The accidental entrepreneur – a year in the life of a start-up
Published on May 26, 2022
Well, being honest it is not really an accident, but I always thought the title was really cool and have unashamedly plagiarised it for headline grabbing attention. However, on reflection I have always been an entrepreneur, it just took the first 15 years of my working life to realise it with the last 20+ years being a rollercoaster of a myriad of ups and downs, highs and lows, success and failure over four businesses.
This blog reflects on de Novo’s journey pioneering into the experience economy as we close out our first year of full trading and provide some insight into what it is like to re-climb the mountain that is building a successful sustainable business when you find yourself at the bottom looking up.
There are no short cuts, but experience increases your chances of success as you roll the dice.
So why go again after the success of Certus?
After spending a frustrating 18 months sitting at home, putting on weight, watching every TV box set there is and counting the days tick off from a punitive meaningless no-compete legal clause I needed to get back into the game for my own sanity.
A combination of meeting some wonderful entrepreneurs who I subsequently invested in (shout out to Emma Sinclair, Holly Stephens, Dean Shephard, Paul Shepherd, and Alex van Klaveren) and a visit from Mr Peter Jenkins inviting me to revisit the old stomping turf and our familiar joke around ‘Next year Rodney will be billionaires!’, was enough to put a smile back on my face, take a hard look again at the market for possibilities, and with encouragement make the phone call to my old partner in crime – Tim Warner.
I missed the everyday cut and thrust of our wonderful industry, and not being active was a massive disappointment.
Even more annoying and being brutally honest, I had a massive sense of jealously as others tried to take the ground Certus had previously filled, not in my opinion because they had done anything special, it was just we left a massive void in the Oracle eco-system in the UK when we were acquired. I fully acknowledge this is a negative place and I bare absolute no ill will to others, but you can get yourself into a very bad place mentally when you are inactive and for me the feeling of success had simply eluded me.
Certus simply had too much unfinished business, and whilst extremely successful, much to mine (and others) endless frustration it did not achieve the greatness it always deserved. Missed opportunity! – absolutely.
Certus was never about just making money, it was about creating choice and challenging the status quo of the tier one management consultancies & systems integrators, breaking the monopoly, searching and demonstrating delivery excellence every single day and delighting our customers at every opportunity. Thinking out of the box was for us business as usual.
It was always about trying to be the very best we could be whilst always reaching for the stars. If we made our customers successful, we would be successful, plus having a lot of fun along the way. There is a lot to be said in being able to work alongside really good people every day whose company you like to be in and being able to smile and laugh together.
Instead of languishing in self-pity (first world problem!), I was brave and went to have a conversation with my wife Natalie to ask if I could try again. I caught her walking through the door when she took one look at my sheepish attempt to open my mouth for her to say ‘You’re going to start another business’ – it was a rhetorical question – busted!
Negotiations followed over a bottle or two of red, with terms agreed including moving back to South Wales to be nearer family as well as promising that the new venture regardless of outcome would be the very last one before we could enjoy a proper retirement together. There is always risk, and success is never guaranteed in this game.
Amazon swiftly delivered the first company assets the next day, being two whiteboards, crayons and stickies of various colours, shapes and sizes with myself commandeering the company’s first new HQ – the kitchen table, which was swiftly moved (under instruction) to the garage. Natalie meanwhile contributed by finding the company name – ‘de Novo’, which in Latin translated means ‘new’ and continues the Certus legacy.
New proposition for a new era
No point just recreating the past as the world has moved on. Pioneering into the experience economy was something I had been carefully watching and subconsciously plotting since late 2019 in the back of my mind.
This time we needed a much larger addressable target market, and my insatiable quest for knowledge and admiration of what Bill McDermott was starting to do when he arrived at ServiceNow just could not be ignored. However, equally knowing that Oracle SaaS Cloud not only remained the foundation of the enterprise, being the most complete and best product around but sooner or later Larry Ellison would also move into the experience economy as market momentum accelerated. This crystal ball prediction materialised in April 2022 with the launch of Oracle ME. (see The Conversation has Changed… | LinkedIn)
The market opportunity was clear, and my enforced sabbatical allowed me to conduct extensive research and further crystalise my own thinking. Numerous conversations followed, even being able to talk to the Godfather of the experience economy himself – Mr Joseph Pine, Harvard Professor, who with Pete Gilmore originated the phrase back in 1999! His research and thinking on the subject was simply twenty years ahead of everyone else.
You build not where the market is today, but where it’s going to be in 5 years’ time
It was clear we were entering a new era of SaaS Cloud, and de Novo was going to be at the front of this thinking in the UK&I, being able to create digital experiences by connecting front, middle and back offices, recognising employees do not work in functional silo’s. Just like a decade ago, we began creating a new language to differentiate ourselves.
The magic recipe in 5 simple steps
1. Vision – create the vision, differentiated proposition and the backdrop story
2. Build – focus on building a desirable brand from the outset – ‘quality over quantity’
3. Fund – ‘cash is king’ – raise, inject, creating runway and time
4. Assemble – bring together the very best people to turn concept into reality; good people always attract good people
5. Hustle – leverage the network, let everyone know your back and find that first deal
and then above all else DELIVER and EXCEED CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS!
The importance of governance
Being a Chief Executive can be a lonely job and the buck ultimately stops with you. With numerous stakeholders to keep constantly satisfied surrounding yourself with people that can constructively challenge you, offer insight and provide that sounding board is critical.
From the outset we moved to secure an extremely experienced Board of Directors led by Tim Warner as the Chairman, backed by Richard Summerfield, Chief People Officer of Hawksford and Clive Swan, former SVP Oracle Product Development to offer guidance and support, whilst always ensuring the necessary checks and balances were in place.
Having NED’s is not a vanity project but rather loading the deck of cards in our favour and increasing our chances of success.
Dealing with rejection
Dealing with rejection is all part of the journey. From losing a deal and we have lost several already (hey we were a bit rusty!), to someone deciding not to join after they had already said yes. But from experience, as one door closes another opens (even if it does need a nudge!).
We deal with disappointment transparently, learn where we can, and move on quickly. It is difficult, especially when people will not even give you a chance, but that says more about them than it does about us.
Doing what we do is not for everyone, and you must taste defeat to know how to win.
The Power of Alumni
Being part of building something special is a very powerful aphrodisiac. It is an addictive drug. The power of a collective vision reaches out to natural human behaviour of wanting to be part of something.
So, it comes as no surprise to build a successful company we immediately went back and surrounded ourselves with as many of the same people from the #certusalumni network as we could, injecting immediately the experience into the organisation from the outset.
Some, quite understandably, did not want to come on the journey again – the Certus legacy casts a long shadow. However, it has been pleasing to see we had a rush of the ex-Certus alumni wanting to be involved, showing the hunger and passion to build something and are prepared to make sacrifices and take risks – that’s our DNA!
For some the timing is not right just now, however the market and opportunity wait for no-one, and we continue to push ahead whilst leaving the door always open for our alumni to join when they are ready later.
Equally we also are looking for new blood and new ideas to stimulate our thinking and push the company to greater heights!
Thinking sh*t up days! – Real value creation
Personally, I enjoy this more than anything and for me it’s the best part of being part of a team. Back to basics, around a whiteboard, just throwing ideas up, the majority falling away, but then some gold emerges and collectively an idea turns into a hypothesis, then a concept and from that into product and/or service offering, and hopefully into revenue. Once the idea is partially crystalised we just go out and sell it.
Serendipity also sometimes unexpectedly intervenes and shines a light on a potential opportunity into a new market sector perhaps often overlooked or never even considered.
It just proves as I have always said you don’t need a swanky innovation lab in the centre of London but it does help if you have plenty of coffee and cake!
No Free Pass back to the top of the mountain – 365 days of tale of the tape
And for those in business development the job is not about managing a procurement process, it is about solving someone’s pain points and generating value. You need to originate – bang on doors (occasionally kick the door in!), network and engage through conversation both face-to-face and digitally through social media. Sales do not just appear! – phone calls, digitally posting and shoe leather are the order of the day, every day, so hustle.
To win our first deal it took 6 months and…
Tenacity, hard work and simply bloody mindlessness, proving doubters wrong and suddenly you find the pipeline coverts and you have a different ‘quality problem’ to solve…
The future is full of opportunity
We are now well beyond start-up with momentum building day-by-day with the de Novo brand established and being recognised. We have beaten the odds again that only one company in ten makes it successfully through its first trading year, and that is cause for celebration.
Any new business needs support, and I cannot thank enough those whether being ex-employees, suppliers, partners or former / current clients and of course both Oracle and ServiceNow who were prepared to help us get started again. It is something we all very much appreciate.
What we are all building here at de Novo is something special, it is not a flash in the pan, and it is going to take time to nurture. I can feel the same buzz as in the early days of Certus, and whilst different, de Novo already feels special. We are not trying to build the biggest company in the world, but we are on the mission for building the very best company we can be.
It is hard work, but it is also incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. We have always said ‘if you come and work with us, no matter how good you think you are, we will make you better’. It’s a bold statement, and not only is it true, but it raises our own game and in doing so we all become better!
My undying thanks for Peter Jenkins for being the magician in the background, Tim Warner, Clive Swan, and Richard Summerfield for their faith and support, and most of all Ian Carline, Tara Dewar, Alex Alexandru, Craig Roch and Hayley Dobson who were prepared to make the jump at the beginning, unleashing their internal entrepreneurial spirit, pioneering into the #expereinceeconomy and being the DNA of #wearedenovo.
Finally, a shout out to our ever-expanding wonderful workforce, my thanks for coming on the journey and respect to all of you.
And of course, Mrs Natalie Sweeny (aka the honorary ‘first lady of de Novo’) for all her love and support. Could not have done it without you.
Game on – here we come, ignore us at your peril, we are not going away!