Grey hair is a commodity, especially when growing a business.

March 15, 2021
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William is CEO of Goodlord, a company trying to address the complicated, time-consuming process that people face went renting out a property; that’s helping agents, tenants and landlords. If you take a look at Goodlord’s website, they describe William as the one with grey hairs.

They reference his experience at board level, or in operating roles, for, LOVEFiLM, Paddy Power, Secret Escapes and Zoopla.

This is someone steeped in the tech sector and tied to some of the biggest start-up success stories. It proves grey hair is a rather valuable commodity, especially if you want to mimic the success of some of those other businesses mentioned!

Here William becomes the third guest in our “In Conversation With…” series, diving into a range of topics that drive at the issues facing technology; strategy, data, inclusion, leadership and the diversification of business.

Full Video Transcript

Thank you for joining me today for this conversation with leaders from across the technology industry, I'm joined by William Reeve. Thank you for giving up some time and chatting to me today.

Thank you, David. Nice to be here.

Look by way of introduction. If someone is not familiar with you, you're an entrepreneur.

You are CEO of Goodlord but you were there at the very start of LoveFilm. You've been a non-exec director of a number of different firms. I guess, as a way of introduction of all of those firms and a little all of those experiences, what's been the most exciting or challenging to this point, or is there is that today is the environment we find ourselves in today the most challenging and exciting opportunity that you've discovered along the way.

Okay. I think there's no question that the pandemic has created challenges the likes of which I've certainly never seen before in 20odd years in business. I had my entire DVD warehouse burned down one night in LoveFilm.

That was a pretty challenging experience as well but I don't think that's quite the sort of challenge you meant.

No, I could imagine that would have been a stressful but yeah, this is a fairly unique set of circumstances, I suppose, that we find ourselves in.

Yeah, it certainly is. And it's not played out as any of us expected at any point. It's just been very, very difficult because there's just been so little visibility on what to explain next.

Well, the first thing that I wanted to ask you, you've been as I said, a non-exec director on a number of firms you've been involved with Nutmeg, with Grays. You're a serial entrepreneur, you're an angel investor. The industry is seeing an explosion in the number of IPO's at the moment. I just wondered what you kind of felt that was telling us about the tech sector right now.

Look, I think the tech sector has actually done pretty well out of the whole pandemic and lockdown and obviously it's not happy about it, but at the same time what that's done in many ways is it just accelerate digitalization of the economy and business and ways of working. And the, so a lot of the tech businesses have really benefited. And I think that they're seeing that reflected with good valuations by investors a lot of investor interest in them. And for some time there haven't been too many businesses going public but I think they're seeing that moment right now. And when you look at the valuations of the stock market giving some type businesses, it's living people thinking that time is now.

When, you talk about investor interest, where is that interest falling? Because if we think about it that seems to be from the investment community safe bets to go for, you know, FinTech organizations or health tech organizations would appear to be a fairly good bet at the minute as would EdTech or is that quite a naïve view?

No, I think that was fabulous but I think that the stuff that we look at it in Goodlord is really helping companies automate their processes and workflows. So things like DocuSign, for example quite a well-known business, that's had a real ramp up and a share price because it's effectively helping turn paper-based physical processes online, digital which is very similar to what Goodlord's trying to do for example, and any business that's helping companies thrive in this sort of remote, working from home environment is something that has a good story to done investors.

 How do you find it? Look, obviously we've mentioned GoodOrder at the top of the show and as CEO of Goodlord. We should probably just give you 30 seconds to explain who they are and what Goodlord is doing.

Yes, so Goodlord is a software platform for letting agents and it helps automate the kind of backend process of getting a tenant and landlord or set up. So the tenants ready to move into their flat.

So it helps do the payments, the processing, the compliance the documents, e-signing, ID, checking, et cetera. And it's a tool that the agents use just to simplify that process and make sure they stay compliant. And it helps the tenants with a slick digital journey they can do on their mobile phone and do everything they need to get ready to move into a new new home

Which is kind of ideally suited to this environment even though it was conceived before the situation where we found ourselves unable to go and do things in person

Certainly fair to say the business plan never mentioned a global lockdown.

I know it's kind of like I don't want to make a trite point of it but in terms of diversification of businesses, a lot of organizations are beginning to have to explore different modes of working. And obviously Goodlord was in it was in a great space to capitalize on some of the opportunities of the pandemic, but how do you see organizations adapting or are they doing that well? Do you think that a lot of organizations are doing it in a good, healthy way or is that perhaps kind of a sudden panic and rollout of technology, but that perhaps might lead to some legacy down the line that that might be harder to unpick?

I think for quite a lot of the businesses certainly the ones in the tech space I think working from home is not a totally alien concept. And you'd already have had probably quite a few people. For example, maybe the software developers who actually would have been very very capable of working from home. But I think having the organization's hold it is technically often manageable.

Certainly for example, at Goodlord it's sort of very much came kind of with our territory of turning processes, digital but culturally it's much harder. And I think it's, there's a real fatigue that sets in from being at home the whole time. You haven't got the same social contacts you haven't got the same ability to bounce ideas around in a sort of informal settings in the office. So you can schedule as many as many Zoom meetings as you like but it doesn't quite give you the same benefits of the unscheduled sort of happenstance that you'd get out of a well-designed office.

Now, according to the Harvey Nash group CIO survey six in 10 in technology I'll just make sure I get this stat, right. I don't want to screw it up, but I think it's six in 10 in technology don't have a longterm view for the direction of the sector or of that business. How are you coping with that uncertainty? First of all, at Goodlord. I mean, is that, do you fall into that six in 10 or do you think that you've got a slightly longer view?

I think it depends a bit what long-term means. I mean, I think in the tax act so we tend to define long-term as a two years or one year rather than some other businesses, which probably look at take a more five or 10 year view. Certainly I don't know any tech business that takes a 10 year view really, but we certainly have a pretty clear kind of two three-year plan but at the same time, it's the old adage, isn't it? The no plan survives first contact with the enemy. And I think we know we have to stay flexible and resilient and we have to be adaptable whatever the pandemic on the government and the and a market circumstance to throw at us. So the plan is a guide, but not a formula.

You said that what's your, what do you class as long term has what you class as long term changed during the last year or so? I suppose two years might seem like long term that might seem like a different era now that we've suddenly find ourselves kind of with rule changes all the time coming from government and that being the uncertainty.

Yeah I actually think that I don't know that long term has changed in my mind. I mean, we know at Goodlord for example that we need more scale and that this sort of scale we need to succeed hasn't necessarily changed. We're probably getting there, if anything, a bit faster than we first planned because the sort of push to automate and digitize things as has helped us has helped us accelerate.

But I think long-term, long-term, it's kind of when you see a digital technology becoming commonplace in an industry. And I think our sort of general thinking on that and the timeframes of that haven't changed, haven't stepped changed. They've accelerated a bit, but it's still some years before some of what we see becomes the norm.

You did mention government a minute ago. Certainly I don't want to get into any kind of political points on the government's handling of this, but there is that points around regulation. And I suppose you're dealing with an industry where there have been changes of regulation. And I suppose there's been some uncertainty around that. What do you think government can do to help tech from a regulation point of view? Is it doing enough?

Well, actually, so in the sector of Goodlord is operating in which is the residential letting sector. There's been a steady drum beat of regulation coming for the last few years. And some of that stuff does feel like just an additional burden to bear in the when you're trying to cope with the pandemic and lockdown and new working arrangements but it is continuing.

And then on top of that there's been additional changes that were pandemic driven. Like for example, the courts have had to where we're temporarily closed and they've had to rework or redesign their working practices around digital technologies. And the government's brought in short term changes around evictions, the eviction process, for example. So as well as the study, drumbeats which hasn't let up there's been additional stuff that we've all had to get on top of and the kind of wider regulation of the technology sector and not so much the kind of daily agenda so much as the stuff specific to the industry, we're in the lettings industry.

You will, you talk about scaling a business and that's always something that a founders is keen to do. And you've obviously, as we've mentioned, I've seen a number of businesses LoveFilm, graze scale, very successfully Nutmeg have done very, very well. Do you think how you scale a business has changed in the last year in a way I kind of wonder whether or not it's become simpler because the office and that dynamic has kind of been taken away.

I certainly think back over the last 20 years the scaling challenge shave become very different and just things like being able to host years services in the cloud rather than having to have co-location centers and figure out how many servers you need to buy and worry about your traffic load exceeding the number of servers you've got capacity for all that has become a problem with the past. So that's made scaling simpler but I think in the last year or so, it's really just bound up in the questions of culture. And how do you work remotely? How do you work as productively? How are you becoming as aware of issues or of your people struggling or your people not being trained properly? Have you got the visibility that you'd normally have from kind of being able to walk around the office or kind of get somebody kind of and touching and grabbing your the grabbing at the coffee machine and asking for some advice on something.

Data is at the heart of our industry, and there's an industry wide push at the minute to create greater customer centricity. How much data do you really need to put the customer first?

That's an interesting question. I don't think, there's any limit to so much data that's available or that you can use productively. It's a question of the data being needed is a slightly different way of looking at it. I think the, at the end of the day under the European you UK arrangements, it's all about making sure that customers have got control over what data is shared. We've got the ability to see it, remove it or correct it. And I think that's the right philosophy and that, and if at the end of the day, if a company is trying to use are trying to get data, they don't really need. That won't last very long because under the GDPR regulations they're not allowed to use something. They just gathered something that they have no need for. And if the customer doesn't see the reason that they need it, that they're unlikely to give consent. So I think that the, it really comes back to how useful is that data and how much benefit can you show the customer from the data that you're asking for.

But from a point of view of the investment community I suppose data seems to be the new currency we were talking earlier about IPO's and the fact that there's never been a positive potentially a never been a better time with regards to organizations going public and data underpins a lot of that. So I suppose, there's that tension for an organization to want to go out and collect more data to satisfy that desire, right.

Yeah. So I think data is one of those things that, it's got a mother and apple pie quality to it. There's a lot of people who would talk about how valuable the data is, but they're not necessarily selling the data in a tangible way.

You can see on their financial statements but I'm only in something like Goodlord, for example we're helping tenants move home. So the sort of key information that we've got there is when are they meeting, where are they moving?

Who is this tenant? And that's pretty fundamental, but it's not this it's not like we've sort of, kind of we need sort of some spy in the sky or CCTV cameras or anything like that. It's just about who are you aware you're trying to move and when's that move happening when, you know that puts you in a fantastic position to help them say we're actually probably going to need broadband in that new place on you. And actually have you thought about canceling all the, have you got any insurance policies and things that you need to cancel we can help you with that. And we can probably help somebody's got to tell the council that you're moving in and moving out.

Can we help you with that? And this is not rocket science. It's just taking some pretty straightforward information and making it easy for people to share it as they either, as they're obliged to share it, for example, that council they need to notify the councils or that in a way that makes their life easier.

Because suddenly you can say, we can fire up with kind of Netflix when your first night in that new flat with just one or two clicks you don't have to fill in any extra forms you've already given us all the information that we need to help you do that. So it's not, I'm coming at this from a pretty elementary level. I think at the elementary level is often where the most value is.

I think in the sector, we often get kind of very we get very preoccupied with how much data an organization is collecting how large an organization is.

Obviously with the news in the last couple of days of Jeff Bezos, deciding to step down from being CEO of Amazon and the fact that they made I think it was a hundred billion in the last three months of 2020 has been a lot of talk about how much of a monopoly Amazon have how much data they collect how they treat their staff, et cetera, with regards to data and how much data organizations are collecting. And in particular, particularly when we think about big tech, do you think the average person on the street really cares so long as they're getting a service?

I mean, Apple are removing the, oh, sorry Apple are creating new advertising information. I think into the new versions of iOS.

And I read an interesting article where it was kind of a suggestion that there's a lot of free apps out there that people are quite happy to use if they get an advert. But if they were told that they would have to pay five pounds for it, they probably wouldn't use it.

Yeah. I think it's hard to generalize it. I think it's easy to create scaremongering stories but I think that most people don't really think about this on a daily basis until somebody promised them or scares them about something. Apple was on a fairly well trodden campaign against the likes of Facebook for what it sees as intrusive privacy practices. But I think Apple's tending to look at that from an American point of view. And actually in Europe, the GDPR framework gives it gives consumers a lot more protection and control over their data than the Americans have.

Of course Apple's efforts to build his own social network failed. So there's a, if it had built his own successful social network maybe would have a slightly different stance on these things. But, and you mentioned that with Bezos in the news, Amazon's under attack for this. I haven't seen those stories. I think Amazon is not generally seen as one of the offenders and having worked quite closely with Amazon before in the few years back, I know how seriously they take data security and how respectful they are of the kind of data that they have. So I don't.

And when I look at my sort of spam emails in my inbox, I don't tend to think of the Amazons of the world as giving me email clutter. I'm much more aware of, for example there's Facebook updates saying your so-and-so's updated in your feed, but it doesn't have what the update is. It's like, that's just, that's the stuff that's I probably should be turning off shouldn't I?

Perhaps I'm falling foul of lumping big tackle all together into one kind of boat there because yeah, you're right. I mean, obviously with AWS it's kind of underpinning their businesses is that security around data. And, you know, you mentioned Netflix a minute ago kind of organizations that the whole world over big and small using you're using AWS now it's kind of the infrastructure for everybody. Right but there does seem to be that scam mongering, you mentioned scam mongering in main stream media and almost in the industry.

And I kind of sometimes wonder whether actually most people are quite oblivious to it and quite happy as long as they're getting a service especially now when people are remote and they're trying to just stay connected.

Yeah. I mean, if you think about, for example, I'm a regular Google user and I use their maps and directions quite often. Now at the some level, of course, Google knows where I live. Shock how Google knows where I live but on the flip side is whenever I'm trying to get directions home, it's kind of two clicks.

And I don't have to type in where home is every time I do that. So that's a natural use case. That's makes it obvious to me why it's kind of helpful. They know where I live, have I ever felt Google has abused its knowledge where I live. I've never felt that are there customers out there who will scare monger off?

Oh, you know, Google knows everything about me knows where you live, blah, blah, blah. There are I know personally, I obviously have a different tolerance and approach to how I handle my Google relationship than some of those scaremongering people do. But at the end of the day, the European and UK regulations that gives people the control I think is reasonable.

I'm quite supportive of it. And I think it prevents just total fishing expeditions on the part of technology businesses. And it prevents people, creating some of the kind of nefarious uses without at least some ability for consumers to fightback.

You talked about culture earlier on in the interview. And at some point, hopefully not too long, but at some point you're going to reopen your office I'd imagine, and you'll have a team with very different expectations from those of January, 2020. First of all, with regards to those expectations, what skills do you think a leader needs to overcome those challenges successfully?

I think certainly the working from home era has credited a whole load of challenges for leaders in any business. And I think having said that part of how it's worked even though of course working from home was only a really a niche sport before the pandemic. It is because it forced the companies to enable it for all that stuff at once. And some of the old perils of kind of having people dialing in for a management meeting or something where you've got eight people in a room and one person dialing in, it was never very effective.

The moment you've got all nine of them having to be on the same screen which is actually a great leveling device it becomes much more practical. So as we start to get back into the office I think we're just going to have to bear in mind. We probably, at that point, got nine people meetings with say five people in the office and three or four people trying to dial in.

And it's going to be about really remembering to run meetings in what I think we would call remote first way and say, actually, you still need to use the screens.

You still need to use your headsets. You still need to be dialing in if you've got, just because you're in the same, half of you in the same place. It doesn't mean that the meeting should you should actually gather around the same table because the other half of you are then get rid of the bad experience and the meeting is less effective as a result. So I'm seeing, I think I'm seeing, working from sort of when we get back to the office and we were allowed to return, I'm seeing that as helping for the unstructured social side of work.

But I actually think that the kind of schedule things with the meetings are in calendars and things are probably going to stay a bit more remote, like, and people appreciate. Or certainly as at our workplace, we've been recruiting people who even though they probably could cook come into the office and under, they want to continue to work from home at least some of the week.

And we've even found some people who probably can't come into the office that they're working allover the place. And we've been happy to bring them into the business, but we're going to have to make sure that we can run the company in a way that doesn't leave them feeling like I'm a second class citizens when half the companies back in the office on any given day. But of course the other half isn't and doesn't want to be left out on the margins.

It's really interesting point because obviously this is a conversation I've had over and over with different people about, what do you think it's going to look like? And everyone kind of says, oh, we're going to go to a hybrid model but no one really fleshes out what a hybrid model means other than, oh but it's having the opposite a bit as I'm at home and saying remote first is the first time that I've ever heard someone really articulate what that might look like. And it's fair to say that, yes, we all probably fatigued by the number of teams and zoom calls and they tend to be back-to-back and maybe we could do with a bit more of a break between them, but you're right. I mean, there were so many meetings pre-pandemic that were completely ineffective. Right?

Of course there were, and there still are going to be meetings that are ineffective. I'm afraid that is part of the working life, David but yeah, remote first, I think is a concept.

That's not, it's not one that I've invented. If you look it up you'll find that there are various companies who've have been sort of practicing it.

And of course it was some of those distributed companies are really in the Vanguard over, the last 10 or 20 years. Who've kind of figured out, I suppose the ways of working, but we've learned some of the lessons from those companies in trying to make the lockdown arrangements be more productive for us. It's particularly difficult. I think to bring new people into the business help them understand the culture assimilate them into the teams, get them productive get them familiar with the organization.

And so we've been leaning on some of the materials that the remote first companies have been sharing publicly. And I think we're going to be operating in a remote first way a pandemic vaccine locked down or not, because I think it actually, at the moment you've got even 10% of the workforce who are not in the office on a given day, you need to be organizing the meeting for them not for the nine out of 10 who are saying, well, actually why don't we just huddle around this table?

Mm, no, you touched on a really interesting point there, of course because so many organizations have now hired staff in this period they've had to and I suppose those new staff will have very different expectations perhaps to some of the legacy staff. And if I think about my own organization you can hear people who've been at the organization for quite sometime saying, oh, you know, be great to do X Y and Z and taking it for granted. When I suppose some of those new members of staff will have a very different set of opinions. Whilst those organizations that you talk about who've been remote first for some time I've worked out a model that works, I suppose this is a first in that we've gone from organizations working in a traditional way to then a remote first way that then might lurch back to a traditional way and have a whole set of challenges, I suppose, around a opinion there.

I think it will be a challenge. And I think, there will be, it will be relatively easy to kind of accidentally if you like disadvantaged the guys who are not in the office on for a particular moment or meeting. And I think we just all have to be looking out for those and trying to avoid those pitfalls. And I know that at Goodlord, we love our office. We love our office culture. We love the kind of innovation and benefits we get from that. But we also have found actually working from home can work, does work. And I think it's going to be just trying to find the best of both. And I'm not saying we're going to get it right in all respect straight from day one but I know where we're thinking about it and I'm going to be using every trick we can to make it successful.

The last topic that I want to touch on is diversity. I mean, it remains a key topic understandably of debate in the industry. Progress does seem to lag behind well-meaning words. If I think about some of the research that we've put into the market Harvey Nash group over the years if I think about our technology survey and our CIO surveys the stats around, for example, just when you look at gender and diversity is so much more than gender but when you look at gender the stats have remained remarkably similar for the best part of 10 years. Do you think the pandemic has helped build more inclusive environments or not?

I think, I don't know. I don't have access to the sort of data that Harvey Nash would have on this stuff, David but I think that I've certainly seen a couple of instances where, you know, that have been much more if you like short-term urgent problems to solve than perhaps the sort of the diversity agenda allows for.

So, you know, when you're busy trying to work out how you work from home or what what you do when you're being expected to work from home and you've got childcare issues to deal with or how you socially distance in a way that feels safe, or if, you know if you are working in an office or a store or a restaurant or something how you do that in a way, which is which feels safe for your, you and your family. I think that it's relatively easy for, at that point for that urgent issue you're facing to crowd out the kind of perhaps longer term agenda is around diversity and things like that. So I'm aware of diversity.

If you like being crowded out of the priorities by some of the lockdown challenges we've been facing. I don't think having said that that's the end of the story, because actually one of the other aspects of lockdown, certainly for some companies is they've been able to recruit talent who they probably wouldn't have had access to before.

Certainly at good, we've been able to take applications from people who wouldn't be normally applying for London based jobs, and we've been able to offer people who probably can only work from home. And so we wouldn't have seen before. We've been able to consider them too and offer them jobs so that in some ways it's creating diversity around different dimensions that we thought about before but which is helping helping create a more inclusive workplace for us. And, I'm sure we're not the only business like that.

So I think diversity is comes in many diverse forms, doesn't it? But we, some of the more if you'd like some of the preoccupations that the media has on diversity may or may not be getting perhaps the attention they would have got without the pandemic but actually in other respects I think diversity is alive and wealth.

It's funny. Because what you're saying there, you immediately think, right, great. We can hire people from possibly disadvantaged communities, possibly, they might you say that wouldn't have thought of London simply because London is expensive. I come from the Northeast of England from a coal mining community the idea of London rents for many, I think of my friends at school, just staggeringly, preposterous. I mean, they are staggering when you preposterous for the most part.

They're going down David, they're going down.

I know but it does raise an interesting point that yeah you can hide from anywhere around the country but not everyone necessarily has access to stable internet connections. And that's kind of a prerequisite now for doing jobs when we're all at home. And it's something that I certainly take for granted and shouldn't. Do you think it pushes up the agenda? The idea that that access to the internet is a human right is something that everybody should have access to regardless of their circumstances.

I think you're touching on something really important there. I think, these days, if you've not got access to high quality connections, telecoms infrastructures you are at a disadvantage. And I think particularly that's not sort of in the education space. And I think that digital divided amongst schoolkids between those who've got sort of, high quality of home environments with space to concentrate high, good internet, plenty of tech devices available have got a massive advantage over kids who kind of there's no space at home.

They haven't, they're all sharing one device. The internet doesn't really work properly that's potentially going to be really affecting of their life chances. And I think that's, that's a real issue for policy makers across the board, not just in the UK.

But William, it's been an absolute pleasure to speak to you today. It's is really interesting to hear your views on a number of different topics that are facing the sector right now. So, I appreciate you giving up some time.

Thank you, David. Well, nice to chat. I wish you wished you well very important topics we're all grappling with and hopefully we can help solve them together.

Absolutely. And look, if you've enjoyed this conversation there are more on our website. You will find more of these debates and do enjoy.

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