Realsafe Technologies co-founder and CEO Zoe Farrington talks about the opportunities and challenges of leading a business as it scales up.
Formed in 2012, employing 10 UK staff, and recently expanding into Canada, Realsafe Technologies is focused on developing safety-based technology connected to the emergency services. The company launched its industry-first app, REALRIDER®, for motorcyclists following a 3-year controlled UK pilot.
The app is the first of its kind to detect if a rider has had a crash and notify the emergency services of rider location, bringing peace of mind to riders and their families and friends alike.
“There is no other app on the market that links directly to the emergency services,” Zoe points out. REALRIDER® fully integrates into BT telematics, so that crash detection alerts are treated as any other 999 emergency calls.
“Everybody starting a business has the expectation that it will grow,” Zoe says, “otherwise, why do we get into business?” But expectations can vary wildly between owners, and between types of business too. Realsafe Technologies is Zoe’s second growth business, having previously run a marketing consultancy called Fused.
“In my first business, we spent little time planning and forecasting for growth. We simply rolled our sleeves up and got on with the work. Looking back, I clearly remember that there was a semblance of strategy for growth, we just never got around to committing it to paper.”
Zoe landed a big client in the early days: “Financially, we grew very quickly and all our efforts were spent on servicing one big contract.
“However, we understood that the work wouldn’t last forever and so it became more important to focus efforts on making sure we didn’t have all our eggs in the one basket.
So Zoe chose to protect growth by spreading risk. “We retained the big client but started to build a portfolio of smaller contracts which also helped to build our reputation.
“It was a measured decision we made to focus on one sector (public sector) and become experts in selected areas (including road safety, which feeds into our latest business).
“This meant people started to approach us to undertake work as much as we were actively going out and looking for new business.”
Now running Realsafe Technologies, Zoe has been able to use her experience to make sure they were more prepared for growing a business this time around.
“We’re structured differently for one,” she says. “We’ve had a large amount of investment which means we’ve had to plan for growth (and exit) from the outset. That’s been tough.
“We have a board and shareholders who have bought into the plan and hold us accountable to it.”
But she’s quick to point out that they’re not any less agile or adaptable because of it.
“We have still pivoted over the last few years. Naturally things change. And in the world of technology, things change at an amazing pace and we must be agile as a business to keep up.”
So what factors does Zoe think need to be primarily considered by growing businesses? “Balance is key,” she says. “It’s very easy to be side-tracked by the latest trends or opportunities that present themselves.
“You can quite easily dilute the power of your original business concept, and the team driving it, by becoming distracted by the ‘what could be…’. Do what you do well before you even start to think about tacking new sectors, territories and vertical niches!”
Markets can also change and be a driver for growth. “When we soft launched REALRIDER® in 2013, we attended many shows; speaking directly with customers (potential and actual). And one of the biggest challenges we faced was convincing people that a phone can detect a crash.
“Fast-forward a few years and there is wide spread acceptance of the capabilities of smartphones because of the adoption rate of the technology.
“That’s the thing, you can be ahead of the curve which puts you in a potentially market leading position ripe for exploitation. But if the market isn’t ready for your offering, adoption rate will be much slower which will hamper plans for growth.”
And another consideration that needs to be made: is the business (and its’ people) ready for growth? “You could have the best sales / business development people filling the pipeline with exciting opportunities, but if you have neither the infrastructure, staff or interim strategy in place to deal with the increased business, you’ll invariably fall at the first hurdle.
“You might win customers, but will you retain them or simply see them drop off as quickly as you’ve put them on?”
Zoe declares this one to be ‘tough’, because you must decide what level of ‘investment’ (time, money and resource) you’re prepared to make to get growth going. “Make sure you share plans with the team and discuss how you will manage increased business in the short term to get to your long-term goal.”
Growth is change, and whenever there’s a business shift or re-focus there’s invariably a good degree of disruption. Zoe adds: “Team structure is critical to support the strategy for growth. You can have all the right people on the bus, but as the saying goes, are they in the right seats?
“I’m fortunate right now as the business is at a stage where everyone is content to jump from seat to seat to get us to the next stage of our growth plan. But that’s the point – they know what that next stage looks like and when it’s likely to happen i.e. the trigger points.”
And making sure your team matches up to your needs in your business is of the utmost importance. “The hardest thing I find when recruiting is trying not to hire the person who is ‘like me’,” Zoe concedes. “It’s important to have a good mix of personalities and abilities so that all bases are covered, especially in a start-up company."
“Diversity in skills and experience bring broader perspectives and different approaches which helps with creativity and innovation, both important factors for growth.
“And as important as it is to get the right people on the bus, it’s doubly important that you get the wrong people off the bus. The difficult bit is deciding if they are wrong (or just in the wrong seat).
“But you need to be decisive, make the call and move on. There’s nothing worse for business that analysis paralysis caused by excessive procrastination. Believe me, I’ve been there.”
Zoe is clear that growth should be on the mind of every business leader. “It’s the life-blood that keeps you going and impacts on every business decision you make. Sharing those plans with the team is crucial.
“Ensuring you have a well thought out strategy before you start to share is imperative. Staff will generally be forgiving if the plans don’t always work out, and the business must change direction, if they understand the logic behind the strategy.
“Even better,” she says, “if they can feed into it as they’ll own, and drive it.”