Gary: Rob can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Rob: My career to date has centred on IT professional services. I kicked off with PWC and spent a about 8 years as an IT consultant, working on large, enterprise roll-out programmes – everything from project management to testing. But my specialism was in IT security and I developed a focus here. It was a great career move and I’d a great mentor there. But I got the opportunity to start a company and I took a giant leap of faith and came out of the nice, secure, well-remunerated environment.
Gary: So this was a big change, Rob, moving to a very insecure, business start-up situation – why did you decide to do this and how did it feel when you first started?
Rob: Well, I’d a passion inside and it was something I’d always wanted to do, to have my own business one day. And maybe the opportunity was a bit more premature than was realistic! What spurred it on was a guy I shared a house with who worked for Deloitte at the time – both of us had a lot of ideas, and we sort of egged each other on! But it was a big decision for both of us. Anyway, we started a company in the area of technology risk management and insurance. We set up an office in London and did business as far as the US. And we got to the point where we’d a fairly substantial customer base, but by that time most of the business we were doing was in niche insurance products and I eventually realized this was taking me in a direction which was not where I wanted to go. So we were able to off-load the business and made a small return – but unfortunately, we didn’t make the millions that we set out to make!
But we did perceive it to be a success – in that we’d taken something from the ground and built it up.
Gary: So, if you had to abstract from that experience, Rob, of having left a comfortable environment, starting out on your own, making it happen from scratch – what are the most important lessons you learned out of the experience?
Rob: Well, there were a few lessons. Setting up your own business seems very attractive, but I’d say 90% of people do it without realizing what it really is, what it involves. Also one of the lessons I learned was that very quickly you’ve got to find a niche. You don’t necessarily have to do something different, just do it better than everybody else. That’s what we did, in the insurance industry, finding our way into something that was unique. I remember standing in front of one of the senior executives of one of the world’s largest commercial insurers, trying to educate him in how he could rate technology risk and how he could use our software to help him sell cyber-insurance. We were so…confident…arrogant, really. We thought we knew what we were talking about, but we really didn’t! In hindsight we probably came across very arrogant.
Gary: So you made a few mistakes along the way…
Rob: We made a lot of mistakes! The difference between making some money and making a lot of money was a deep knowledge of the industry we were in. There were things we could’ve done, just knowing the industry better, that would have enabled us to sell much more successfully.
Gary: So what you’re saying is you really need to know your industry domain inside out so you can design your product in a way that really solves problems and meets that industry’s need?
Rob: Totally. With a start-up, a lot of companies jump in with a good idea but they probably don’t know their target industry as well as they need to, to have a rapid road-map to success.
There’s an awful lot of blind alleyways to go down!
Gary: On the other hand, I find a lot of technology companies know their market domain, they certainly know their technology well, but the one big gap is knowing how to go out and promote that. But that wasn’t your problem?
Gary: And you still have a thousand of them?!
Rob: I remember they arrived and we lived in a flat five floors up, we were physically sick by the time we finally managed to lug them all up! But that was just a pure waste of money – but a common mistake for small businesses, I bet. It’s important to really understand how to invest the small amount of money that you have. Another thing we did was, after a major company went bust, there was a sale of IT equipment – so we hired a van and drove down to Reading and we bought 30 Dell desktops. And we had really no need for them – but…it was a bargain! We also did a demo at a big conference in Earl’s Court that went disastrously wrong – so we had our fair share of hard business experiences!
Gary: But nevertheless, Rob, it didn’t put you off starting another business? Because starting SQS in Northern Ireland was another business start-up. So what possessed you to get involved in another start-up and not just go back to another PWC?
Rob: Well, I really wanted to come back to Northern Ireland, but I didn’t want to go back into pure consultancy. Fortunately the opportunity of establishing SQS here came along.
Gary: Rob,what would you say are the key qualities of a business leader?
Rob: Good personal relationship management is very important. An ability to create and maintain relationships. You need to have that…presence. An ability to network well. And with things like LinkedIn these days, you have a way to maintain your network. The other thing is a business leader needs to have a lot of confidence…to be able to go into any type of situation, whether it’s presenting in front of 100 people, or going into a meeting with a major client to close a deal…you need to be confident in your own ability.
Gary: What about on the people side? You now have around 30 people here in SQS. How do you best manage technology people?
Rob: There’s a great book called the Maestro – I’d highly recommend it – and it’s about how the Maestro helps the orchestra to sound the way it does. And so managing people is all about correcting & directing. I’ve never been a micro-manager, I don’t like an authoritarian culture but it’s a fine balance too. But also, people also need boundaries. People need enough room, but sometimes, not too much! In terms of managing technology people, you need to give them space to be creative; you also need to support them in terms of training and development – especially in today’s very competitive environment, to retain technical people, you need to give people some space. In SQS, though, I’m lucky to be supported by a super management team, so I don’t have to get too close to the low level people management! My role’s much more about business development, strategy, innovation and account management.
Gary: So, then, what is it that Rob McConnell is good at, and how did you get good at it?
Rob: Well, let me answer it in this way – what do I like doing?
Gary: There’re probably the same, aren’t they?
Rob: Yes. For me it’s about creativity. I like to innovate, try to come up with new ideas. But I don’t stop at ideas. I think about them, they keep me awake at night. And if they keep me awake long enough, I generally know they’re worth pursuing So I’m always looking to see how I can help and improve our business – how can I make it more profitable, more efficient. That’s where I see something like Cloud being instrumental, a real paradigm shift, a megatrend. A way to really improve how ICT services are delivered. And I’m adopting it into the business we have here – in terms of launching our testing as a service offering.
I started out as a techie, but once I started running my own business, I became more focussed on product\service development, business management and sales and now what I’m really passionate about is entrepreneurialism. Coming up with ideas and making them work.
Gary: So how do you get good at that, Rob? Are you born with it or can you develop it?
Rob: I think it comes from a hunger to do well. I always had that hunger since I was a youngster. I grew up in a working class environment and I always wanted to do really well and make lots of money! So I’m always thinking about the next thing, what else could I do? I think I’m still an aspiring inventor – I’ve come up with a couple of concepts which I’ve been discussing with local Universities. So always looking for opportunities. It’s what makes me tick.
Gary: Looking back, Rob – although your career’s got a long way to go – what are you most proud of?
Rob: I think it would have to be leaving a very comfortable job and jumping ship. Making that leap. It was not an easy decision at the time and I went from being financially comfortable to close to broke in a very short space of time.
Gary: Finally, Rob, what advice would you want to give someone just coming into the industry?
Rob: Put yourself on a different level from your peers. From the word go, use all the hours you can get to learn new things, technologies, techniques…do as much reading as you can. It is easy to spot a well-read person! When you know the answers, people get a much better perception of you than when you keep having to say, I don’t know, not sure. Perception is everything in business, I strongly believe that. So, look to be better that your peers from the word go and you will end up progressing faster. You’ve got to beware of the nine to five culture, it won’t put you in pole position. Having this attitude has worked for me so far !