Thank you for meeting with us today Edward, can start by giving us an introduction to you and Littledata?
Sure! I have come from a background of project management and consultant roles. That was typically around looking at how clients were analysing the data they had so far – typically had been going for years and had a digital product already out in the market. I’d ask questions around performance, drop-off points, turning visitors into active users and so on. I found quite often they had not looked at Google Analytics; it was out-dated or not something they had considered. I soon realised there was a big problem where people want to be data-driven but day-by-day find it hard to work in a way to get meaningful insights from the data they are capturing.
You even find that those on the ‘nerdy’ side struggle when it comes to asking a question on their data if they don’t have it. And that’s caused by a couple of things. Firstly, Google Analytics is a massively complex product: Google are constantly iterating it, so people who thought that they knew it a year ago, don’t know it now. The second problem is that these business problems and questions only come up months after you set up the analysis. You might want to look at the performance of your company from last quarter or last year, but you’ll find that Google Analytics hasn’t captured it.
Littledata was formed around four years ago, so companies can get a complete picture of their business, in particular ecommerce businesses. We started consulting around Google Analytics & Google Tag Manager, which we still do for some enterprise clients. But our focus is on building automated connections so that with whatever ecommerce platform they are using they can simply configure the set-up automatically, and every hour of every day the data is being collected and audited that it’s correct. Whenever, they need this data then, say for example they hire a new Google Analytics Manager, this data is there. It allows the company to easily configure their data for the job.
Over at Littledata, you are managing your teams over co-locations. Can you tell us more about how that started?
We made the choice at the very beginning; we didn’t have much funding until a year ago really, when we went through our first round investment round. We didn’t have the luxury at the beginning of hiring a lot of experience people say in central London, because of office cost and also people cost. When we first started developing the product, we had some designs which were worked on by our Romanian designer in London. He then got fed up with working in London – he came to find it dark, wet and with little living space so he decided he wanted to move back to his hometown, but as he enjoyed our collaboration he wanted to continue working together. Once moving and working in Romania, he said that it’s a great place for software developers and designers, which led us to our first junior developer in Transylvania. This is in Romania’s second city, Cluj-Napoca. It’s a little more affluent than the rest of Romania, and also has a strong tech university which is one of the reasons why tech clusters here. That worked well, so we hired another analyst there, which led to us getting our own office there – we rented an apartment in the city centre – and now own a whole house, with a team of 10 people based out of there!
Why would someone want to start a co-location business?
There are a couple of main reasons. The first one is that you are getting less competition for jobs, so it’s easier to hire the specialist roles you need. You need a big enough talent pool locally, but arguably with London, there’s too much competition. Although I would say that the problem we are seeing now globally is that salaries are now harmonising somewhat. Talented developers, no matter where they are in the world know that they can get a high salary job and can work remotely or relocate quite easily.
With Littledata, initially, we thought this was just tactical, that this was just a way to get things done on a low budget. But actually, it’s quite strategic and it’s a great way to build a diverse, global team at a low cost. Which is another reason why someone may want to manage their teams over co-locations. We have gained incredible loyalty from the staff working there – I think they love working for a globally oriented tech start-up.
What mistakes have you learned along the way from working over co-locations?
I’ve managed a few teams remotely over my career and have learned a lot from each of them and have seen the mistakes that companies can make. One of the mistakes I’ve seen is creating a ‘them and us’ culture. You can easily make the team feel like a development arm and that they don’t have any say in decisions. If you treat your team like that, you’ll find that they don’t buy into the vision.
I want all of my team to feel like they have a say in the company. The way we can ensure they feel on-side is through regular face-to-face meetups, we try and get the whole team together once a quarter and for some people a few times a quarter. Which is quite a fun working lifestyle, where we have some fun meet-ups, like Majorca next month, so it’s an added benefit for the team – it’s also working time and not all play!
The other thing is making sure it’s not one job function in one job location. So having all the managers in one location and all of the juniors in another will create a bad culture. As we have offices across London, Romania and the US we have a mix of people across these locations, which is important to create interconnection across the offices.
What other tips have you picked up which can make your team feel more inclusive if they are working remotely?
There are always cultural challenges. The biggest challenge I came across was from when I was building a team in India remotely, which although not impossible, is very difficult. The first issue I came across was the timezone difference, which I am still seeing here at Littledata with the team in the US office. It’s hard to have that fluid conversation as no one is overlapping. The only way to get around this is by having someone constantly working outside of their core working hours.
The other problem I found with India, was the cultural difference. Romania is still culturally different from the UK; it’s quite easy to forget that because of it being logistically and linguistically closer, but there are different expectations. In a sweeping statement, Romanians tend to be more direct in their approach and will say it as it is, which I find to be an admirable quality, but doesn’t go down too well with some Americans, who prioritise politeness over the message.
To break down this cultural difference, the best approach is interaction, and by interaction, not always by email and calls but face-to-face. Particularly, we try to get our team working in Romania over to the US to meet customers. Even if this isn’t in their typical job role, it’s really interesting for them to understand how our clients think.
Have you found there have been any unexpected or surprise benefits from working in this way?
I think from a product perspective there is a genuine advantage to having diversity in the team and a real example of that is when it comes to copywriting and text. I am a native English speaker, so when I write copy, I subconsciously use very English terms, for example when describing our higher-end enterprise product, I would refer to it as ‘bespoke’. ‘Bespoke’ is a funny word – very much an English word. I found in Romania they don’t understand what it means; they are aware of ‘custom’, but not “bespoke”. We sell globally, and so our audience is much closer to our Romanian team than what they are to me, so their feedback on what they can scan from the copy is really important.
I think from a sales and business development perspective, having a remote, global team allows you to be presentable to that outside world, as they are less interested in being recognised as a UK company, for their own status and talking family friends what they do, they want to be seen as a global company.
When we first started Littledata and we had to set up a domain and we couldn’t get a ‘.com’ domain so went for ‘.co.uk’, but outside of the UK it could be perceived negatively. We switched to use ‘.io’ which is a globally neutral. It’s interesting because if all my team was based with me here in London, that would never have been addressed.
That’s interesting! Are there any tools you would recommend for fellow managers working with teams across co-locations?
The big elephant in the room is that speaking with people in person – having normal interaction – is easier, less tiring and less prone to communication errors. So you have to work really hard working with remote teams to deliver that same level of communication. The number one tool is low-cost airlines!
Without a low-cost European flight network, we could not bring our team together cheaply and do team off-sites. Every time we do meet up, we always come to the conclusion that it was worth the travel and cost. The second tool to have is good video conferencing. We use a variety of different tools as it’s common to find that what worked yesterday may not be working today. We’ve found Zoom to be the most reliable in most cases, but also Google Hangouts is probably a close second favourite.
The third problem you have to work with is the time zone overlap, which is why IM tools like Slack come to find very useful. The boundary you have to consider is that when you grow you have to be careful and keep the confinement in channels, and Slack actually has good best-practice on how you use those channels. But we find Slack has been a good way to keep communications up, and enable a seamless conversation across time-zones.
How have you found keeping track of your employee’s performance if they are working remotely?
I have quite strong views on this one. We aren’t creating an outsourced team culture, where we monitor their screens or log every task, we are creating equal team status. I think if I don’t trust them to get on with their job, then fundamentally I shouldn’t have hired them. I believe that you hire the right person to do that job, and have the autonomy and the right tools to go and do that job. If you need to find a way of measuring their output, then you are probably micro-managing, or working with someone you can’t trust which is all wrong for both a start-up and managing remotely. I would say though, having one or two senior people in each office can alleviate issues where people may feel a little discontent which they feel can’t be voiced.
Are there any situations when you think managing remotely wouldn’t be the right decision?
I think it’s arguable that at a very early stage, when there are maybe only one or two of you, that cost-savings and easier hiring are outweighed by the efficiency of co-locating. If I believed that then we wouldn’t have gone remote and I have no regrets that we did. Some people think that co-locating software teams are the only way to do it, which I don’t believe. The situations that we have found it particularly challenging to work remotely is when we are going through a period of rapid change and the product, business market and strategy are all changing. Trying to communicate all of that is very challenging. This is when we tend to do our face-to-face meetups to communicate the changes effectively. If you are working in a high-change environment and you want to work remotely, there is no other way to do this than bring everyone together. But for the majority of businesses for the majority of the time, that are not in a rapidly changing environment, it is sometimes more efficient to work this way.
We are seeing an increase in start-ups hiring and building teams over multiple locations, do you think this will become the norm amongst start-ups?
I do think so, yes. There becomes a cultural acceptance; I’ve met a lot of senior people who expect to join that type of team. If they’ve done it before it’s not an unknown. Another reason, and this is happening in Cluj-Napoca, is because of the salary inflation is higher than in the UK. It gets to the point in a business when it doesn’t make sense to have all your eggs in one basket, so if you can manage across 2 or 3 locations, why can’t you manage across 4 or 5. We will look to open another location this year, but we will look to do this in a larger European city with a large tech talent pool, where hiring is a little easier. With a deeper talent pool, you have fewer spikes in cost. If you go for a smaller location, you will find more loyal people but it will take you longer to find them, and if one of those key people leave, it’s very hard to replace them.
What do you enjoy most as the Founder of a co-location team?
I think personally as a Founder, it frees up a lot of headspace. If you hire people in a remote location, you are hiring people who are self-starting and used to getting on with it. This frees me up to concentrate on what’s next, hiring new people, fundraising and all of the important things founders love to do! It makes the company and myself, more productive and more self-sufficient. The bad thing about building an office, you can build a team of junior people, but that will take up your whole time on training them, which zaps your time on more strategic tasks. You know these people are able to set themselves up for the day with little preparation or support so you have more time to be spent on strategic tasks.
What made you want to become a Founder and start your own company?
I knew from an early age that I wanted to own my company; my father also owned a few of his own software businesses, so I guess you could say it runs in the blood. I knew when I left university, so this could be useful for the recent graduates reading this, that when I left Oxford University where I studied Psychology and Philosophy, I wanted to get some business training under my belt. I started my career at Accenture, and although I didn’t enjoy the corporate culture, I got a lot of general business exposure. It took me until my late 20s for me to go off on my own and start my own company. What I love about it is that you can create your own destiny and be able to wake up with an idea and see where it can go. I love working with other bright and motivated people, it’s like seeing my baby grow, learn and start running!
The negatives are that there is a lot of pressure, especially as the business grows, to demonstrate that leadership. I can kind of see myself as the captain of the ship, and can suddenly realise that the whole organisation is drifting a bit, so need to be able to constantly create that energy. There is also a lot of pressures financially. As a Founder of a start-up, you go through major periods of financial anxiety, where you don’t know if you’re going to be able to pay your staff let alone pay yourself next month. We are in a much better position now, where we are getting great revenue, have gone through funding, but that pressure does take its toll. There have definitely been moments when I have longed for a normal office job and didn’t have to worry about those details. But I think it’s the way you’re wired, I couldn’t trade it for another job!
There’s a brilliant book I read a couple of years ago called ‘How to get rich’ by Felix Dennis, and the first chapter is about why people don’t start businesses. It goes through by saying that 90% of people don’t have the idea, and those that do, 90% don’t put it into action, and 90% of those who put it into action won’t actually execute it properly and will fail, and 90% of those will not get a lucky break. If you’re not a born entrepreneur, then that chapter can read as incredibly depressing – why would they want to start their own business?? But for me, and for people who are wired in a certain way, it reads like I’m a lottery winner, if I can do all of that, then I’ve done something right!
What would you say is a career highlight for you?
Right now is a career highlight, honestly. My first business was only a moderate success and I think where we are with Littledata, is we have built this great team, all aligned to the vision and progressing it. What I love about that is that if I go on holiday, if I check my emails, I’ll find that we’ve had the best week ever. There are now other people driving it, which is a wonderful feeling, that you’ve created something, but other people are taking it on. What I thought in my previous company is that if I turned my back, everything would stop. When you run your own business, what makes them grow quickly and become valuable, is luck. You need a good product, that’s necessary; but being at the right time in the market and the right partnerships, that’s luck. I’m a total believer in luck and to make your own luck you need to be in the right place and to be in it to win it. We are lucky enough to have a good team, good product and good market and those three things can take you places!
Is there anyone you take inspiration from?
That’s a tough one, if I’m honest I’m not a huge follower of the tech leaders in the industry. I love books by humble people. Honestly, I get my inspiration from my friends and family and those who I actually know who are living a well-balanced life. I’m always inspired by people, who are managing to have a good career, work-life and balancing that with family and sporting life and hobbies and so on. I generally believe that the pursuit of money is the root of all evil and can lead to a lot of unhappiness. I never wanted to be rich, I wanted to leave my mark on the world and I believe money is something that comes to you if you are successful, not the definition of success.