3 ways I made my business successful

Glenn was asked to summarise 15 years in business into 15 minutes. How did he manage that?

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Smith & Williamson breakfast seminar in 2016



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It’s a 15 minute talk and got edited down to 7! How about that for punchy!!

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Hi everyone. The brief of this talk is amazing. “15 years of business in 15 minutes”, so it’s like a minute per year. So I’m gonna do my best.

I thought I’d start here with what we do. So Reward Gateway is an HR technology company and our job is to help companies to be nice to their staff. Whenever I say that to staff, ’cause you’re all presumably all managers and leaders and business owners. Whenever I say that to staff, they say, “We need some of that around here.” There’s a message there to everybody.

The reason that engaged employees, I’ve learned over the last ten years, make a fundamental difference to how your business works is on three levels.

  1. Firstly, they make better decisions on a day to day basis, on an hourly basis because the understand more what they’re doing and how it affects your business, and you want that in a small business. I actually started an employee benefits business. That’s what Reward Gateway originally was and we pivoted into employee engagement and essentially everything we now sell and do and talk about is what we’ve learned of ten years of building this business.
  2. Secondly, they are more productive because they love what they’re doing.
  3. And finally, they innovate more. A whole team will innovate more because they want your business to succeed. If you’re interested more in about employee engagement and how it could help your business then we’ve got loads of talks and seminars that we’re always doing about that.

When I thought about what can I do in 15 minutes that has got some chance of helping, I thought I’d just try and think about the three most important things that we did to disrupt our industry and to fill in for that ten years.

We hired no one with industry experience

First thing is we hired nobody from our industry. So there is an employee benefits industry and there is kind of HR tech industry, it exists. There are companies in it. Our industry was filled … banks were involved at the time back when I started in 2006 and there were some big companies around and the normal thing that everyone did was they hired people from their competitors. But I wanted to disrupt it, I wanted to do things differently, I wanted to bring a much more entrepreneurial, much more marketing driven … a much more customer-driven focus. Customer focused drive into the business.

So kind of as a matter of policy, but also as a matter of need. I couldn’t afford these people because these people have been swirling around the employee benefits industry for years. I see them even now, I see guys who were incompetent in 2006 in that business, got promoted to another business where they’re also incompetent and now wants to make dizzyingly high salary on their fifth job in the industry, and I know that they’re no good, but by now they’re on a six-figure salary and they’ve got a really important job at a team.

So we hired nobody from our industry and we have 336 staff today and we still have nobody with any industry experience. In fact, we have more staff from the leisure health and fitness industry and from recruitment than from anywhere else. Because actually you can teach to main skills in most businesses quite easily and you need to hire for is attitude, culture, and drive.

We made everyone feel that the company belonged to them

The second thing is employee share ownership. So very early on, I think about 2007, as soon as we started to plot a line and we realized that we could make the business worth something, and our first target was to make the business worth 20 million pounds. The rationale for that was honestly this simple: I had a finance director at the time called Charlie Murphy, great guy, he was 60. This was gonna be his last job. He owned five per cent of the equity and he thought if he got a million pounds, he could retire and be comfortable. That was the maths. I mean that was … our strategy was pinned on that, yeah.

And it was perfectly fine, we told everyone about it, everyone knew about it, we were like, right, let’s go make this business worth 20 million pounds. We knew that in those days, private equity deal, we could get eight times [inaudible 00:04:12], so three eight to 24, so we knew that we had to get our profit to about three million. The truth was we actually got to a million, we could see our way to three, and they recently want market back in 2010, it’s much hotter now, thinking about doing a deal. We managed to do it a bit earlier, so we did it on about a million and a half profit.

Very early on, as soon as we knew the business could do that, we gave five percent of the company to our employees and that’s because we couldn’t afford to pay top of the market wages, we couldn’t afford to provide an amazing physical premises to work, in fact, our tenth year in business now, and we’re only just building a really nice office. Just now.

The rationale behind doing that was making sure that when anyone picks up the phone and talk to a client, or wrote a line of code, they knew it was their business they were affecting and it gives you this amazing permission slip to talk about profit and success with your staff. So we shared a million pounds between staff in 2010 when affection bought, and when great hill bought in the last year, we shared six and a half million pounds, we had a great time and a big party all around the world, and all of our offices.

And we cared deeply about how we treated and how people felt about the business

The third thing that’s really important is two parts to this. Firstly, culture is critical from day one, and secondly, culture does scale. So when I sold the business to Inflexion Private Equity in 2010, they said, “Glen, you got an amazing culture here. Don’t change it, but we’re frightened you can’t keep it. How will you keep this amazing culture when you’re three times bigger?”

We do things like this. This is the thank you wall, so one of our values is Think Global, it’s a way that we try and glue the company together ’cause we’re on … we’ve got 330 staff in seven offices in six countries. So we’re UK, Australia, US, Plovdiv, Macedonia, and we have one more staff in Portugal, it’s a story I’ll tell you about some other time.

Our culture team, which is a team of volunteers, a few months ago they said, “Right, this month is Think Global month, we want to invite everybody in the company, if they want to, to write a handwritten personal thank you note to anyone in a different office.”

We get involved in charity stuff, of course, this is Ella with a moustache on ’cause she’s participating in Movember. Girls can do Movember, too. This was combined with an in-office bake-off where we made healthy food.

Photography’s become really important. This is Chris, actually, he’s with our staff photographer, Chris and I met at a party in Hackney nine years ago, the least about that, the better. The great thing is then he became a freelance photographer for us, came to every single event we went to, every single staff event, started photographing our staff. Over seven or eight years, we’ve built up this amazing library of 9000 images of our staff doing great things.

Chris has now joined us permanently and is in the office and catching your staff doing great things and making them the star of your show is a great way to scale culture.

So we have this thing called Boom! which is our internal hub… it’s like our intranet, basically. It runs on our own technology, SmartHub that we provide to clients. This is where everything glues together and connects together. So this week, it’s been taken over by something called RG Tribe because four times a year, we have an all staff, all hands meeting. It used to be all in London, and then Australia would do something else a few weeks later and now it’s all online, streamed live around the world, everyone connects together for one day a quarter.

One of my top ten business mistakes was making it twice yearly, which we just did recently. We dropped down to every six months and we did that for one period, we’re bringing it back to quarterly ’cause it was a real mistake. This is so important. It’s actually on Friday, this is the agenda. We’ve just done a big restructure this week so I’m on stage being grilled by Liam whose got all the staff questions, he’s put them to me on stage. As usual, I’m not allowed to know what the questions are before they’re put to me, ’cause it’s gotta be real.

Glenn's first book, the international HR bestseller, Build it : A Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is available in hardback, on Kindle, iBooks and now an Audible Audiobook.

Find it online or order from your favourite local bookstore.

© 2018 Glenn Elliott.

Floor 4, 265 Tottenham Court Road,
London W1T 7RQ

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