BIG Business Thinking: Interview with Kelly Waters, CTO of 101 Ways
Back in my corporate days there was a guy working as part of our team called Kelly Waters (if you’ve read I don’t work Fridays, then you’ll be familiar!). He was amazing, having started his journey on a YTS for an IT company, moving on to work for the local Council and then joining Glass’s Guide. He was technically very competent, but also a brilliant manager of people. I learned a lot from Kelly.
Today, Kelly is Founder and CEO of 101 Ways, one of the most sought-after technology consultancies in London. With over 30 years’ experience in the software industry, he has a deep understanding of what it takes to bring about successful product development and delivery. He’s described as an “agile heavy-weight…inspiring individual…visionary leader”, but above all, he’s one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. So, over to Kelly…
If you were setting up a business now, what would you do first?
I no longer believe in the philosophy “build it and they will come”, so my first step now would be to test my idea or proposition as early as possible by trying to find my first customer and make sure I am customer led from the outset.
Once you’ve done this, how would you align that? What sort of things would you do?
Aligning my business with this philosophy of ‘customer first’ means making sure I am ready to respond quickly when that moment of winning my first customer comes. Everything needs to be lined up and ready to go but structured in a way to do it quickly on demand and ideally not before. For a service business this minimises the risk and investment needed to get started. In the case of a product business, this means finding the absolute minimum product someone would pay for and initially only building that.
On the journey, how would you measure success?
In the early days I focus mostly on monthly revenue and gross profit % in order to manage my variable costs. I worry less about net profit as long as we’re profitable, as I’m likely to be investing in more fixed costs (i.e. my team) in the early days as the business grows. Another key focus is cash and creating a model that is cash positive to enable further growth without having to take investment just for working capital. There are always a few other non-financial metrics that are more dependent on the type of business of course.
How do you create an environment for lessons learned?
Apart from creating a sense of openness and safety for people to make mistakes and say what they think, we put a bit of structure around this by having regular ‘retrospectives’ where we discuss what’s gone well, what could have been better and what we will do differently going forwards. I am a strong believer in emergent strategy and creating an adaptive, learning organisation is key to this.
How would you remove yourself from the day-to-day / operational side of the business?
It’s hard to do but important to strive for if I’m going to be an effective CEO. Very early on, as soon as we had sufficient revenue to cover the cost, I invested straight back into hiring a COO who manages much of our operational activity. We continued to expand our management team regularly as our revenues grew, so the company is not overly reliant on me as the founder. My focus now is more on management of our finances, strategy and business development. Next for me is to hire an FD so I can focus even more on strategy and business development, as that’s where I can create the most value for our business.
Our recent topic was Leadership; what’s your best piece of advice for this?
The best leadership advice I think I can give to anyone starting their own business is to build a great team around you, with people who are better in each function than you are. Also, when doing this, be very careful about the values and attitudes of your earliest and most senior people, as this will determine the culture of your business, which is very hard to change later. Be prepared to work hard, demonstrate your values and be willing to put your principles before money, as a principle isn’t really a principle until it costs you!