Interview With James Ker-Reid: My First 3 Years As A CEO In The Tech Industry

by James Ker-Reid - February 4, 2020

My First 3 Years As A CEO In The Tech Industry by James Ker-Reid

2017 to 2020

As I celebrated my three-year anniversary on the weekend with my wife, we recounted many ups and downs, some successes and failures and of course, a hell of a lot of learning.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes. My reason for writing this document is to aid others in their pursuit of growing a small business, whether that be a product or service-based business. Or even to learn more about my business, myself or the life of a Tech CEO.

1st Year

This is a year of immense learning, freedom and insecurity. A shift away from a regular salary, a shift away from having a team, a shift away from certainty.

My first year included doing mainly sales strategy work and some execution or implementation work. Looking back it was the implementation work where I learned more about a tech business, its structures and more importantly the behaviour of a Tech CEO. There was nothing more revealing than sitting in a small 10-person tech business sitting next to the Founder and seeing the way they talk, communicate, present and share ideas.

It also gave me an understanding that the CEO is maturing at this seed stage, they are going on their own journey of self-development.

Furthermore, I realised after the first 4-5 projects that there was a major problem with the sales performance at tech companies; and my own experience of both successes and failures, I’d certainly taken for granted up to this point. The CEOs where I had the largest impact was where they didn’t have sales experience, they were honest and humble about what they knew and didn’t know and were eager to improve and better their situation.

I garnered a fair few distinctions and learnings in my first year, including:

  • I moved from strategy work to retained consulting model, still at a really low rate – I had no idea of market value or ROI at this point.
  • I was desperate to build a business and not to be just James Ker-Reid Consulting, aka Mr Freelancer, Mr.Solo Consultant. I wanted to build Sales for Startups Ltd.
  • My broad market niche moved from SME Tech businesses in London to 10-50 employee Seed and Series A B2B tech businesses that were wanting to grow by 100%+.
  • I was over-eager at times to build the structures of bigger businesses in my own business rather than focusing on validating and testing the concept. Call it the phase of over-operationalising!
  • I met a lot of partners and other consultancies who had great ambitions but were a mismatch with my desire to focus on execution rather than strategy.
  • I relied on my retained projects way too much, which nearly caused a collapse in my business ambitions.
  • I found my second love, data and analysis. After hating maths at school – often skiving lessons and feigning illness, how the heck did I get an A! – I decided to go from top to bottom and statistically analyse a £250k business, which I was determined to scale it to a £1million+ business = it was my chance, my launchpad, my key case study. My proof.
  • At times, I felt really alone.

2nd Year

My second year started really well with continuing with some excellent performing retained projects and also doing some profitable strategy work and even helping a Paris tech firm.

It seemed now that I was starting to hit my stride and build out a better client base, a better network, a better reputation for my services and now with some great case studies under my belt, I was ready to rock and roll.

My prices went up as I got an understanding of the competition out there in the market, still delivering the work myself and suffering from some bandwidth challenges.

I started to productise my service and got really niche with my target market, going one step further and instead of 10-50 employee B2B tech firms in London, I was now going after 10-50 employee B2B tech firms, who had raised £500k+ in the last 6 months.

I really understand where the value laid in our strategy work and felt like this was the time when I could start to teach my methodology to others as the clients started to flow in.

I garnered a fair few learnings in my second year:

  • Weddings are expensive and hugely disruptive to work, hey ho, it only happens once right?!
  • Even when you had 4x’d someone else’s tech company, the scale of the promotion of your business and service depends on the character of the CEO. Some may be worried about their competition and be shy in nature to promote you. So merit doesn’t always guarantee further success.
  • Marketing and content are really key to a business and should be a never-ending thing so that you can teach your clients what you are learning as you are going. It’s like the Chinese cup mantra, every cup has to be emptied for new ideas and insights to flow. Start marketing early and keep consistent – 2 years later it would certainly have paid off big time!
  • New technological advances in both sales and marketing were really gathering pace with some great new tools that won us £10,000s of business.
  • I decided to operationalise my business and as someone put it – “James, this is one of the greatest one-man enterprises, I’ve ever seen” = not quite the reaction I was looking for…this definitely gave me food for thought.
  • I realised that my sales strategy was far better than my competition and started charging a fair market price for it.
  • At a low point, I made the mistake of compromising my value, dropping my price and circumventing my values and it really hurt me badly. An inauthentic James.

3rd Year

My third year was all about how can I involve additional people. After having used a few consultants, I realised that there was greater opportunity to be the dealmaker and get others to deliver it. I no longer wanted to be the best consultant. I wanted to become the best leader, the best business owner, the consultancy that makes the biggest impact in our industry.

I started to build a team of consultants as the work continued to come in. Our direct marketing and prospecting approach still kept us growing and ready to extend our lead over our competition.

I was eager to get some experience into my team and actioned a great recommendation from one of my mentors about holding an assessment centre.

After all, how good are salespeople at selling themselves? Some could say they are better at selling themselves than their product or service?!

I was starting to build a reputation based on the results for clients and also for my activity on LinkedIn, sharing insights and thoughts openly and publicly.

I garnered a few insights and learnings in this year:

  • I got back to work after the wedding bonanza, moving the business forward.
  • I built deeper relationships with CEOs as I had lived and breathed their world for nearly three years and I’d seen first hand their struggles.
  • I started to build a team of other consultants and realised that delivering day in and day out was not my passion anymore, I wanted to build a business, not go for solo growth.
  • We won some great clients at a higher level in terms of maturity, people, revenue etc and got rewarded kindly for the results we created – we had a decent track record.
  • We found some great consultants that fit our culture, we’d previously selected on technical skills and experience – I wanted to build a business, a culture, a team – not an ad hoc collective.
  • I unlocked my analytical obsession and reviewed all of our projects to date and decided that I was going to codify the whole process and create a new proposition.
  • I improved our value proposition by answering the key question of “what will you actually do?” by moving to an outcome-based arrangement – a codified set of objectives.
  • We started to get web leads through our new website as we truly became a business, a team, we hired new in-house roles of Marketing and Support.

In summary…

I’d label my personal learning into a couple of key categories:

  1. Self-discovery: realising what you’re really like under pressure, your strengths, weaknesses and what really drives you.
  2. Market: niching down further and further to a micro-niche has so many rewards as you know when you meet a client, you think…”I can help you, I’m really confident I can increase the revenue of your tech company.”
  3. Team: I underestimated the importance of hiring for our clients initially and then even internally by building the right culture and right people when you are 1, 5 or 10 people is so important and it sets the tone for the future.
  4. Marketing: start early, do it often, share your ideas regularly and freely and probably should be one of the first things you should outsource to give you scale and consistency.
  5. Proposition: you can unlock a lot of value by analysing what makes your customers successful, that enables you to sell with confidence and at a higher price.
  6. Mindset: think long-term, even when it’s painful. It will come back in a 10x return if you get it right.
  7. Data: look at the numbers of your clients, of your business, you’ll be amazed by what you are doing right and get clarity on the tweaks you need to make to thrive.

I’d love to understand more about your journey and even any of this resonated with you.

As always, I’m pleased if one person reads this article, as I’ve just helped one other person either understand me better, my business better, their market better or help them to build their own business.

So that’s a result for me! 🙂

Have an extraordinary week!

Further Reading

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