your sales process will look very different to the one we had at Cake. 

For example, there’s a leasing company I’m working with at the moment and its sales process is one of its key processes. It’s far more important than the sales process was at Cake, because this company is selling lots of smaller items, whereas we used to engage with customers on big projects involving tens of people and lasting for a period of maybe six to 18 months. 

A leasing company may receive 40 to 50 phone calls a day. Their business is leasing equipment to offices. That means their sales process is the most important one. Whereas at Cake, our software development process was the key.

This leasing company also has a logistics process, which was never something we needed at Cake. This logistics process is really important to them because when an order comes in and they get the sale, that’s all good, but to get another sale from that client they need to fulfil their order in a timely and efficient manner. To do that they need a logistics process. 

My point is that every company will have slightly different requirements and priorities for their processes and for the process itself. Where sales is concerned, the difference in process should reflect the different kinds of products that you’re selling, for instance. 

A process is a guide, not a set of rules

It’s important to emphasise here that processes are there to guide and support, they’re not there to drive the innovation and creativity out of the business. Good processes should support innovation and creativity. That’s a really important point.

What you often find is that more corporate processes kill creativity and innovation. They’re the kind of processes that force you to work in a particular way and if you don’t, you’re in trouble. 

We absolutely didn’t work like that at Cake. Our processes were there to guide and help people to follow a general direction, but there was every opportunity at various points in that process to think outside the box, be creative, come up with ideas and challenge things. We encouraged people to speak to the Head of Engineering if they came up with a good idea. Anyone in the team could come up with a good idea and if we felt it had merit we’d try it. Our ethos was, ‘What’s the worst that can happen? Let’s give that go.’ 

You need to have that flexibility within your process. It’s part of developing a culture of continual improvement, which is what you should strive for. Doing this allows you to tap into your team’s creativity and ideas. You should make it clear that you want them to come forward with suggestions and let them try new things. Failure, to a point, should be embraced because there’s nothing wrong with failing when you’ve tried to do something new. What is wrong is doing the same thing three times and failing at the same thing three times because you didn’t do anything differently. Of course there is a line, but failure should never be punished. You learn more from failure than you do from things going right. 

If you don’t try new things then I just don’t think you’ll stay ahead of the field that you’re in. You have to keep coming up with new ideas, doing things differently and trying new tools, techniques and processes. That’s how you continue to improve and that’s how you keep your team interested in what you’re doing. 

Find the right balance

There’s a real balance to find when you’re developing your process. Every company that wants to grow has to have a process. But I think that there are different types of processes. When you’re an entrepreneurial, agile company, you need a process that does a few things. The first is that it continually evolves. You’re growing all the time and your process is going to change because the scale of what you’re doing will change. It might be that you grow the number of services you offer, change the number of products you sell, or change the number of people you employ. As a result, your processes are going to have to evolve constantly.  This is why it’s so important that your process is in a live document that is updated on a regular basis and available to the whole team at the push of a button. Using collaboration software like Google Docs is a good way to store it so that everyone has access to the latest version of the process.

Secondly, because your process is continually evolving and because you’re an entrepreneurial, agile organisation, you can’t get too hung up on your process. You have to allow it to flex as and when required. You don’t want it to stifle innovation or creativity. 

On the opposite side of the scale, you don’t want things to descend into chaos because people aren’t following any process at all. You need to find that nice happy medium. I sometimes feel that at some of the bigger corporates they lose this balance. They have maybe tens of thousands of employees and they have very defined processes that people are scared to deviate from. 

What I’m saying is that your processes should act as a guide and if people feel a need to deviate from the process from time to time for a particular reason then that should be fine. Your process should evolve and if you need to update it because you’ve found a better way of doing things then brilliant. You want to keep it fresh and fit for purpose. That’s the difference between what I’d describe as a static, corporate-type process and an entrepreneurial, agile process. They are very different things. 


My 5 Must-Read Blogs If You’re Thinking of Building a Tech Startup

Over the last few months I’ve published a range of blogs about starting and growing a tech startup. I thought it would be helpful to pick out my top five posts if you’re at the beginning of your own journey as a tech startup. 

1. Setting Up a Startup on a Shoestring

In this post I delved into my experience of setting up my own tech business, Cake, on a shoestring budget. It’s a great blog to read if you want some simple tips on how you can get started without having to spend a lot of money. I’ve talked about everything from software as a service and business banking to marketing and building your product – there are some really practical tips in there to help you get started.

2. Building a Cultural Platform

This blog is all about laying the right foundations for your business. If you can do this when you’re just starting out then so much the better. In this post I’ll explain some of the basic elements you need in place to set up the right company culture to help your business grow and enable everyone on your team to use their talents. Businesses are only as successful as the people they have behind them and you’ll find some advice in this post about building your team and retaining key people.

3. I Need a Tech Guy

Since I left my role working for the company that acquired Cake a year ago, I’ve been approached many times by people looking for a ‘tech guy’. In this blog I talk about the importance of developing partnerships to help you get a tech startup off the ground. There are also a few tips on how to get to an MVP with your tech product in this post too.

4. Badges and Scares of Running a Tech Company: Part 1

I’m a big believer that you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. In this blog I shared some of the badges and scars I picked up running a tech company. If you’re planning to set up your own tech startup then the scar I talk about in this post is particularly important: cash flow. Cash flow issues can and do sink a business. In this post I talk about how we navigated cash flow issues in the early days of Cake and what we did to make sure we didn’t have the same kinds of issues again.

5. Want to be an Entrepreneur? Why Now Could Be a Fantastic Time to Start a Company

This was the first post on my blog and while it was written at a very specific point in the Covid-19 pandemic, much of what I talked about in March still holds true. We are a long way from returning to what many people would consider ‘business as usual’ and it’s highly unlikely that we’ll go back to working exactly as we did before. This is still a great time to find talented people who are seeking a new challenge, as well as build your personal brand and start building momentum for your business. You’ll find some suggestions of how to go about that in this blog. 

Starting any new business is a steep learning curve, but hopefully some of my experiences and insights can help you avoid a few of the pitfalls. Feel free to get in touch for a further conversation about building and scaling your fast-growth tech startup: guy@skyblueconsulting.info


I Need a Tech Guy

‘I need a tech guy’ is a quote, and it’s one I’ve heard a lot. Looking back in just the last 12 months, since I left my role after working for the company that acquired Cake, I’ve been having conversations with people about what I’m doing now. One thing I’ve noticed is that certainly in the tech world, there seems to be a dearth of people capable of running complex software projects, and everybody seems to need a tech guy. 

Earlier this year I was in Toronto on my Strategic Coach course and I was introduced to a chap from New York. We were all having dinner and when we introduced ourselves and I said what I did, that quote ‘I need a tech guy’ was one of the first things he said to me. We started talking and afterwards, I realised that this is a really sought-after skill set. But I imagine that would be the case for anyone who’s good at what they do in whatever sector they work in. What I realised was that there will always be people out there who want your services because there won’t be many other people offering the kinds of services you do and who have got your experience and contacts. Your network is key to capitalising on this.

There are probably many people out there with good ideas for tech products but no tech product experience, as in, they haven’t got the experience in building tech products. They might be from the legal industry or the financial planning industry and have a really good idea for an app or platform that they want to build. What is lacking is people who can put teams together to build these kinds of products. 

The strange thing is that I’ve spoken to a few people about this and a surprising number of them suggest setting up a partnership, which is great. They want to set a business up with you where they look after the sector specialism side of the business and you look after the tech product side. It’s an interesting situation. 

There is a business that I’m starting at the moment. It’s actually up and running in that the tech platform is in development. I’m working with a specialist from a different industry, but I’m the tech guy. This is a great basis for a partnership, because you’re both bringing something to the equation. There’s a shared risk mentality, especially if you pick the right person. Personally, I tend to pick people from my entrepreneurial network, because I know a lot of people in that network share the same thoughts as me on risk, entrepreneurial realism and developing a business. I believe that if you’ve got this shared mindset and you bring different skills to the business it’s not only a great basis to form a partnership but also an opportunity to build something special. 

The benefits of partnerships

Although there’s always a chance you could fall out with your partner, if you choose that partner carefully and know that you’ll work together in a way where you compromise when you have to, then this kind of genuine partnership has a lot more chance of succeeding.

There are many benefits of working with a partner rather than on your own. You’ve got someone else to bounce ideas off, and someone to tell you that you’re being crazy or agree that something is a really good idea; and you do the same for that person. 

But having a partnership also works well in terms of raising money. You might have to raise the money yourself as an individual, you might reach out to your friends and family network, or you might even go to a business angel for seed funding or, if it’s a high-growth company, you might go to a VC or private equity company. 

In any of these scenarios, I think it’s always best when you’ve got two really experienced people with very defined roles in the business leading the company. That’s a much better story to tell and you’re far more likely to get the money that you need to fulfill your vision for the company. 

Getting to an MVP

As a tech product company, you’ve got your vision, which is probably something quite grand, but the reality is that you need to build something quickly, in a cost-effective way within the budget you have. This product can then start to earn you money. 

Most people will start with something called a minimum viable product (MVP). This is often something that you can sell. So, for example, if you have an eCommerce site if you have a product you can sell for one penny, that’s your MVP. It can do what it should do. It might not have all the bells and whistles and features that you want the product to ultimately have, but at this stage it will certainly get you going. If you can get your MVP to a 1.0, and if you’ve thought carefully about what the feature set for that 1.0 is, then you’ll have something that has the potential to generate a reasonable amount of money. The idea being that if you play this correctly and if you’re planning correctly, then the money that you earn and generate from selling this first version of the product will fund future versions of the product.

When you approach a new business in that way, you don’t have to start giving away large chunks of equity in your company to VCs and private equity companies who can sometimes interfere in the way that you want to run the company, usually because they have a place on the board. Of course, there are good ones as well as bad ones out there, but it’s much safer if you can raise as much of the money you need as possible by yourself. 

If you do need investment, try to get a silent partner or someone who is going to add value to what you’re doing and who brings another set of skills to the business rather than someone who sits down and tries to run the business from a spreadsheet. What you want to avoid is partnering with someone who is just looking to get the business to the stage where they can sell it, or make a profit, when you’re more focused on fulfilling your vision. 

My advice is to think carefully about how you fund the product. Instead of looking for large sums of money upfront, build the product as soon as you can and hopefully, if you get that right, it will become self-funded. That will mean you can iteratively develop it. That’s my preferred way of working, although of course, it depends on the situation. But if you follow this approach, hey presto you have a product for your new startup. And that new startup all began with someone uttering the words, ‘I need a tech guy!’.

Business man jumping over obstacles a manager race concept. Overcome obstacles concept. Man jumping over obstacles like hurdle race. Business vector illustration.

Badges and Scars of Running a Tech Company: Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog, I shared one scar and one badge from running a tech company. In this blog, I’m going to share two more badges and one more scar with you. 

The badge: punching above our weight

I would say that at Cake we consistently punched above our weight and I’m going to tell you about the first occasion when we demonstrated that we could punch well above our weight because of the people we employed and the way we promoted ourselves.

This was probably about three years into the Cake journey and we were a company of around seven people. Over the two to three years that we’d been running, we consistently submitted bids for public sector projects with both local and central government, but we never won anything. That was despite, in quite a few cases, being eminently capable of delivering a high-quality service to the brief that would have provided a good value option. 

Now, I’m sure government departments play by the rules, but in my view, the problem is that there are just inherent biases in some of these systems where there is already a preferred choice almost built-in. Quite often, no matter how good you make your pitch or how solid your bid is, you’re just never going to win that particular project. I think the other big problem with the public sector, certainly back then and I think this probably still exists now, is that civil servants are often by nature quite risk-averse. This is in contrast to entrepreneurs and the private sector in general, who are more willing to take risks just by virtue of the type of people who work in those organisations and the way they’re run. In a private company or your own company, it’s your money and your company’s money, whereas in the government it’s public money that’s being spent. 

This comes back to the old adage that you’ll never be fired for hiring IBM. What that means is that, even if the project goes wrong, people can fall back on the excuse that they hired the best in the market – or the perceived best in the market! I definitely think this becomes an issue that affects smaller companies winning public sector contracts, especially larger ones. However, it’s a shame because that kind of culture prevents the more agile, innovative and eminently capable smaller organisations pitching for work. Quite frankly, I also suspect it would save tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of pounds a year if departments were a little more open to working with some smaller companies. There are initiatives to try and help this and I do think the situation has improved, but it is still a bit of an issue. 

What all of this meant in the early years at Cake was that we became a little disheartened with regards to the public sector and therefore concentrated on private sector contracts because we felt that we had much more chance and the time and effort that went into our bids would be better invested in pitching for private sector projects. But that changed overnight. 

Competing with the big boys

We received a phone call from someone in the public sector who had read one of the books that we had published. I talked about how my co-founder at Cake Rob Harrop got involved with the Spring framework when it was an open-source project in my last blog about badges and scars. He had become a core contributor and was one of the key people within that project. At the point that we received this phone call, the framework was becoming increasingly popular. By 2009 it got to a point where it had been downloaded a million times. As I said before, it was a very popular framework that simplified software engineering with Java. 

Rob and another of our technical guys Jan Machacek had written a book on the Spring framework called Pro Spring, which was published by Apress and translated into 17 languages. It was one of the best-selling Java books on the market at that time. In 2006, we received a call to say that there was a government project being tendered and that they were looking for companies who specialised in Java and the Spring framework because they wanted this modern, lightweight framework to be the technology that powered this system. It was quite refreshing to see this from a government department. The project was being headed up by a very technically competent person in that government department.

To cut a long story short, we submitted a bid alongside some sizeable professional services outfits who were far bigger than us by factors of 1,000, and we won. This had the potential to be the largest project we’d worked on to date. We were incredibly grateful for the opportunity and we were completely focused on making it a success. That’s actually another reason why I believe the government should make more effort to engage with small companies where these projects mean an awful lot to them and they have the talent and agility to deal with the kinds of changes that these projects sometimes come up against. Those changes often floor bigger organisations or cost the government millions of pounds extra in change costs. The upshot of it all was that the project was a success. 

We then won significant business over the next few years with that department and every single project was a success. It was a win-win. We were focused on making them a success and it was cost-effective. We proved that engaging with small, specialist companies is very often far more conducive to providing value for money and success, and it’s a lot less risky for the taxpayer. 

The message from this is that I don’t think we’d have been taken seriously if it wasn’t for the fact that we had published this book. We were seen as the experts because we had written a very technical book on a specific technology and our CTO Rob, who was also the co-founder of the company, was one of the key contributors to this technology. Our expert status was spotted and although we still had to win the bid and demonstrate value, it was clear that we were the kind of company they wanted to work with. 

A platform for growth

This was an absolute badge for the company and gave us our first platform for growth. Working with that government department over a few years on a few projects meant that our cash flow was consistent during that period. Of course, we ran other projects concurrently, but the projects with the government were certainly the biggest ones and they provided a really solid platform that enabled us to stabilise the business, take on more people and begin to grow. 

Winning that piece of business with the well-known government department also boosted our credibility, which then helped us win other pieces of big business. It was definitely a stepping stone both financially and from a reputation point of view, but it started with having the credibility of the book. 

The scar: losing a business partner

I started the previous blog about badges and scars with the old adage that you learn more from your mistakes and the issues you face than you do when things are going well. I think that’s absolutely true. 

Cake was formed in 2001 and my business partner Rob was the technical side of the business. I had no technical expertise. I still don’t class myself as technical, my brain isn’t wired that way. Even though I am not a software engineer, I understand what is going on and I can have an educated discussion with someone about it. I bring other things to the business that perhaps the technical guys don’t. But in 2006, Rob left Cake. Because he’d been so involved in the Spring framework, the guy who led the project wanted to form a consultancy around the framework. That consultancy would be responsible for continuing to develop the project, as well as providing consultancy service, which is how they generated revenue. Rob was made an offer that, at the time, Cake just couldn’t match both in terms of salary, equity and the potential of the company.

Rob and I had a very sensible conversation and, you know, if I was Rob I would have done the same thing. He made the right decision for his career at that particular point and there’s a whole other story around the outcome of that, which was a very positive one from Rob’s point of view. 

What I want to focus on is the fact that this was a major change for the business. It was a body blow. Rob was a key part of the technical side of the business. Looking back, it could have been catastrophic. I could have given up, said how can we carry on, but I didn’t and when I think back on it, in all honesty, I never for one-second thought of giving up. I had the mindset of, ‘This has happened. I understand why it’s happened. Now I need to look at how I deal with that and how we make this company a success.’

Although Rob leaving was a negative thing, it actually ended up being a positive and ultimately benefited the company. Of course, when something like this happens you don’t see this at the time. All you see is that a big piece of the jigsaw is missing and you really need to find a way to replace it. At that particular point, we had a few really good engineers and for one of them, our senior engineer Jan Machacek, it was a real opportunity to come to the fore and take over where Rob left off. 

Jan was a different character to Rob but a very capable software engineer/architect, and because of that, he went on to become an inspirational CTO. At this stage, we had to really think about how we moved on without Rob. Technically, Rob put us on a really solid path. The technology we were using was cutting edge at that particular juncture. The Spring framework had only just gone into full 1.0 production. It was new and innovative, and there were lots of companies beginning to look at it but we were ahead of the game. 

We continued down that road, carried on staying ahead of where we felt technology was going and made sure we continued that ethos. Although we had lost Rob, we had Jan at the helm, which worked out really well even though we lost our business partner who was pivotal to the company. It was a blow, but it wasn’t an automatic nail in the coffin. It let other people in the company step up and allowed them to actually fulfil their potential. 

Finding the positives

One of the positives of this situation was that it allowed people like Jan to do things that they wouldn’t have done if Rob was there. It was good for their development and, as I said, it allowed them to fulfil their potential. 

Interestingly, it also allowed me to take a step forward. When Rob left, I became the only one in charge. There weren’t two of us making every decision and that was good for me. It helped develop my confidence that I could do this on my own. I realised that the reality was that the way Rob and I ran the business was different and if we’d run businesses individually we’d have run them in a different way. But when Rob left I was able to run it in the way I wanted without the need to compromise to accommodate his way of doing things, and visa versa.

What this taught me was that in every really crappy situation, you’ve got to think how do we deal with this? Instead of dwelling on what’s happened, you need to take action. 

Losing Rob was most definitely a scar, but I think we turned it into the badge in the end because we came out stronger and the team members who were probably under Rob’s shadow a little bit came to the fore and really did their bit to help take the company forward. That was probably a slightly different direction to the one we’d have gone in if Rob and I had continued to run the business together, but we got to a positive place in the end. 

The badge: the largest cheque

One of the KPIs I used to measure to show how well we were doing was the size of the largest cheque. Quite often in a company’s development what typically happens when you do well and you grow in double-digit percentages is that the companies you’re dealing with and the projects you’re working on getting bigger and bigger. This was absolutely the case with Cake throughout our evolution. The cheques just got bigger and bigger.

It happened slowly at first. We gained notoriety initially through the technical books that we wrote and that notoriety grew, driven by what we introduced further down the line with the personal branding we developed and the team we built. One of the byproducts of this is that when you’re perceived as an expert, you can increase your day rate, which is always a really nice thing to do. People often worry about increasing their day rate. But what I found was that when we increased our day rate, not only did we not lose business, which is always a fear, but we actually won more business. There’s a balance to be struck. If you charge too low of a fee, you’re perceived as maybe a lower value supplier. When you charge a higher fee, you’re often perceived as a higher value supplier. Often businesses are willing to pay this higher fee and quite often will approach you with bigger projects. 

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a point where that tips the other way and if you go over the top and charge a ridiculous day rate that isn’t justifiable then you will undoubtedly lose business. So you’ve got to find that tipping point. I think most people worry about it, but I also think that most people will be pleasantly surprised to find that the tipping point for their day rate is probably higher than they’re expecting if they’re really good at what they do. 

Looking back there were probably four or five notable occasions when the size of the largest cheque rose substantially and every time that happened we used it as a platform to improve our financial position, not just with that project, but to enable us to hire more people and deal with more projects and bigger projects. We took a gamble.

To give you one example, we worked with one of the large price comparison websites for a substantial amount of time and a large proportion of our company at that point was working on that particular project. We took a calculated risk, where we said, ‘Yes, we’re going to go through a period of a few months where 80% of our company is going to be working on this one project.’ Now, if something went wrong with that project, there was a real danger to the company, so you have to be very careful. But we felt it was a risk worth taking because we had a long agreement in place and we felt things were well within our capability. That meant the risk was actually relatively low. 

But after taking that gamble, we very quickly found that with the extra money coming in from that project we were able to hire extra people. The 80% very quickly became 40% over a period of six to 12 months, because we hired and hired and hired. That then set us up for bigger projects more often. We did this on a number of occasions. 

This is about using these opportunities to your advantage. Rather than just putting the money in the bank, you can use the profit you’re making from the project to grow the company organically and you can reach high growth very quickly by doing that. The key is to never lose sight of the sales part of the business. You might be safe for 12 months with a big project, but you need to be working on winning more business and hiring more people from day one of that project. That was how we grew. And in the last six or seven years of Cake, we grew ten times every parameter, quite often considerably more than ten times.  

I think business success is all about taking calculated risks. You need a little bit of luck, undoubtedly, but there is another old adage: The harder you work, the luckier you become. I would say that the more you take these calculated risks, the quicker you can grow and hopefully those risks pay off. 

The largest cheque wasn’t just about having a big payday, it was also about increasing that largest cheque many times on a yearly basis and we never went backwards. So that was definitely a badge. 

Remember also that we hit a recession in 2008. But even then, and it was quite good timing from our side, we had a couple of quite big projects in the 2008-10 period. Again, that led to us winning more business and in 2010 we carried on growing, even during a recession. We didn’t withdraw, we didn’t decrease our activities in the marketplace. In fact, we did the opposite; we increased them. The thing with recessions is that quite a few companies withdraw and try to hold onto their cash. They are less active. But that just means there’s less noise in the market.

That time is, in my opinion, when you should be spending some money, shouting about what you do and why you’re good at it and really making a noise in the marketplace. There are two reasons. One is that you have a better chance of winning any business that is available because no one else is making any noise. The second is that, as you come out of the recession, your company is perfectly placed to grow because you’re on the tip of everyone’s tongue to win business as companies start spending again. This comes back to what I believe is part of the true entrepreneurial mindset, which is taking a positive view of even the most difficult times. 

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Setting Up a Startup on a Shoestring

I’ll begin by giving you a bit of background about how we set up Cake back in 2001, and then I’ll dig into how you can set up a startup on a shoestring.

When we decided to set up Cake, my business partner and I were relatively young and naive. We’d never run a business in our lives and had no qualifications that said we could run a business. What we did have in Rob, my business partner was somebody who was very technically talented. He has proved to be one of the most successful software engineers and entrepreneurs in the UK having bought, built and sold a number of companies. 

So, Rob was technically very capable, but I had no experience of running a company, of marketing, of sales or of anything like that, so there was lots to learn. In the beginning, there was the added complication that we only had a £15,000 startup fund that had to see us through to the point where we began to make a profit and were able to pay ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, £15,000 in 2001 was worth more than it is now, but it’s still a relatively small sum of money to start a company and for me to provide for my family.

My point here is that people often get very hung up on raising large amounts of money and worrying about that, whereas now, in fact far more so than in 2001 when we started Cake, there are so many ways that you can start a company on a shoestring. I’ll share some examples of exactly how you can do that here.

Leveraging software as a service

This is a relatively new phenomenon, in that it’s only really been used widely in the last decade. There are now thousands of software as a service (SAS) offerings. What this has done is removed the need for businesses to pay a licence fee, run their own server, or create a server operating system, upgrade the software on the server and so on. Instead, businesses can pay a monthly fee and access some really quite clever software that would probably have cost thousands of pounds in licence fees and computing costs previously. 

Google GSuite (ex-Google Apps) is an excellent example of this and was probably one of the first ones that Cake adopted in its early days. What this gave us was a really smart email client, a calendar and Google Docs, which at this stage was a very early online editing, sharing and document storage facility. 

Another example of a SAS we used was an HR app called Harvest. This was particularly important for Cake because we needed to keep all our HR records up to date. At one point we had people of 17 different nationalities working for us and we needed to keep a record of all the relevant paperwork in case we were audited by the Home Office. 

HR systems are really important for all businesses and the bigger you get, the more an HR system can help you manage a central repository relating to anything to do with HR. That can include performance reviews, discipline issues, medical histories, passport information, job applications and so on. All of that kind of information needs to be held securely and only the relevant people should be able to access it. As we got bigger, we paid a monthly fee to use Harvest to run our HR system. 

Don’t forget that the beauty of paying monthly for a SAS application is that as a new piece of software comes along that’s better, it’s relatively easy to download your data and import all of your information into this new software. You can just start using it and you’re not having to worry about buying a new licence, you just start paying a new monthly fee and stop paying the fee for the previous piece of software.

Because it’s so easy for a business to change software providers these days, it’s really important that the companies providing the software keep innovating and making progress to always be the best in the market, otherwise, they will lose customers. The onus is on them to keep you as a client. 

The accounting software Xero is a good example of that. It’s a relatively new kid on the block in terms of online accounting software as a service, but it has quickly become one of the most popular. As more businesses started looking for online accounting software, some of the most popular existing providers of software that you installed on specific machines tried to move into the space but their early versions weren’t that good and they lost ground. 

At Cake, we started using an online system called Liberty for our accounting, but when Xero came along we switched because it gave us more functionality for our monthly fee and it was ever-evolving. Xero was always improving pieces of functionality and was a really cost-effective option for us. 

There are also hundreds of SAS marketing products out there. We used HubSpot, but there are any number of really high-quality marketing SAS products available. Again, you pay a reasonable monthly fee and, again, these evolve and improve all the time. 

You also have blogging platforms like WordPress, which is what we use, but there are many others you can use as well. 

Then you have video conferencing tools, which are obviously especially relevant at the moment. At Cake we were using video conferencing 12 to 14 years ago because a lot of our clients were based in the US. So, to begin with, we had Skype and then Zoom came along. We also used Google Hangouts, and now there’s Google Meet, which is a good one at the moment because it’s free and I’ve found the speed and quality are good as well. 

The point with all these products is that they are all available for free or small monthly fees with no big capital outlay required on your part. You can choose the ones that you need for your startup. 

Other benefits to software as a service

I would recommend that you start with the ones where you can use the free version initially. Most of these companies offer a free version and then when you reach a certain size you can switch to a paid version. By the time you part with some money, you’d hope that you’re generating enough turnover and profit to justify paying the fee that’s required to keep those products and allow you to use them in an ever-increasing way. 

The other benefit to software as a service is that you’re not tied into licences and you don’t have to manage servers. It is important that you choose a reputable provider as you will be trusting these companies with your client’s and companies data, make sure you do your due diligence first.

Other ways to save money as a startup

Another thing to explore when you’re starting out is free business banking. We’ve just started a new business and we’ve chosen to use Starling, which is one of the challenger banks. It’s possible to find either free or very cheap business banking these days and that’s well worth looking at.

IP-based phone systems are another big change and one that can be especially cost-effective for startups, especially if you do need a landline number in addition to your mobile number. The benefit of an IP-based phone system is that you can plug it into any internet-enabled network. You can also choose your phone number to represent the area you’re in – for example, I might choose 0161 because I’m in Manchester – or you can get an 0800 or 08345 number and configure that through the IP system if you want. 

With an IP-based phone system, if you do go out of the office you can easily forward your calls to a mobile. All you do is put an app on your phone which acts as an IP phone for the mobile too, which means you can take calls wherever you are. 

You can also extend a system like this to your employees. They can put the app on their phones, on their computers or you can connect a physical phone in their home office or your business premises to the IP phone system. They deliver massive flexibility and are a cheap tool to use. 

Marketing on a shoestring

From a marketing perspective, and I’ve talked about this extensively in a number of blogs, you can kick start your marketing by producing expert content and pushing it out into the world using tools like Hubspot to disseminate that information across the internet. It’s a very affordable way of getting your message into the inboxes of your potential clients. 

Marketing using vlogs is eminently possible nowadays and you don’t need hugely expensive equipment either. The video quality on iPhones and Android phones these days is incredible and with a minimum of expense, that allows you to use your phone as a tool to produce some quite nice videos. Just invest in a little mic that you plug in or use wirelessly and you can get started. 

There are lots of really cool things you can do to market your business that doesn’t have to cost a lot of money.

Web design to has become more affordable by using a website templating service. These services are reasonably easy to use and they allow you to buy a domain and then build your own web presence without the services of a web designer. I would always advocate using professionals to do this kind of job wherever possible, but if you’re starting a business and money is tight then you can absolutely do this kind of thing yourself, and it can look very good.

If you’re offering a service then you can use all of these free tools to market your service on an ongoing basis and you’ll generate business in this way as long as you can market effectively and in a way that appeals to people. 

Building a product on a shoestring

It’s more difficult to build a product on a shoestring, but it is possible to minimise the amount of money that you’re spending on the product build. In a lot of cases in the tech world, the people who come up with the software ideas are actually software engineers and in that instance, you might build the product yourself. 

But if you don’t have that expertise you’ll need to get someone else to build the product for you and there are various ways you can do that for a reasonable cost. 

Business partners

One is to bring in a business partner who is a software engineer and who can look after the technical side of things like I did with my business partner at Cake. We worked well together because we had a clear differentiation of duties. 

Third-party companies

If you don’t want to do that, then you’ll need some money, but you could look for the support of a company that offers various incentives and I’m going to slip in a shameless plug for thestartupfactory.tech, a company that I’m involved with as a non-exec. 

What we do is specialise in building products on behalf of tech entrepreneurs. The beauty of using a company like thestartupfactory.tech is that we’ll use our experienced teams to build a high-quality product that you can start to generate income from. 

The aim when you’re building a product should be to get it to a 1.0 version, or to a minimum viable product (MVP) stage, that will allow you to take it to market and start generating income immediately from that offering. What you don’t want to do is keep building and building and building and still not be in a place where you can generate money. The aim should be to start generating money as early as possible. Then you can add features as you go along, which will hopefully generate more income and feed the beast, so to speak. This will mean you can afford to pay the engineers to carry on iterating and building more and more features for the product until you’ve got it to exactly where you want it. 

The key is to have a plan to get your product to 1.0, which will start generating your income, and then start the strategic development. This development will be funded by the money you’re generating through your initial product, which means you don’t need a huge slush fund to pay for development to get started. 

Using third-party companies can, therefore, be especially helpful. You could look for companies, like thestartupfactory.tech, that may offer engineering in exchange for equity. 

Hiring key people

It is likely you will need to start hiring key people who, hopefully, are going to be with you for the long term and who will eventually form part of your senior team. When you hire these people, you can consider offering them a small amount of equity as an incentive. You may do this if you can’t afford to pay them a high salary initially, you could offer a steadily increasing salary for the first few years. Often people are willing to do this if they really believe in the vision of what you are trying to achieve and will take a slightly longer-term view on compensation. That means you can start their salary a little lower in the first year while you’re trying to create cash flow by getting your products and services out there. 

Once you’ve got things rolling and are generating income, you should be able to afford to gradually increase the salary. By the third year, you should be paying close to market value and that person has effectively earned their shares in the organisation. This means they’ll grow with the organisation and are fully invested in the business. 

A note on giving away equity

While there are lots of good reasons why you might want to give away some of the equity in your company, like those I just discussed, I’ll add a cautionary note about giving away too much equity. 

Don’t get too generous with the equity of the company. Remember that you’re going to be putting most of the time in, you’re going to be shouldering a lot of the burden and risk, and you need to make sure that you’re rewarded properly for that. 

I’ve seen too many companies where the entrepreneur has given away so much equity in an effort to raise money in the early stages to the point they hold less than 50% of their company already. But that’s not the way I’d recommend entrepreneurs do it. You’ve got to be mindful that while people, whether that be investors or key members of your team, may deserve some equity, that you are properly rewarded too.  It’s you who will have carried all the risk and will probably be working long hours, at least initially, and it’s important that you are properly rewarded for that. 

This was a lesson that Iain Brooks, our non-exec director at Cake, taught me. Because of his advice, I think we struck a nice balance and when we were eventually acquired, people were rewarded with an amount that was representative of the time, effort, sweat, blood and tears that had been put into the company to get it to the point where it could be acquired. 


Badges and Scars of Running a Tech Company: Part 1

In this blog I’m going to tell you about one badge and one scar that I’ve gained from running a tech company. I thought I’d start with the scar. 

There’s the old adage that we learn more from our mistakes than we do when things are going swimmingly well and it’s absolutely true. There’s nothing wrong with stuff going wrong, it’s how you deal with it and what you learn from it that’s important. 

The scar: cash flow issues

The reason I’ve picked this particular scar is because I think it’s something that probably every entrepreneur experiences at one, or maybe numerous, points during their journey and it’s all based around cash flow and how you deal with it. Not only how you deal with it technically, but also how you deal with it mentally. Making sure you have the right mental attitude, have that tenacity and don’t lose your cool. The right mindset is key, because otherwise it can get on top of you.

I’m going back to the early days of Cake for this scar, probably around 2002 or 2003, bearing in mind that we only formed in 2001. I’ve been honest when I’ve talked about the early days of Cake in the past in saying that we set the business up with a bit of an idea but no clear strategy and certainly no business experience or educational experience in relation to business because at that time there was nothing entrepreneurial in A-levels at school. Neither myself or my business partner Rob Harrop went to university either. 

We didn’t have any experience in marketing when we first started either. But although we had no idea what to do, what I’d say is that we used common sense. For example, one of the things I did was went and knocked on every door in the office building we were in, which was home to around 50 small businesses. I said hello, introduced myself and dropped in a business card. That generated business for the company for the next two years.  

But by 2003, we were running out of business and still didn’t have an effective marketing machine, or really understand how to do that.

On this occasion, we were a couple of weeks away from running out of money. I didn’t have a backup at that point. I had a family, a mortgage, very young kids and I didn’t have a Plan B. I had to put the wages on my personal credit card. As a business, we didn’t have much of an overdraft because we were quite a new company and we didn’t have any investment of any sort. In fact, in my opinion we wouldn’t have attracted investment at that particular juncture either. So the only way out of this was to battle through and win some business.

At this time, we only had one sales lead and we knew we had to follow it all the way through. Rob was the technical side of the business and he put a presentation together for the two of us to deliver to an organisation called NUSSL – the National Union of Student Services Limited. They were responsible for bulk buying all the products for the Students’ Union, so lots of beer basically. The project was for  a system that was going to automate what they were, at that point, doing manually. It was a really interesting project. 

We were a young company and we didn’t know how this would go, but Rob gave an amazing presentation and, to cut a long story short he knocked it out of the park and we won that piece of business. Now, not only did this solve our immediate issue with cash flow and very quickly make us solvent again, but it also became a springboard for even bigger projects. It also gave us more confidence and we were able to go out there with a bigger name in our portfolio, which helped our sales message. 

I’d like to say that it helped us avoid that particular issue again, but not quite, although it certainly helped to minimise the number of times we had that problem. In fact, there was only one other instance in the whole 17 years where we came close to running out of cash.

The 2008 recession

The second time we had an issue with cash flow was in the height of the recession in 2008. It was an unfortunate situation in that we had just won our biggest ever project, where we beat the likes of Fujitsu Siemens in a government procurement bid to win a software development project for a central government department. 

We were ecstatic when we won that bid, because we were a small company. At that point I think there were about seven of us. But we went from being amazingly happy to almost running out of cash very quickly, through no fault of our own. There was a three-month delay to the project and we never did find out the reason why. That put a severe strain on our cash flow and that was the second time that I had to put wages on my credit card.

When situations like that happen, you just have to go with it and trust that you’re going to get out of it, because in 2008 the banks were no help at all. We’d been with our bank at the time for seven years and we went to them to ask for a loan. We didn’t need much and we had a letter to say that we had won this particular project, which was for a significant sum of money and by far our largest project to date; in fact it was our first potential seven-figure project. But the bank was unwilling to lend what was a relatively small amount of money over a short period of time. As a result, we left that bank. 

These cash flow issues are definitely scars, but you learn from them and that’s the important thing. 

Learning from the scars

One of the things that these particular issues highlighted was the need for us to get to grips with marketing. This got us thinking and was the precursor to coming up with the concept of building personal brands and really putting an effective but at that time very different marketing machine together. 

There were lots of learnings in this period and they contributed to our personal development and consequently to the development of the company on an ongoing basis. This particular issue in 2008 resulted in us coming up with an idea to help us deal with it, relating to email marketing. 

At this time, email marketing wasn’t massive, but we could see how it could be of value, especially if you had a decent database, which we were building. We’d been smart enough to collect names and email addresses when we spoke to people at networking meetings or whatever and we were building up a decent database and were beginning to market to people regularly. 

At this point, we scratched our own itch and came up with and built a product called Easy Emailer. It wasn’t software as a service as these systems now are. It was a server-based product, but it was a mass marketing and email system that you could use to create templates and build emails. This was in the days before Mailchimp or Constant Contact and all the other online marketing systems that are available now. We didn’t take that product much further other than selling a few licences to it, because we had to concentrate on our main business. 

All of this came out of the scar of having issues with our cash flow. 

The badge: developing personal brands

I’ve alluded to this already when talking about the scar, and I’ve talked extensively about this topic in a previous blog, but I want to put a slightly different slant on it now because this concept came out of our early days of Cake, whereas what I’ve talked about previously goes into more detail about how we developed the concept from 2009/10 onwards. 

The badge I’m going to talk about comes from 2003 and came off the back of us really struggling with our cash flow, not having a strong enough pipeline of business and trying to come up with a viable marketing plan. I’ve mentioned Easy Emailer and knocking on doors, which was really effective, but there are only so many doors you can knock on. It’s not a scalable solution in this day and age. 

It’s fair to say that we stumbled across this rather than it being part of the plan from the outset, but when we realised how effective it was, it became part of our plan.

I’d like to rewind a little further to 2002, when Rob Harrop, my business partner and the business’ technical expert, became really interested in a new framework in the Java world. The framework was called the Spring framework. 

At this point, Spring wasn’t even a 1.0 version, it was a 0.5 alpha version working towards something that could become commercially viable. It was an open-source project, which means you get many contributors working on these projects most of whom did it in their free time. They don’t get paid for it and at the end, the product is made available to the software development community for the good of the community, using an Apache licence. 

Rob began spending time on this project. He was a really smart software engineer/architect and he became one of the core contributors. We started to use it commercially as soon as we were able to. This became a key differentiator for Cake; it became the most downloaded framework in the Java world and it helped ensure that we followed our mantra of always staying at the forefront of software engineering. The Spring framework was our first opportunity to differentiate ourselves on that mantra. 

This developed to the point that Rob and one of our other software engineers (who later became our CTO) Jan Machacek decided to write a book on the Spring Framework. Rob had already made several smaller contributions to books and the Pro Spring book, which was all about the Spring framework, was the fourth one he was involved in. But this time he wasn’t just involved, he was the lead author and Jan was supporting him. It was the first book that was purely written by Cake employees and the first example of where we used the premise of producing expert content to share with the community as a way of promoting ourselves. 

I’ve spoken about this on a number of occasions and it became one of the key attributes in the Cake arsenal and the main way that we generated sales. We didn’t have a sales team, it was all about generating expert content and building personal brands. This book was the precursor to that. 

Pro Spring became a really popular book. It was published by Apress and Pro Spring 2 was published in 17 different languages, including Mandarin, which was really cool. This was definitely one of the badges that we got and the technical team became quite prolific book writers, which then led onto the blog writing and all the stuff that I’ve talked about in previous blogs. 

More badges and scars

In my second blog about the badges and scars of running a tech company, I’ll talk about the badge of punching above our weight. I’ll share some examples of how we started working with some major brands even though we were still quite a small organisation. The scar I’ll discuss in the next post will be about losing a business partner, when Rob had an opportunity he couldn’t refuse and decided to leave the business. I’ll explain how that affected things. 

I’ll also talk about the ever increasing larger cheques, in relation to how we were working with bigger and bigger organisations that provided us with the financial platform to really scale the business and achieve high growth in the last few years. 


The importance of strategic partnerships

I talked in one of my previous blogs about the Free Zone Frontier, which is effectively where you have a product or service where there’s very little competition. For obvious reasons, this is a great place to do business, assuming there’s a demand for that service or product. What strategic partnerships do is multiply the effect of the Free Zone Frontier. 

In this blog, I’m going to explain two of the different kinds of strategic partnerships you can develop: company partnerships and supply partnerships.

Building company partnerships

At Cake, we began to form partnerships naturally, generally with the technology companies that we engaged with. For example, when we were predominantly a Java engineering organisation, we tried to get close to a company that’s now called Pivotal, although at that time it was called SpringSource. To a degree, we had a successful partnership, although it wasn’t as successful as I think it could have been. 

But at the time it was still a positive step for our organisation because it allowed us to name them as a partner on our website, which gave us a degree of credibility.  We also did a few events with them, which also improved our credibility. It was an important partnership, but as a company we became much better at working with partners further down the line.

At Cake, the pivotal moment came when we started to transition from Java technology to Scala technology. It was at this point that we started to form really deep relationships with  some of the technical companies that we dealt with on an almost daily basis. The reason this came about is because we believed that Scala and functional programming was the way that computing and software engineering was heading. It solved a lot of the issues we were facing around scaling systems. 

As I’ve mentioned before, we evangelised these technologies because we really believed in them. We talked about them at conferences and in user groups, we wrote blogs about them. These were all great things we were doing as a team. That obviously caught the eye of these companies. They knew what we were doing at Cake and saw the way we evangelised their technology as us doing them a big favour, because we were talking about the technology in such a positive light. 

What’s really important though is that they saw us as the purveyors of and experts in their technology. They also recognised that we added a degree of commercial expertise to the development of their technologies. 

As a result, we started to help them commercialise what they were doing. They were building frameworks and components that made engineering in the Scala world far easier and quicker, and therefore more commercial. Through our work with our clients, we were using that technology in the real world on some pretty big systems. This allowed the technology companies to use us and our clients as examples of businesses that were using their technologies commercially. It was a natural fit. 

Lightbend were the custodians of Scala and they built various frameworks and the tools and components that really helped. Then there were other companies like DataStax and even Amazon, with their cloud platforms and the other technologies they were using. At Cake, we believed in all of these technologies and they became part of our toolkit. 

This allowed us to form deep relationships with these companies, to the point that we would work really closely with them at conferences. We’d also sponsor them at conferences and in return would get lots of exposure and mentions. When their key people visited the UK, they would often come up to Manchester from London to give a talk to our team, or to deliver a talk to one of the groups that we were involved with.

We’d also produce joined up literature and would be mentioned in the various publications that they were writing. Likewise, we’d mention them in the publications that we were writing. We developed really healthy relationships with a number of the tech companies whose technologies we used.

How do company partnerships help?

The most important outcome of these partnerships was that they generated some really important leads for us. In fact, all of our big leads were referrals from partners. It was as simple as that. Our other source of leads was the work we did in the community, so the blogs, talks and those kinds of things. 

We did nothing in terms of being proactive and chasing opportunities in the way you might expect. But we had plenty of opportunities coming in off the back of a conference, a blog, an open-source project or from the relationships we’d developed with the tech companies that built the technologies that we used. 

In evangelising their technologies and proving that the technologies worked in the real world through our work with some major clients and big systems, we developed a healthy relationship with them. This gave us immediate credibility with new clients. Our expertise was never in doubt. That’s the importance of a strategic relationship. 

It’s important to state that I don’t ever recall exchanging money with any of our company partners. We didn’t use referral fees or anything like that. That wasn’t what it was about, it was all about the relationship. Equally, these companies never charged us for being their partner, which some did. It was purely relationship based, with huge benefits for both organisations. 

If you manage to find a product or service that sits in the Free Zone Frontier, which means you don’t have a huge amount of competition, if any at all, and you can develop some really important strategic partnerships, that will drive your growth better than you could hope for. 

Developing supply partnerships

Supply partnerships sit in a similar bracket to the strategic partnerships you’ll develop with companies. I’m a great believer in bringing key suppliers into my company’s ethos and culture. I know all the suppliers I dealt with while I was at Cake will testify to this, but we brought them all into the Cake family. We introduced them to our way of working, our culture and our ethos. 

There are a few partnerships that I’m going to call out in this blog and I’m sorry if you’re reading this and I haven’t mentioned you. I’ll start with Write Business Results, who I’ve worked with to produce books, as well as these blogs. Other supply partnerships I’d like to mention are the ones with Standby Productions for our videos, and The Realization Group for our marketing and branding. Then there’s HardSoft Computers who supplied our hardware in a way that worked for us. We were great for them, because as we grew at Cake they grew with us and they go more business out of us. We also paid all of our bills on time, so from that point of view we were a good partner.

But we also helped raise their profile, and equally they did exactly the same for us. They would recommend us just as we’d recommend them, and it was a really beneficial relationship. 

I refer people to all of my suppliers because I believe in what they’re doing, I know they’re doing a good job and consequently I’m more than happy to put my reputation on the line to recommend them. This should work both ways.

I don’t understand companies that treat suppliers like something they’ve stood on in the park. I just don’t get that at all, because you’ll never get anything other than the service they offer, but suppliers can offer so much more than that. It’s all about building that relationship, that trust, and working out where the benefits are for each other. 

Much like with the company partnerships, no money exchanged hands in relation to building supplier partnerships. Of course, we pay suppliers to do their job, but when you have a great relationship they’ll go over and above, just like we would for our partners. 

There are times when everybody’s cash flow is challenged for whatever reason. It could be that a big client has delayed paying you by four weeks, for instance. You know that the money is coming, but it’s coming a little late. In this kind of situation you can call your suppliers, explain what’s happened and ask if it’s ok if you pay them their money in four weeks. Ten times out of ten, those suppliers will say ‘yes, that’s fine’. When you have that kind of relationship with a supplier, trust is never an issue. They’ll appreciate the fact that you’ve spoken to them about it rather than simply ignoring it. 

Another partnership that I’d like to talk about from my time at Cake was with TRG Fitness that was located near our office. I joined that gym when it opened and I got to know the owners. Membership when I joined was £25 a month. At Cake, one of the perks we offered to all of our staff was that we’d pay for their gym membership there if they wanted to join. During the 16 years that I was a member of that gym, I think 30-40 of our team members joined the gym and the price they charged us for membership never went up from £25 a month. 

That wasn’t something I requested, but I think they appreciated the fact that we gave them sustained business over the years and we always spoke highly of them because it was a great gym. We had a great relationship. 

You don’t want to beat your suppliers down on price, but you want to trust them to always give you a fair price. If they want to take that a little bit further by offering you discounts or no price increases over the years then fantastic, but you have to let them decide to go the extra mile. 

Building a trusting relationship is important on both sides. I’ve got to trust that they’re always going to give me a fair quote. They’ve got to trust that I’m always going to pay them on time and treat them in the right way. You build that solid foundation and then see where that relationship can take you and how you can help each other. 


More than just an accountant

Like many entrepreneurs, I didn’t have any formal training when I started my business. I came out of school after sixth form and went straight into the world of work. I’d go so far as to say that I almost fell into becoming an entrepreneur. It was the right time and the right moment for my idea and I thought I’d give it a go. But the problem with doing that is that you are incredibly naive on most aspects of business and what I’m going to talk specifically about in this blog is the financial side of business. This was an area that I was definitely naive about. Accounting was something that didn’t come naturally to me.

Accounting at a startup

Much as the vast majority of startups around the world do, we hired an accountant who was cheap as chips. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that at all because that person did what they were meant to do.  At the end of every financial year, they did the accounts and they had very little involvement in between. They certainly didn’t offer any kind of strategic advice or opinion on what we were doing or question why we were doing it. It was just an end-of-year financial service. At this point, we didn’t even have quarterly management accounts.

In the first few years, our transaction levels were quite low and this wasn’t a problem. We used spreadsheets to keep on track of our cash flow and the key indicator was how much money we had coming in and out of the bank. As we grew we started to use Sage as our accounting tool and we hired a bookkeeper. This bookkeeper didn’t have any relationship with the accountants, which is a point I’ll come back to later.  We could see what we had in the bank but it was all very haphazard and nowhere near as tight as it needed to be. 

In fact, in the first few years there were a couple of points where we were right on the edge and needed to win business quickly to bring things back around.  One time we were two weeks away from financial disaster and I’d paid the previous month’s wages on the credit card. Both personally and as a company, this was a difficult period from a financial viewpoint. The way I approached the financial management side of things and the support brought in was part of the reason for that. 

In six years, we worked with four accountants and we were never quite happy with any of them because they weren’t doing anything more than the basics. But part of the problem at this stage was that we didn’t know what we wanted. It wasn’t until we were introduced to a company called Ascendis that everything started to fall into place.

Getting ready to grow

When we started working with Ascendis, Elliot Smith became our accountant and Ascendis also provided a bookkeeper, Lizzie. All of a sudden, our bookkeeping was coordinated with the accountancy side in a wholly managed finance function. 

We received monthly management accounts, we had weekly cash flow and we became a lot more controlled and specific in our thinking around the financial side of the business. At this point in our journey, we were still a small company but we weren’t a micro-company. 

We hadn’t yet entered the high-growth period, but this was when we realised that we wanted to go for high growth. I started to line all the ducks up before hiring a senior team to be able to cope with high growth, as well as getting all the other things you need for high growth in place. I’m not going to list them all here, but you can read about them in my previous blog about preparing a business for high growth.

Obviously, one of the most important aspects is getting your finances in order so you know exactly where you are at any minute of the day. Elliot was instrumental in this. 

He introduced an online accounting system, called Liberty Accounts, which was an early frontrunner in the cloud software arena. We later changed to Xero when that came along, which was a real game changer and took online accounting to the next level. This allowed us to look at our finances in real time. 

Allowing your accountant to grow with you

As we grew, I think it’s fair to say that Elliot also grew and could see where he could strategically help us in our thinking around the financial developments of the business. He grew with the business, both personally and professionally, as we all did. Along the way we learned that what we had wasn’t just an accountant, but a part-time financial director (FD). We hadn’t planned this, but as we grew that’s what Elliot became.

He attended our board meetings and talked to the board about the finances every month. He attended the quarterly strategic planning meetings where we were looking ahead for the next 12 months, but particularly the next quarter, and setting out exactly what we wanted to achieve and how we were going to do it. Elliot became part of any major decision we made that involved spending any sum of money, whether that was hiring new people or buying new equipment. He had input into any decision that involved money, which is pretty much every aspect of the business.

By sharing his opinion and being involved in those decisions, Elliot became more than just an accountant, he was our part-time FD and an integral part of the  management team. This was a really important part in the development of the company. It had a particularly big impact on our ability to sustain high growth over a period of time. 

More than just an accountant

In the early years, we grew organically, but in 2016 we’d had five years of sustained growth and were producing a three-year plan for even higher growth with a view at the end of that three years to see if we were in a position where we’d be interesting to other companies as an acquisition. Elliot was absolutely central to putting that plan forward.

Even though we had a reasonable amount of cash in the bank, one of the things we were keen to do was ensure we had money available to do pretty much anything we needed to do to help us achieve that three years of additional sustained growth. Elliot was instrumental in that kind of thinking and embracing the entrepreneurial spirit. He made sure my ambition was matched by our ability to deliver on what we wanted to do. 

In this instance, he helped us put an application together for a substantial loan from a funder based in the North West. With his help, we got that loan in place and, as it happened, we didn’t need it, but it was there just in case we did. 

This is just representative of the kind of thinking and planning that you need as an entrepreneur. 

Organising your financial processes

Someone who is more than an accountant can also help you implement the right processes when it comes to your finances, which also ties back into working with a bookkeeper.

Elliot helped us introduce the systems and processes that our bookkeeper followed. We were selling big-ticket items so we didn’t have thousands of invoices, which meant our bookkeeper only needed to come in once a week. But when she was here, she would make sure that any invoices that were due were sent out and she’d follow up on any invoices that hadn’t been paid. We had a process, which Elliot introduced, and any debtors that were late (hadn’t paid after 30 days) would be presented to me and I would follow that up personally. 

Throughout the existence of Cake, we only ever had one bad debt. Most people paid when they should because we had a good relationship. Having a great relationship with your clients and suppliers is another important aspect of building a successful company. You want to be top of the list when it comes to paying bills. 

Having someone like a part-time FD, who takes this strategic approach to your company’s finances, is also important in terms of how you price a project. They will help you to see all the things you have to consider when you’re deciding on your day rate. It’s all of your overheads, as well as the wage costs. You need to work out your day rate carefully and also think about how you’ll charge for your services over the course of a project.

At Cake, our projects would usually run for six to 18 months, so we had to consider how we could protect our cash flow while being fair to our clients. One option to consider is taking bi-monthly payments in line with 2 weekly chunks of work called Sprints. We ran a technical demo every two weeks, so that our clients could see where the money was going and we invoiced every two weeks after a successful demo. It worked for our clients and it worked for us. 

That’s just one example of the kind of strategic and creative thinking that helps you protect your cash flow and ensures that your finances are in good shape. 

The value of a part-time FD

Elliot is now working on his own, working for ambitious, high-growth companies as a part-time financial director. Offering this service to companies that don’t really need a full-time FD, or that can’t afford the expense of a full-time FD, but that would benefit from someone with a lot of experience in this area is great for the company and great for him. 

The companies he works with benefit from this expertise and Elliot gets to work across a number of really ambitious companies that makes his work much more interesting than just completing basic accounts without having any input into helping each company achieve their vision. 

The value of having a part-time FD is really important for any company to consider, even a startup. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that startups should be engaging with someone who is more than just an accountant, someone who has an opinion on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. They might only work a few hours a week, or even a month, for you, but they should be there at the end of the phone if you want to bounce some ideas off of them.

With hindsight, I think if I’d had someone like Elliot from the outset, or early on in the first couple of years, it would genuinely have made a big difference to my thinking and would have enabled us to achieve that high growth more quickly.  I would have been more confident to take certain decisions, I’d have had a far better handle on the accounts and day-to-day cash flow, as well as a better idea of the strategy and where we wanted to be, supported by the detailed figures that go into that kind of thinking. 

Elliot now works in conjunction with a number of entrepreneurs at thestartupfactory.tech, where he advises them about how to achieve high growth in a manageable and sustained way. 

Look for a creative accountant

I believe that part of the FD role, whether part-time or full-time, is to put the various options in front of you, including the ones that might be slightly different from the norm. As an example, when we were looking at investment we could have raised money through private equity or through some kind of business angel, or even the management themselves. But it was important to us that we didn’t give our equity away because we would rather use that for the team. That was why we borrowed the money. It made sense and it was a different way of doing it. 

Elliot didn’t just help us understand the options we had, he made sure we presented the company in the right way to the organisation we were seeking finance from. It’s important that the person who’s making the decision about whether to give you finance or not sees the company in the way that you want them to see you. How you present the figures is really important. You need to know what figures are relevant, which ones are the most important and how it’s best to present them.  

The key with all of this is finding the right person and I would say that one of the most important attributes to look for is someone who is creative with their financial thinking, in the right sense of the word. I don’t mean they get creative by falsifying figures or anything like that, what I mean is that they are creative in the way that they think about solving problems in a financial sense.

I would describe it as entrepreneurial thinking, as opposed to just looking at the cold numbers and figures in the way that a traditional accountant would. What you don’t want is an accountant that literally just does the figures and relays the information to you. You want an accountant who talks to you about the stuff that you want to do and offers support far beyond their financial expertise. You need someone who can tell you and help you, from a financial viewpoint, how you could achieve your goals. 


Modern Marketing: An Introduction

This is my first blog about modern marketing. In this blog, I’ll explain what I consider modern marketing to be and explain why this approach is so effective.

When you ask people what marketing is, they’ll talk about all kinds of things; writing blogs, writing articles for print magazines, newsletters, email marketing campaigns. But for me, building personal brands which by association also promote the company is one of the most relevant to the way that marketing and business is conducted today. It’s very fit for purpose for this modern world. 

What is modern marketing? 

Modern marketing is all about demonstrating expertise in your marketplace. Building personal brands is a vital part of that.

In years gone by, companies have been ultra-possessive of their content and knowledge, because they see it as the golden egg. Don’t get me wrong, that is absolutely still the case, but there is immense value in sharing some of that information and knowledge with potential clients. In my experience, any risks of a company using that information going off and doing it on their own are far outweighed by the sales that can be generated by taking this approach. 

More forward-thinking companies get this concept and use it as an important part of their marketing mix. They recognise that putting their expertise out there is a way of advertising without having to pay for it. There are various low cost of disseminating expert content once you produce it. 

How we discovered this concept at Cake

As a company, Cake naturally fell into this approach to marketing, before we realised its value and potential. It started with certain members of our team writing books, back in the early days. This evolved into blogs, again in the early days of blogging. Then members of our team started talking at user groups and giving internal talks. As they grew in confidence, they started to give conference talks, speaking to 500-600 people sometimes. 

Now, each of those facets of sharing expert content contributed to those team members building their own personal brands. Ultimately, they became a known name in their area of expertise, which is absolutely brilliant for them as an individual and I’ll come on to why shortly. 

The benefits to the company are also huge because, by association, the company becomes well-known through your many team members who are building their personal brands. We recognised this and made it a strategy within Cake. 

It was even something we talked about when we interviewed people for a job. We explained that we had this policy of encouraging people to build their personal brands in various ways. We did that in such a way that even some of the least confident people could ease into it, but also made it clear it wasn’t compulsory.

The first step was always to encourage someone to give an internal talk to their peers. We called these sessions ‘lunch and learns’. There might only be 15 – 20 colleagues there and we’d make a point of buying pizza for everyone who attended. They’d all get lunch, listen to an interesting talk and learn something. 

This was a great way of introducing people to this way of thinking and giving them the confidence to take the next step. That next step might be giving an external talk at a user group, where you’re not only talking to some of your colleagues but also to people from other companies who are interested in the same technologies. That builds your confidence again and then you might decide to write some blogs. Those blogs could generate positive feedback and initiate conversations with people you’ve never met before because they have the same shared interests as you. 

You might build up a following for your blog and then take that confidence and expertise to conferences. If you’re good at this kind of stuff, you’ll even start getting invited to speak at conferences. At that point, you know you’ve built a really strong personal brand. 

The benefits of becoming a known name

As an individual, there are many benefits to becoming a known name in your area of expertise. At this point, you could get a job anywhere because people in your industry know how good you are because you’ve shared your expertise. By building your personal brand, you’ve essentially created a highly effective virtual CV that showcases your expertise. 

But this isn’t only about employment prospects. Becoming a known name in your industry is good for your mental wellbeing because you feel appreciated and have an opportunity to make a difference. There’s nothing better than giving a talk that people genuinely find really interesting and helpful. It’s really rewarding when people come up to you afterwards to talk more about what you’ve discussed, or to congratulate you. All of this helps develop your confidence and leads to a healthy ego. 

Make sure people want to stay

Of course, as a business, this might seem risky. Giving your team members a platform that could see them being poached by recruiters may seem counter-intuitive. But what you have to remember is that if you have the right culture and ethos as a company, people are going to want to stay with you. 

They might put their heads above the parapet and get more attention from recruiters, but if your team members are good then they will be getting calls from recruiters regardless. What you have to do, as a business, is make it attractive for your employees to stay with you. Giving them this platform to build their personal brand is part of that. In my experience, people are really grateful for having that opportunity. 

When I say that you need to make sure your company is attractive enough that people want to stay, I’m not only talking about money. Of course, money comes into it, but it’s about more than how much you pay people. It’s about the ethos of your company, the kinds of projects you work on, the customers you work with, the equipment you provide and the overarching culture you have at your organisation. By making sure your culture is set up in the right way, people won’t want to leave. 

The benefits to your bottom line

Of course, there are significant business benefits to taking this modern marketing approach. At Cake, encouraging our team to build their personal brands allowed us to generate sales without needing a sales team.

Not only did we receive incoming sales enquiries, but our expertise was never in doubt during those the commercial conversations. We weren’t having to sell ourselves and our expertise to potential clients because they already knew they wanted to work with us. The conversations were about whether we could fit them into our schedule and what the commercial terms would be. Those were the only hurdles we had to get over.  

In a sense, building personal brands also acts as a filter for your sales enquiries and this means that the enquiries you do get are generally very high quality, because people already know exactly what you do and what you’re capable of as a business. 

This is far from the only commercial benefit. When clients know about the expertise within your team upfront, it makes it easier to command a reasonable day rate because your company is in demand. Supply and demand might dictate that instead of charging £500 a day you can charge £700 a day. That’s all possible because of the way in which you’ve disseminated the expertise in your company.

I believe that adopting this modern marketing approach can transform your company. Within six months of starting these activities, they can start to have a significant positive effect. Within two years, I would say that you won’t need much in the way of other marketing or sales activity other than to keep pushing that ethos around building personal brands and really bake that into your company culture. Doing that will generate all the growth and sales you’re likely to need on an ongoing basis. 

Recruiting becomes easier

Another positive strategic byproduct of this approach is the quality of the job applicants and enquiries you receive as a business. I’m not only talking about speculative enquiries, where someone sends you a CV on the off chance, but also about the applicants you get for jobs that you post. 

Much like with prospective clients, prospective employees will have read about what you do. They’ll understand how technical you are, what kinds of projects you work on and what technologies you work with. That means when they apply for a job with you, they’re not doing it blindly on the off chance, they’re doing it with real purpose. They’re excited about having the opportunity to join your company, work on your projects and with your clients. 

It’s another filter and one that makes recruiting much easier. You’ll not only garner interest from high-quality applicants, but you’ll also receive more applications because of the reputation you’re building. 

This also ties back into the concept of building your culture and creating a really positive vibe at your organisation. This is positive internally as well as externally. In fact, one of the things we found at Cake was that our clients really wanted to understand how we did that. They’re a business too and they face the same recruitment problems as everyone else. It’s about differentiating yourself from other organisations in the same space. Our clients were particularly interested in how we did that and how they could apply our approach to their business. 

Creating a community

Interestingly, we also heard from recruiters who were interested in how we attracted such high-quality applicants. They couldn’t approach it in quite the same way as us because of the different nature of their business, but they recognised the importance of the technical community. 

This was positive for the health of the technical community as a whole because other companies started to get involved and were willing to put money into that community, whether through the sponsorship of user groups or within conferences. Seeing other organisations putting the time and effort into organising things for that community was another really nice strategic byproduct. 

One eye on the future

One other strategic byproduct is that building personal brands and putting your expertise out there in this way can get you noticed by potential acquirers. This can be very helpful if your endgame is to be acquired. At Cake, that wasn’t why we did this, but in reality, our eventual acquirer followed us for four years before they made an offer for the company. It wasn’t something we planned, but it worked out really well. It’s always worth considering that kind of future outcome. 

How to start using modern marketing in your business

As with any marketing activity, you’ll need a bit of upfront investment. But I would say that modern marketing is more about investing time and effort than money. You also need to be patient. If you pay for Google ads, for instance, you’ll probably get instant results but it’s going to cost you money on an ongoing basis. Over the long term, you’re not building anything permanent. It’s a ‘here and now’ marketing philosophy.

I’m not saying that this approach isn’t useful. It may even be a helpful way to supplement the first six months you put into this philosophy of growing that culture of building personal brands within your organisation. But once you get the momentum going with modern marketing, and you maintain that momentum by baking it into your company culture, it will just grow and grow. The more people you get behind you, the more it builds. 

If you’re setting up a new business, put building personal brands at the centre of your marketing philosophy. I’m currently setting up two businesses and it’s the approach I’m taking. That means before we announce the launch of these companies, the main people involved in each of them are beginning to build a personal brand. You’re reading an output of this right now.

I’m talking to you through this blog and hopefully, you’re enjoying it. Hopefully, you’ll read more of my blogs and learn who I am and what I do, so that when I do announce these companies and what we’re doing, there’s already a strong platform to launch from. I think having this platform is vital for startups. 

Entrepreneurs who want to prepare for the launch of their startup in a modern way need to start building their personal brand at least six months in advance. Get other key members of your team to do this as well. 

I would add one caveat to this blog and say that this concept of building personal brands isn’t for everybody. Not everyone wants to write blogs, do a podcast, speak at conferences and put themselves out there, particularly in the software development world. However, if you can get a third of your company behind you in doing this and give them time to follow this philosophy, then it will be really healthy for your business and help you get off on the right foot.

This approach isn’t for everybody, but for most startups, I think this is very appropriate – and not only in the technical world. You can apply this approach anywhere. In fact, the two companies I’m starting at the moment aren’t technical yet we will use our personal brands to make an immediate impact when they are launched. Watch this space….


The Free Zone Frontier™

The Free Zone Frontier™ is a concept that I learned about through the coaching company that I’m a member of, Strategic Coach®. It’s a concept that perfectly describes one aspect of my experience with Cake Solutions. In this blog, I’ll share my experiences and then explain the Free Zone Frontier in more detail, as well as why it’s such an important place to be.

Finding a differentiator

As you probably know by now, Cake Solutions was a software development company. When we first started we used Java, which is the most commonly used programming language in the world. We were essentially playing in a park with 10,000 other companies, who all had very few ways of differentiating themselves. The options were to differentiate on expertise or on price, and initially we tried to differentiate ourselves solely on expertise. 

At Cake, we always aimed to be at the forefront of technology. In the Java world, a cutting-edge, lightweight framework called Spring Framework came along. This helped us build Java software systems much more quickly and efficiently because it produced a lot of the code for you. This not only made things more efficient for us, but also more cost-effective for the client and that then allowed us to compete on price without having to cut our margins too much. 

We were still competing on expertise, because this was a cutting edge lightweight framework and my colleague was involved before it was even at the 1.0 release. He became one of the 15 or so core contributors to this open-source piece of software. That was a decent differentiator – we were fulfilling our aim to be at the forefront of open-source software development.

Searching for the next frontier

By around 2010, the Spring Framework had become the most commonly downloaded piece of software in the Java world; there were over a million downloads at this stage. As a result, we couldn’t rightly claim to be at the forefront of technology any more, because Spring Framework was becoming mainstream. This was the time to start looking elsewhere. 

At this point, Jan Machacek, our CTO, approached me and suggested that we start looking at what comes next. He told me that he had a few ideas, would like to go away, do some experiments and blog about them to allow people to follow the evolution of our experiments and ultimately our company. 

The idea was to allow Cake to begin to move towards where computing was heading and then we could legitimately say that we were staying at the forefront of the technology, which was always our aim. 

One of the strategic byproducts of this is that there will be fewer people playing in that field and competing with you. Of course it’s not all positive, and one of the negative byproducts is that you’re taking a risk because you’re moving into unproven, commercially immature technology, but we felt it was  a risk you had to take to stay at the forefront of technical thinking. 

Jan spent six months experimenting with a number of technologies and blogging about the journey. This gained tremendous amounts of traction and neatly segues into my next blog – Modern Marketing – so I won’t go into more detail on this front now. After six months, Jan came to me and said that he felt computing was going to move away from the object-oriented programming we were working with and move towards functional programming. 

Functional programming is more suited to applications with thousands of nodes that many modern web-based applications needed to scale. To give you an example of how that would be useful at the time, think back to what it was like trying to buy tickets online to see a really popular artist perform. 

By way of an example when the Robbie Williams tickets went on sale for his Knebworth gig in 2003, the online ticket sales company immediately crashed as it wasn’t able to cope with those kinds of spikes in demand.  It was around this time that people realised technology had to change to handle the ever-increasing demands being put on these systems.

Taking a technology gamble

Jan was of the opinion that if we went down the functional programming route, and in particular focused on a technology called Scala, that would be our best bet in terms of trying to predict where technology was going and staying ahead of the curve. 

We took a major technology gamble and effectively bet the company on Scala. We started advising our clients to use this new technology because it was able to deal with the spikes in demand that the older technology struggled with and this gave our clients a competitive advantage. As much as it was a differentiator for us at Cake, it was also a differentiator for our clients as it showed they were ahead of the curve, entrepreneurial, agile and prepared to take some technology risks themselves. We began to blog about this experience too.

As a result, forward-thinking companies began to follow us. They could see the potential in this technology and they engaged us to work with them and build platforms using this technology. Because we were working with and talking about very specific technologies, we ended up on the radar of some of the companies that produced these frameworks. We then partnered with Typesafe, which later became Lightbend, who were the custodians of Scala & built modern frameworks and components that helped make Scala development commercially viable.

Because we were evangelising their technologies, if any of these companies were approached by organisations that wanted to build systems using their frameworks, they would refer those organisations to us. The companies producing the frameworks didn’t fulfil big engineering jobs. But we were of a size with the relevant skills that were able to cope with these systems and we had a strong track record.

This meant we were beginning to grow with the technology and we rode on the back of its increasing popularity as it became more commercially viable and more interesting to bigger and bigger companies who were forward-thinking enough to see and understand where computing was going. 

In the Free Zone Frontier

At this stage, we were one of the very few suppliers of over 50 engineers, if not the only supplier at the start, in this space. And even though more companies came on board, we employed more people, had more experience and had the necessary relationships to enable us to continue to grow more quickly than the newbies that moved into this area. 

This is what Dan Sullivan and Strategic Coach® term the Free Zone Frontier. This is a space that isn’t quite a monopoly, but it’s an area where there isn’t much in the way of competition. 

At Cake, this worked really well for us because we were able to win a lot of the business that was available in that particular niche. 

Why is that important?

The story I’ve just told you is something that I think all businesses should look for. You enter into business because you think you’ve got a good idea and you’ve got a fairly unique service. But either the unique service may not be quite as unique as you thought it was going to be, or as time goes by more and more people enter the area that you specialise in. 

All companies need to continually evolve and be agile. They have to keep an eye on where the market could go, make predictions and start moving in that direction. You’re almost creating your own Free Zone Frontier, your own market where you have little competition at that particular point, which is a great place to be. 

This might seem like a strange analogy, but look at someone like Madonna or David Bowie. For decades they’ve continually reinvented themselves. They’ve gone through various stages in musical evolution and have been able to adapt and still be incredibly popular in different eras of music.

The world moves on and changes and you have to move with the times. You need to be very aware of where things could go, do your research and sometimes take a gamble. I’m not saying you have to bet your whole company as we did, but you should take gambles and invest where you see the opportunity could be in the future. You need to be ready to play in that area where there is very little competition and stay ahead of what everyone else is doing. 

Making it part of the strategy

Finding the Free Zone Frontier wasn’t a strategic play when we moved towards Scala but, like a lot of what we did at Cake, we recognised the value to the business and it became a strategic play. It was interesting, it felt right and we could see that it was working.

Staying ahead of the market and playing in that Free Zone Frontier became part of our ongoing strategy at Cake. Finding your Free Zone Frontier is all about making it as easy as possible to go about your business in a space where there is as little competition as possible.  

For more information on Strategic Coach’s Free Zone Frontier™ Program, please visit www.strategiccoach.com.