Robin takes me down memory lane, sharing his early beginnings as an entrepreneur, starting WEIR+WONG, challenges along the way and many useful advices for 1st time or budding entrepreneurs.
Robin Wong is the co-founder and director of WEIR+WONG and this is his story.
Robin, it’s so nice to finally have you on YHP, how are you doing?
Thanks for having me. I’m doing great.
So how did it all begin, what were you earliest moments of being entrepreneurial?
From the moment I left university, I was always interested in the idea of setting up my own business. I just didn’t know in what exactly. I’ve always had product and service ideas rolling around in my head, but just found I was too busy with life and trying out different paths through life.
It took me a while to find something that I really enjoyed doing, namely making things with digital technology and as an (ex-heroin addict) Buddhist monk once told me “to walk the righteous path, you have to stray to either side” – I suppose I strayed for a number of years, finding out what did and didn’t work for me in my career, but I got there in the end, and no heroin was required which is always good.
Tell us a bit about life pre- Weir+Wong? What entrepreneurial ventures were you involved in?
I’ve spent time on numerous digital projects through the years, including a lot of firsts. So you could say that I’ve had a lot of experience making new technology-driven ideas come to life in short time spans, with limited funds, which is not unlike a start-up.
I built some of the first online casinos, developed lenticular lens touch screens prototypes for major car manufacturers years before they hit the production line, and I built some of the first social media campaigns before there was ever any talk of APIs or even Facebook (remember MySpace?). In terms of the available technologies, I’ve always been interested in pushing the limits of what can be done, and working with the best people to help make it happen.
I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to run big teams of great people and been responsible for Agency operations and delivery, so I’ve got a lot of hard won knowledge not only of doing the work itself, but how to do the work from a creative, production and organisational point of view.
All these opportunities gave me a chance to test out ideas I’d had about being user-centred in my thinking and design, agile in my planning and production, and lean in terms of my thinking in general. This really set me up with the best grounding for setting up Weir+Wong with my business partner Andy Weir.
How did the idea for Weir+Wong come about?
In our previous roles, Andy and I had both become removed from the thing we loved doing most, and that’s creating great work with digital at its heart. We’d both reached a stage in our careers where suddenly everything was just about numbers and reviews and endless meetings. It wasn’t fun any more. We both needed a change.
At that same time, we both happened to have just had kids, so trying to have a much better work life balance was important to us. It was clear our old jobs weren’t going to give us what we needed, so we decided to set up a business built on simple principles that let us lead the life we wanted.
It really helped that over our careers, we’d built up good reputations, and also built up such a fantastic network of talented people and great contacts, that it just became really obvious that we could do everything we wanted, but for ourselves.
It must have been tough getting a business started during those times, how did it all unfold?
Some might have thought we were crazy at the time - Starting a new business just as the recession was biting in - without the stability of a nine-to-five to put food on the table. But something my father said to me spurred me on, that if you could make a success of a business during a recession, that when markets became stronger, you would have proven your credentials if you survived the lean times.
In fact, being Lean both in how we run projects and also the business has always been one of our core principles, and it helped us keep costs down from day one. Being Lean for us means spending time and money on activities, services and products that add the most value to our work. It’s not about fancy offices, or shiny computers, or flash business cards, in the end if the work isn’t the best it can possibly be, then the rest is hollow and meaningless. So everything is about the quality of the work for us.
We also knew that we were going to have to be adaptable to a changing business environment and quite a different client base than we had previously. Having worked directly for clients and brands, we were now targeting Ad agencies as a first port of call for production opportunities. We knew that we’d also be up against sea changes in technologies having been through several shifts and fads in what clients were asking for. Andy and I had both had ample experience living through the demand bubbles of campaign microsites, flash websites, social media apps, and mobile apps, so we knew that we would need a production approach that catered for this. So for this we decided to use an adapted form of Agile.
Being Agile was important in that it focused us on working with great people and making sure that everyone collaborated in the best way possible with the optimum amount of communication to keep everything on track. It also meant that we had a planning system that allowed for constant change and iteration, and always made us focus on what was the highest value and highest risk activities so we were always delivering early on what our clients needed most. We apply Agile to how we run the business as well, using the same routines of continuous improvement, daily stand-ups, weekly reviews and retrospectives, and measured and prioritised lists of actions that we have in our projects. We basically rooted the business in these principles, and this allowed us to just enjoy our work.
What was the hardest part of setting up the business?
Cash flow and Forecasting. Even though we’ve had over a decade of experience working with complex planning requirements and forecasting, when it comes to your own business, it’s tough predicting how much work you’ll get, how much cash flow you need to support that business and what kind of money you’d like to make. I remember us bandying around a soundbite that start-ups generally don’t make money for 3 years, and that scared us, we needed business that was profitable immediately given the money we sunk in at the start to get the business going.
But in the end, it paid off; we actually became profitable after 6 months and have stayed that way ever since. There will always be a time when you have to speculate to accumulate. If you don’t take the risk, you’ll never get the rewards.
How were you able to fund it?
Through personal savings and angel investment, then careful cash flow monitoring and forecasting on a regular basis.
Can you remember those early days, thinking of the company name, opening the company’s bank account to the first six months or so of running the business, how excited were you?
It was very exciting, going through the process of putting together business plans for our bank manager and putting together our first creds presentation was a very useful exercise in helping us decide what kind of business we wanted, what kind of clients we needed to target and the positioning we were going to take. Crucially, with the positioning, it was all about what would differentiate us from the competition, and which businesses we aspired to become like in reputation.
They are so many challenges that entrepreneurs go through trying to build a company, or making it successful, can you share of a challenge you faced and how you overcame it?
As your business becomes more successful (or goes down a rocky road) you’ll start questioning the strategy you’ve taken and whether it’s the right one. It’s right to question and challenge yourselves, and regularly. Being able to analyse what you and your business needs and then reprioritise your combined energies to get there is one of the most important and reinvigorating activities there is in business life.
What would you say were some of the key fundamentals that were implemented to accelerate the growth of the company?
I’m actually slightly against the idea of growth for the sake of it. Part of being Lean is having a small, multi-skilled and nimble team that you can rapidly grow and shrink as the business requires. This approach has always kept overheads low for us and costs down for our clients.
At times when we have had to grow, I think the effort that we’ve put into finding the best people to work with has served us well. If you’re not working with the best people, then the work won’t be as good as it can be. We’ve found that working with really talented people is often many, many times more productive than just working with the people you think you can afford. It’s a false economy.
Can you tell us some of the little things that you miss from the early days?
Roast Chicken baguettes that we used to make in our first Studio.
What do you do outside work to unwind?
Cooking is one of my main passions. I also love hanging out with my family, running round the countryside, Skiing, Tennis, and trying to get outdoors at the weekends. I’ve also recently got into going on Track days and driving fast.
What are your plans for Weir+Wong and yourself in the next 5 years?
For my business it’s about working out how we can do better work, for more clients and still stick to our principles. For myself, it’s about continuing to be hands-on and part of the work that we do on a daily basis. I never want to be that person stuck in meetings and staring at numbers all day. I also need to keep working on that work-life balance, there’s no point working hard if you’re not going to see your family and enjoy yourself on a healthy and regular basis.
Before I leave you today Robin, this is something I think a lot of our readers would want to know. What advices do you have for anyone reading this interview hoping to start a business or perhaps even started and struggling for attention, investment or a proof of concept?
Do something you love. Work out what the idea is, but also how you want to work on it – don’t have an innovative idea and then run the company according to the old rules. Think about and always prioritise the most valuable activities for your customers, then rinse and repeat every week.
Thanks so much for your time Robin