How did Lawrence Jones go from supplying musicians and entertainment to venues, or importing grand pianos and renting them to hotels? How did this same man start and grow UKFast into this multi-million pound empire we all now know? Did you know it all started from him trying to build an online gallery? Lawrence stops by YHP to share his story.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I was born in Wales, a place I spent a lot of energy trying to get away from when I was growing up but now try to escape back to whenever I can! My background is actually in music; I went to the Durham Chorister School and, when I moved to Manchester, I made money by playing the piano in a variety of venues. I’m happily married to my wife, Gail, with whom I founded UKFast in 1999 and we have three daughters.
When did you get the entrepreneurial bug?
Growing up, I didn’t really believe in my ability to get a job – I wasn’t great at exams and academia so, in a funny way, it was a lack of confidence in my own employability that pushed me towards setting up my own business. I’ve always been resourceful and creative so the entrepreneurial potential was always there but it was when I first moved to Manchester at 16 that I decided to set up my first business, The Music Design Company. I supplied musicians and entertainment to venues in the area and started imported grand pianos and renting them to hotels, which generated a nice steady stream of income on a monthly recurring revenue basis. This is actually the business model that now underpins UKFast.
How did the idea for UKFast come about?
UKFast was created in response to poor customer service. I was trying to build an online gallery and it was just a hassle. I thought, “I can do this better” and then set about trying to prove it. I decided that my goal was to build the best hosting provider in the UK. That’s still our goal today, in fact. We always strive to be better, more dynamic and more effective tomorrow than we are today. We don’t like to stand still at UKFast!
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
I think that, if you’re a natural entrepreneur, you don’t view obstacles as barriers; they’re just things to jump over. If I’d have started out thinking, “this is going to be so hard” then I might not have done it. I’ve always got one eye on the horizon so I think that helped in the early days. I suppose the hard thing was money because, for the first few years, we were the worst paid people in the company. We paid ourselves the minimum wage at times because we were focused on the bigger goal and new that it was what we had to do to stay afloat and keep growing.
How did you fund the business during those days?
I still had money trickling in every month from the grand piano venture so Gail and I funded it all ourselves without external help. Money was tight, Gail and I lived on cereal for a month, but we had belief in the success of our business model and kept persevering.
Take us back in time; tell us about those first few months of starting the business? Tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
They were terrifying months. Exhilarating but terrifying. We’d managed to get maybe five or so customers. I remember Gail’s granddad coming to see our new office and I was so pleased when he sounded so impressed. Then I realised that he had misunderstood, thinking that we had the whole building. Having to explain that we just had that one poky room was painful but it made me even more determined for us to own a huge office of our own one day.
On those early days, tell me about a time you felt enough was enough? When you thought about quitting, what gave you that little push to keep going?
I’ve never thought enough was enough. I was always very mindful of the fact that, for me, this was the business that had to succeed. I was thirty and well aware that this was my chance to make or break it. Starting up a business is a journey. You can’t just decide to do it and then give up on it. It’s a much more progressive thing than that and it takes some endurance. If you need that push to keep going then revisit the reasons why you started your business. For me, I want to spend my money on the people that mean a lot to me; my family, my friends, my colleagues, and the charities that I support. Whatever lit that fire in your belly in the first place should still be burning in there somewhere so reconnect with that when times get hard.
A lot of start-up consider raising capital probably one of the most difficult things in starting a business? What advice can you give to them?
There are loads of ways that you can borrow money to start up a business but a lot of very successful businesses have started without external funding and without much money on the table. The Cambridge Satchel Company, for example, started with around £600 and was built from Julie Deane’s kitchen table. If you have a bit of a side line venture going, whether that is buying something cheaply and selling it off, which you can do on a multitude of websites these days, you can keep money trickling in as you set up your business. When the money starts coming in from that then make a real effort to separate your personal and business finances. Pay yourself a wage and reinvest the rest into your venture. Having a small wage for yourself gives you a goal to work towards every month.
What is your definition of success – personally and in business?
I knew the business was a success when my close friend Rich asked me, in earnest, if he could work for me forever. Building up a team of great people, developing them and watching them thrive is a huge element of success for me. Everyone’s definition of personal success is different but I think that, in business, it comes with the setting and achieving of goals. After nearly suffocating in an avalanche in 2001, I really appreciate the meaning of the present. I try to cram as much into every day as possible and to appreciate the people around me because, although I do love business, it’s the people around me and closest to me that matter the most. If your business is thriving and you are still spending time with your friends and family then you’ve achieved a balance between personal and professional success.
What systems have you used to automate your business to give you more time for business planning and development?
We are lucky at UKFast that we have a fantastic Research & Development Team and they are constantly innovating, and creating ways to get the business working better. This includes Orpheus, our integrated telephone software. The automation that Orpheus delivers frees up our account managers to spend a minimum of four hours daily on the telephone to clients. This not only ensures we have strong personal relationships with our clients but also allows our account managers to gather valuable intelligence from customers about what they want and need, which helps us to develop innovative new products and services. This, in turn, has facilitated our growing turnover and our high client retention of 97%.
Who has influenced you most and been your greatest inspiration?
I look for inspiration from a lot of people and places so it’s hard to say. I don’t have one particular person but there are a couple who have inspired my behaviour. In terms of businesspeople and entrepreneurs, I’d have to say Sir Richard Branson, hands down. I remember first meeting him on Necker Island. I’d set myself a goal to meet him and actually ended up going on a morning run with him – for two and a half hours – just firing a load of questions at him. He’s given me some great advice and when people ask me to do things, I always remember him saying, “Always say ‘yes’ to things. It makes for a much more interesting life!” He has taught me that one man can really make a colossal difference. I’m also influenced by Tony Robbins. My wife, Gail, bought me some of his CDs years ago and I listened to them all. They gave me a new perspective on myself and how I see myself. Gail has influenced me a lot too; having her alongside me gave me the confidence to rent our first two-person office on Fountain Street. Where we are now as a business, I am constantly inspired by the people in the team. Their commitment and energy is hugely inspirational.
What book has inspired you the most?
A book by Jim Collins called ‘Good to Great’. It’s just a great insight into how businesses become great. Collins basically took nine companies that had the highest market growth for their industry and compared them with similar companies performing around the average. By looking at what the really great, successful companies did; things that the comparative companies did not do, he managed to put together a collection of ways that companies can achieve excellence. The great companies had things like core values and a statement of purpose where the less successful companies did not. It was after reading this book that we created a specific purpose for our company; really analysing and prioritising what it was that we wanted to do and be.
How do you achieve balance in your life?
I’m an avid squash player and, when things get hectic, I just hit the court. I have a coach and just spend the hour in that little box channelling all of my focus into trying to beat him! Any worries about the business are left at the door and, whilst I inevitably have to pick them up again on the way out, having that break really helps to restore the balance. A burst of endorphins can do you the world of good! Gail and I also enjoy spending time with our colleagues outside of work, whether that is having a couple of drinks at the pub on a Friday or renting out a cinema screen and taking a big group of people to see a film. I like to know my colleagues are achieving a good balance between work and play too. That’s really important here.
What are your thoughts on the current state of the UK entrepreneurial ecosystem? And what do you think can be done to improve it?
Well, I attended the recent budget presentation and, to be honest, I think there’s not much in there that actively encourages entrepreneurship. I think there’s a real fear factor for people considering starting their own business. We interview people quite often whose profile indicates they’d be better working for themselves but are afraid they aren’t going to get the support; that banks won’t loan them the money and so on. I think we’re creating an economy where entrepreneurs try to find a home within other peoples’ businesses when, arguably, a true entrepreneur isn’t destined to work for other people and those relationships often don’t work out.
A point that was brought up during the budget, supposedly to help small businesses was that the government could fund National Insurance costs of up to £2,000. If this was £2,000 per employee then that would be a valuable thing for businesses but as it stands, it’s not much help. On the positive side, I would say that Manchester is a great place for entrepreneurs. The community acts as an opportunity for growth acceleration and the council is proactive enough to encourage small enterprises. A good thing to come from the budget is the plan to increase research and development tax credits for small businesses in the technology industry, which is – obviously – a great benefit.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Sitting on the Necker Belle with Gail and my daughters, waiting for the team to arrive and join us, back in 2011; members of the team who had worked with us when we were in a tiny office and endured the long hard slog alongside us. Without them, we wouldn’t have offices on the 28th floor of City Tower; we wouldn’t be as successful as we are today. Sitting on that boat, looking back on how far we had come, and waiting for our colleagues – our friends – to arrive and enjoy the benefits of years of hard work.
Where do you see yourself and your business in 5 years? 10 years?
We want UKFast to be the company that brings innovation back to Britain. I want to have taken every single employee out to Wales to climb Mount Snowdon, and I want us to turn UKFast into a £100 million turnover firm. We’re currently on £20+ million so it’s a big ambition but there’s nothing that’s going to stand in our way of achieving it.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Before you start up your business, really know your outcome; know where you want to go with it. You’ve got to be aware that things will be tough but stay focused on a specific target on the horizon and keep heading towards it. In my mind, there can be no giving up once you’ve committed to setting off on the journey. True entrepreneurs can always find an effective, fast way of achieving something. That’s why you don’t see entrepreneurs standing in queues. They’re somewhere else, getting what they need another way!
You don’t always have to try and invent a new product so it’s worth thinking about markets that are already established. Where could you fit into those markets? You can really minimise the risk for yourself by doing this instead of trying to come up with something brand spanking new!
Be wise with your money. If things start looking good then it can be tempting to spend a load of money but things might not actually be as stable as they seem; you might have a huge bill coming up, which can really sting you. Remember: a penny saved is a penny earned!