17 October 2011

When we set up UKFast, I could only have dreamed of a day like today. I am a big dreamer but this was not something I would have ever been able to visualise…

Sitting here on the Necker Belle with my daughters Tegan and Poppy, my wife and business partner Gail, the girl who has stood by my side throughout all of the tough times, waiting for my team to arrive.

You might at first think that it is easy to get carried away and think we’ve made it but, to the contrary, this trip is intended to help design the vision for the future. There is also a little holidaying thrown in for good measure but, ultimately, we have a job to do.

The owners of HP, Bill and Dave took their key people away to a vineyard when their business was 15 years old, to crystallise their vision. It feels like one of those junction moments when we choose another mountain to climb.

So often, I try to stop and think at UKFast. However, the business is so much bigger now and my responsibilities are far greater. I find I never have a spare minute. If I go into work, I end up straight at the coalface. This is partly because I love it there. I love the graft and the banter from the boys and girls on the sales floor. I love the commitment from the support team, the innovators in the engine room, I love every corner of the business. The environment is inspiring; you can feel the pace as soon as you enter the top floor of City Tower and once you are in, you can’t stop.

But there are a great many decisions to make now, whereas in the old days there was just less to do and more time.

So, stepping back is key to being able to clear your mind in order to make the right decision. Having people around you who you trust and who understand your personality and ability is also essential. That is why having directors here onboard and PA’s to catalogue the events is crucial if we are to get the absolute best result possible.

You don’t want yes men. You want people who understand when something is not right, people who know how to explain when you are going in the wrong direction.

We’ve dropped anchor, and I am waiting for their plane to fly over the boat, into the tiny airport on Beef Island. It’s hard to explain how I feel at the moment. If you’d been there the very first day Neil came to do a day for free to see if he fitted the bill, you’d know what I mean.

He arrived at the door of our tiny 2 person office, a place where the 3 of us would later cram in for the next couple of years, with a computer monitor for a head; quite an apt vision really as he spent the next 12 years with his head in a box for us. He made about 5 or 6 journeys to his double-parked car before he was able to set up what I can only describe as the 2nd largest computer Manchester has ever seen (the first being the famous First Computer in Manchester University, now in the Museum of Science and Industry). I had a great feeling; a little like the one now. I suppose it’s because at the time I imagined just how much work went in to dismantling his computer at home and then packing the car before he even arrived at our office. The act itself was a demonstration that this was a “giving person,” someone who is able to sacrifice his own time and needs for a bigger picture.

I threw a piece of rolled up paper to get Gail’s attention and mouthed, “I am going to make that boy a millionaire.” Whilst I haven’t quite achieved that goal yet, I was right about my judgement of character. I could not have built UKFast without the commitment of a right-hand man like Neil. He has developed inline with the needs of the company, growing from boy to man, from computer assembler to director. I had obviously seen something that day that made me think “director material.” It was a gut reaction and one that turned out to be as important and lucky as me bumping into Gail just a few months earlier.

You need a blend of luck when you are setting up something and going against all odds to try and build something lasting and worthwhile. Gail had found Neil in a basement in the Arndale Shopping Centre, assembling and networking computers. How did a kid from Salford find himself such an integral part in one of the Internet’s fastest growing technology providers? There has to be luck in business and if you get a chance, you have to take it.

So, as the plane flies over in the distance, the crew set off to pick up our shipmates up from the airport. I know that Gail and I are going to enjoy this experience even more than the team will. I believe this will be a defining moment that we will look back and say, “Remember the week on the Necker Belle?”

I believe that being in business is about sharing. You share the hard slog and therefore you should share the good times together too. I don’t care what business sector you are in, I enjoy eating and partying with my team as much I understand the need to be a shoulder for them too in times of trouble.

It’s often said in business that you should treat your customers how you want to be treated yourself, and this is good advice, but to this I’d add: “Treat your staff like you’d treat your friends.”

Why? Because if you genuinely care about the individuals who work with you and you demonstrate your commitment to them as you might a friend, they are always going to put a higher level of commitment in, and their results are directly proportional to your efforts.

I can see the speedboat coming.

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