CEO of Vocality and a delegate at the recent Breakthrough Masterclass at LOVEFiLM and BaxterStorey, Julian Bashford describes his company as a David among networking Goliaths such as Cisco and Juniper. Vocality designs and builds “first-responder” communications equipment; essentially network routers at the very leading edge of the sector for the military, emergency services, relief agencies, broadcasters and petrochemical firms. “We make the kit that goes into the field when trouble kicks off, when the flood waters have yet to subside or when news breaks,” says Julian. “So the drivers are size, weight and power, all of which are vital when you have to carry the equipment into a hostile environment like a warzone, riots or a humanitarian disaster area.”
With such demanding customers, it’s no surprise that the company Julian co-founded in 1999 has a first-class engineering heritage. For a decade, however, Vocality was driven primarily by a passion for engineering. But that changed in 2009 when Julian hired Financial Director Susan Harvey. Julian describes this as a pivotal moment for his organisation. “Having a full-time FD who has a keen eye across the entire business rather than just the numbers meant we began to make decisions more quickly and based on the long-term financial future of the company,” he explains. “We started to focus on revenue and a five-year plan. Ultimately, the stronger focus on the financials gave us a stronger position in engineering, so everyone’s a winner.”
Up until now Julian had been equal partner with co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Martin Saunders. Martin was the original engineering brains behind Vocality’s technology; Julian is a specialist in bringing products to market. The match of skills served the company well until it came to taking the next step in growing the business.
“We’d begun to tread water,” says Julian. “The challenge was that the decisions were made in the engineering department, which had dominion over the whole of the business. But we’d reached the point where the business was overstaffed in all the wrong areas.” He adds, “2010 was a year of serious introspection, of shakedown, to realise what we could achieve if we really got our act together. "
"In our hearts, we view 2010 as the year Vocality really came of age as we started to appreciate the opportunity and the potential, and that a small company from England could actually challenge and win against the majors.”Julian Bashford
After a year of rethinking the business, Vocality established its senior management team reporting directly to Julian as CEO, and since then, with a renewed focus on customer requirements, business has flourished. In 2011 revenue was up and the basis of the business was expanding rapidly. Julian is quick to point out that the change came entirely out of the team’s collective drive for success, while he is afforded the pleasure of steering the team’s direction.
“We’ve achieved a five-fold increase in opportunity pipeline and spent more time talking to clients and working in partnership with them, making commitments to deliver what they will need, pushing our R&D expertise further and further,” says Julian. “We no longer have the priorities driven by the engineering department, but by the customer and that has been a major evolution. And we know we are part of a wider ecosystem. We no longer act in isolation and that has broadened our perspective.
“It’s been an incredibly challenging couple of years, but we can look back on this period and be happy with the results. There is no one in the company who doesn’t punch above their weight. We don’t have politics; we don’t have HR issues; no one drags their heels. I can’t wait to get to work and I know that passion is in Vocality’s DNA. I’m so enthusiastic to see what happens in the next two years.”
Julian believes the company has so far achieved only 1% of its growth potential. “We’ll close 2011 on £5.5 million, but our projected growth outstrips our ability to fund it. Hence our great interest in Santander’s Breakthrough programme,” he says.
But the new focus on long-term financial growth hasn’t been at the expense of Vocality’s engineering prowess. “With commercial imperatives driving the decisions, our attention switch-back to the customer has led to better products and sharper R&D focus,” says Julian. “We’ve made a greater investment in R&D in the last 18 months than at any time before.”
The hardest part of changing the business was making difficult decisions about people. “We had to make some incredibly tough decisions, much like many businesses in the United Kingdom right now,” says Julian.
Hiring the right team was one of many lessons he has learned from reading Jim Collins’ highly regarded management book ‘Good To Great’, something in common with the CEO of LOVEFiLM, who presented at the Breakthrough programme’s recent Masterclass event. “You have to have the right people on board,” the book says. “If you can’t find the right people at first, keep looking. You should never compromise on your hires.”
Julian believes British businesses need to ensure they have a strong HR partner to support their business needs. “UK small business culture is often not to challenge the people you employ,” he says. “We lived in fear of challenging poor performance in our own people for years. As a small business you can’t afford the expense and time of a lawsuit, but as a result, you become overstaffed and over-expensive to operate. Consider it a lesson learned, but learned the hard way.
“But sometimes you have to make changes because the business is changing and the customers are changing,” he says. “Not everyone can go with you. Not everyone has the skills or the adaptability. Vocality has evolved. The change is apparent from the moment clients walk in the office. Customers with very high expectations are met by a team who are ready for the challenge and are relishing the opportunity to take the fight to the industry’s big boys, and, more often than not, win.”
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