He's the founder who's "making the world a happier place to work" and has built a £170m company. Read Elliott's views on VCs, red tape, and staffing.
Founder: Glenn Elliott
Company: Reward Gateway
Description in one line: Making the world a happier place to work
12 month target: Scale in USA
Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:
71% of executives rank employee engagement as vital to business success but only 24% of those executives think their employees are highly engaged.
We bring a suite of tools together that organisations use to connect with their employees – communications builds trust, recognition shows what is valued, wellbeing shows the company cares, perks make people smile, feedback shows the company is listening.
Ultimately, we’re improving business performance by helping companies harness the power of their own people.
What is your greatest business achievement to date?
It has taken me 10 years to get the team around me as good as it is today, and I think assembling a group of people this talented, this engaged and this excited about our future, is my best achievement. It’s the hardest too.
I’m fortunate that I’ve got a great leadership team who are deeply connected to our numbers, customers and metrics every day. So the answer for me is none.
I spend most of my time thinking about our people and organisation structure and our market. It’s my job to design the organisation so our people can do their very best work, and to see where our market is going so that we’re sailing in the right direction and we can make the big bets on the future in the right places.
To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
30% of our revenue and profit is non-UK and 70% of our staff are outside the UK. Our people are based in seven countries and our clients are in 23.
We’re a long way from being global but we’re definitely international.
Describe your growth funding path:
We started in 2006 with £10,000 scraped up from a few credit cards. That was it. Building product quickly, selling it to a client and using the money from that to make the product better for the next client is how we grew the business – it’s all been organic, self-funded.
I think it’s been really helpful, it forced us to think constantly about our clients and have a rock solid business model from the start.
We’ve completed two private equity deals since, returning cash to shareholders, including our staff both times through the employee share plan which always holds 5% of the company.
We sold to Inflexion Private Equity in 2010 for £25m then we sold again in 2015 for $220m to Great Hill Partners. I love the focus and pace that private equity gives you as an entrepreneur, you work in five year sprints.
What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?
Google Docs – our business has run on it for years. Every single document the company has ever produced is in the cloud, accessible to everyone on a Mac or an iPhone anywhere in the world. The speed and collaboration it fuels is incredible.
Where would you like your business to be in three years?
I’d like the UK and Australia to be twice the size they are now, but overtaken by our US business which is going to be huge.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?
By definition, entrepreneurs create value and opportunity where other people don’t see it. That means you’re often the only person in the room who believes something can be done and should be done. I think the hardest times are when everyone you trust around you thinks one thing and you believe you need to do another – they are the real test of your leadership. Fundamentally, my approach is to counsel widely, listen carefully, then do what I believe is right.
What was your biggest business mistake?
Oh – there are so many. Do I have to pick one? Back in 2010 when we were 90 people I tried to take myself out of the day to day and it was far too early, we weren’t ready. We had no product team at the time, just me and the engineering team and I moved them to report to the CFO.
It was a disaster, we didn’t really build anything for about 18 months. I still cringe when I think of that decision now, I must have been out of my mind!
Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:
There isn’t any. Entrepreneurs find ways to get things done, you innovate within whatever system you’re in. We’re hugely fortunate in the UK to have very little red tape and I think people who say otherwise are making excuses for themselves or are politicians trying to score cheap points.
What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
These days it’s being too obsessed with raising too much money from VC’s and thinking that is the marker of success. Fundraising itself drains the founders time, makes them give away all of their equity and gives a false marker of success. If I’m honest, I’ve got a reasonably dim view of VC’s (too many of them literally have more money than sense).
How will your market look in three years?
Employee engagement is the hotspot in HR tech at the moment and a lot of money invested has created an explosion of vendors. There’ll be a lot of drop out from that as companies fail to achieve scale and we’ll see some consolidation. We’re completing on our third acquisition this year right now.
What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
It’s the best job in the world but sometimes it’s the loneliest too. You need to be ready for the hard times when you’re filled with self-doubt and dig deep, get the courage to do what you think is right and remember to constantly iterate and adjust your course as you need to. “Fix in flight” is what I call it.
Without question, personal fitness. I have two personal trainers in London; Martin and Joe, two in Boston; Rick and Jason, and Ben in Sydney. So wherever I am, whatever day it is, there’s a guy with a heavy weight ready to ask me to haul it around.
Executive education or learn it on the job?
I’ve always learnt on the job but in the last three years I’ve re-discovered TED Talks and books – groundbreaking! You must make time for inspiration, learning and reflection.
What would make you a better leader?
I think time makes me a better leader – you can’t beat experience. Every month that goes by, I’ll do something else imperfectly and learn something for the next time. If you’re genuinely open minded, time is a great trainer.
What one thing do you wish you’d known when you started?
I knew almost nothing when I started but I don’t really have any big regrets. I think you just make the best decisions you can on the day, stay true to your values and keep learning. I guess in the last few years I’ve really seen how much better my judgement on those hard issues when I’m rested and in a good space mentally. So maybe I’d tell myself that – prioritise good sleep!
One business app and one personal app you can’t do without:
On business travel I’d be lost without AppInTheAir which tracks all of my flights, boarding passes and tickets across all airlines. I’ve flown 530 hours this year already so it’s essential. And personal? Well, for social, Instagram was my first love.
For tech CEO’s it has to be The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz – it’s like the manual. I don’t know why they don’t give it to us all on day one, maybe it only makes sense when you read it after making all the mistakes though!