Interview | GUY LETTS

Guy Letts

Issue 21

Guy Letts founded CustomerSure, a software product that tracks customer satisfaction in real time and helps companies gain valuable insights on their products and services. Before starting his business Guy held roles including R&D Director and Head of Services at Sage.

Tell me a bit about your background?

I was interested in a career in the software industry, but I decided to study for an engineering degree. I’d been advised by one of my teachers that this was the best way to keep my options open. I was in my final year at the University of Exeter and I knew from the burns on my hands from the soldering irons that software was definitely the route for me!

I was lucky enough to get a job at Logica, one of the big software firms of the time. Logica worked on large projects in areas including transport, telecoms, defence and manufacturing, the latter of which I was assigned to. In my career there I worked for clients such as Jaguar, Whitbread and PepsiCo. This was a very exciting time, and I was fortunate to spend time living in Silicon Valley in its very early days.

After ten years at Logica I moved to Speedwing, the consulting arm of British Airways. There I got to work on computer systems for businesses that had to function under extreme demands. Booking an airline ticket might seem simple, but the systems behind it are incredibly complex, which made the job rewarding, as did the opportunity to learn from some fantastic people.

From Speedwing I moved to Sage in Newcastle. It was already established by this point, but wasn’t the FTSE 100 company we know today. The team at Sage were talented and generous in sharing their experience, and my work there helped me gain an appreciation of how to keep up with the rapid growth.

I started out in R&D, but ended up as Head of Services, a role in which I was able to gain knowledge of customer retention and increasing revenue.

I had a long held desire to start my own company, so in 2010, after a lot of thought, I decided to take the plunge. I spent six months researching the market and planning before I was ready to start, at which point I found the two colleagues who would help me build CustomerSure.

Where was your first business premises?

We started at an office in Cramlington, then later moved to the John Buddle Work Village in Newcastle, where we’ve been based ever since. What I like about our office is that the rent we pay goes to a charity and benefits the local community. That’s actually one of the things I love about the North East, people look after each other here.

How has the company grown?

Key to our growth has been using outside agencies and contractors to do the work that lies outside of our core set of skills. While we have had to learn to understand more commercial skills, this allows us to give our product the attention it needs.

Since the very start, it has been our policy to grow organically, with no outside money other than my original investment. This approach doesn’t suit every company, but as engineers it works for us.

Did the recession have an impact on your business?

Not really. We first started in 2010, which was in the depth of the recession, but at that time we were very much focused on small and medium sized clients. While individual SMEs may have found the recession difficult, there are a lot of them, so there was always a market. If we’d started out targeting large corporates this would perhaps have been different.

How has your market changed?

We’re actually lucky that we started at the time we did. The barriers to entry for starting a technology company had fallen immensely at that time. To do the same a decade earlier would have required huge capital expenditure in terms of servers and storage for them, now there are cloud-based solutions that remove those costs.

Our target market has changed from SMEs to larger companies, not through circumstances, but because of a conscious decision after we found that what we do is even more beneficial to them.

How would you describe your unique selling point?

As a business we have a heritage in delivering outstanding customer service, this is what I did at Sage. Our customers are often challenger brands, like Utilitywise, which are growing quickly and need brilliant customer insights, and to deliver a very responsive service in order to stay ahead of the curve.

What differentiates us from our competitors is that we deliver much more than just data and trends from customer surveys. When customers give feedback the way it has traditionally been collected, they don’t see any benefit from giving it, while our system allows our clients to respond quickly and address their concerns directly. That leads to a dramatic improvement in customer retention and repeat business.

How do you handle internal motivation?

We all have a stake in the company, but it’s what we do for our customers that really motivates us. As engineers we know that we’ve built something that delivers value and we get a kick when our customers tell us they love it. We have clients around the world, on four continents, that’s a big source of pride for us.

We also have a retreat once every three months, a discipline which lets us get out of the trenches and think about the business strategically. It’s important to be able to put decisions in perspective, and to be accountable to one another for progress in our respective areas.

How does your motivation now compare with that when you started the firm?

It’s actually pretty similar. Like any business the early years were hard, now growth presents new challenges. At the beginning advice from members of the Entrepreneurs’ Forum helped a lot, from people who’d been in my position before and could reassure me.

How did your business structure come about?

We follow, but not to the letter, the advice in a book called The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. We begin with a hypothesis, test it for a fixed amount of time, and then measure the results. From there we can build on what we’ve done or pivot onto a different idea, this can be a large pivot or a small one.

One of the benefits of being around today is the availability of skills from around the world. For example, our marketing strategy is done by a man in Boston, Massachusetts. It’s possible to bring in exactly the right people from wherever they are in the world, through the power of digital communications.

Do you get involved in mentoring?

I mentor a local business person through the Entrepreneurs’ Forum, someone who felt my areas of expertise were relevant to their needs. We meet every three or four months for about an hour. I’ve learnt that mentoring is best when you’re just a catalyst, helping them to work out the best way forward themselves. It’s about listening and questioning, sometimes challenging, but never telling.

What are your future plans?

We want to continue to grow and to make more customers happy; we’ve learnt that the financial rewards follow when you put customers first. Obviously we have commercial ambition but we also want to do our part for the North East’s economy.

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