NationalField: Ed Saatchi
The son of one of Britain's most famous businessmen tells us how he's making a name for himself - with help from Barack Obama
Everyone loves a rags-to-riches tale, a fable of a brave young pioneer busting through life’s disadvantages to make their fortune. But, when it’s a story of the wealthy and privileged doing well for themselves, of riches to even more riches, affection and adulation can be hard to come by.
Ed Saatchi, currently experiencing success with his groundbreaking social networking tool for business, NationalField, will probably be damned with faint praise his entire business life. As the son of Maurice Saatchi, one half of the legendary advertising duo, his success appears to have been pre-ordained. From Oxford University to an elite postgraduate course in the Sorbonne, on to an internship with President Barack Obama, and then to entrepreneurial success. Always going to happen, right?
Wrong. Ed Saatchi has had to battle and scrap to get where he is. He had to overcome all sorts of prejudice and preconception to get an unpaid role on the Obama campaign, regularly pulling all-nighters during the election push. Since leaving the Obama campaign he has, if anything, worked even harder to build NationalField, a solution designed to replace existing company intranets and give each staff member the fast, relevant information they need.
Even today Saatchi is still working 18-hour days in pursuit of his dream. But now the success is starting to flow; NationalField achieves the rare feat of turning a profit in its first year, with turnover of £640,000. Industry experts are calling Saatchi ‘the British Mark Zuckerberg’ – not bad for someone whose entrepreneurial career came about by accident.
Saatchi’s vision for NationalField was borne during his stint on the Obama campaign – which, again, had little planning behind it. “I wasn’t particularly interested in politics, it was about a will to help this person, because I thought he could change everything.”
Saatchi’s Britishness was a hindrance at first. “I rang the campaign organisers up in Chicago and say “I’d love to help” but they’d say legally I couldn’t work there, which was not encouraging. Eventually I managed to get a place in Iowa and started volunteering there.”
As Saatchi became immersed in the Obama campaign, his idea for a new type of social network began to unfold. “You could see the systems they’d put in place breaking down. Everything was being done by email and the intranet, databases, totally inefficient. We were working 20 hours a day, and needed something that would save us time.
“So me and my two colleagues, Aharon (Wasserman) and Justin (Lewis), came up with the idea of a private social network. There wasn’t much planning to create a company – we were just thinking about building stuff for ourselves.” The new network was designed to allow cogs in the Obama machine to communicate with one another; those orchestrating the campaign could exchange news, advice and targets, and everyone could give feedback on their progress.
Saatchi says the new social network was driven by four key priorities. “The first was that it could replace spreadsheets and e-mail, the second was that it would be easy to use, the third was that it had to be real-time – which took a lot of technological work – and the last was it had to be social. The last bit was probably our key insight – instead of dumping all the information into a spreadsheet, we could feed the information into each person’s user profile, and see all the work they had done in the last week, the last month, the last six months.”
Soon other nodes in the Obama campaign were demanding that NationalField be extended to them. Saatchi says “it was a lot like Facebook in that you started with one university, and then it spread to over universities. In this case it was the key states of the Obama campaign – state directors would call us up asking us to put them on our network.
“After the campaign the volunteers went back to their companies and said that ‘the intranet we have here is a disaster. I loved using NationalField on the campaign, if you set this up in a company, we’ll be your first clients’.”
So Saatchi went away with his co-founders to Wasserman’s house in New Jersey, with a view to developing a second iteration of the site, specifically for business use. Once again, they were living like sardines in pursuit of a common goal. Their mark two version contained one fundamental innovation – a hierarchical social graph which, Saatchi believes, is integral to his proposition.
“NationalField isn’t Facebook transplanted to business. It’s not based on friending or following, it’s based on the hierarchical structure of your organisation – who reports to who, what team you’re in and what projects you’re working on. That’s the thing that we patented right after the campaign, because we saw that it was totally unique.”
The software allows each company to be organised in groups – by project, division or department. Each user receives information relevant to their specific role – be it messages from their line manager, performance leaderboards or minutes from recent meetings.
Furthermore, each user receives positive and negative mini-progress reports, known as ‘pluses and deltas’ – these have already captured the imagination of Barack Obama, who uses them with his children. Saatchi explains: “Everybody on the ground files these micro-reports, which are private to your colleagues and subordinates. With pluses and deltas, people at the top of the organisation have an incredible ability to view the profile of someone they’ve never met, and see what that person’s doing well, or badly.”
Face to Facebook
For all Saatchi’s insistence that NationalFeild, from a functional point of view, is nothing like Facebook, he is happy to admit the two sites do look very similar. This is intentional, so users can navigate the site easily, and tap into functions they are already familiar and comfortable with.
Facebook, far from being annoyed that another company is piggybacking on its success, is enthused by the concept; Chris Hughes, one of the site’s co-founders, befriended Saatchi on the Obama campaign and is on the NationalField board. Although he wasn’t asked to invest, Hughes has, according to Saatchi, “brought a lot of understanding of social, and given us the chance to meet a lot of helpful people”.
Hughes and his fellow board members have every reason to be pleased with the startling financial figures achieved thus far. Much of this success is attributable to Saatchi and Wasserman, who have taken responsibility for sales and marketing, with Lewis handling the bulk of the technical work.
Saatchi freely admits he and Wasserman “hustled pretty hard in our first year”, using the lessons learned on the Obama campaign, such as “how to sell the idea over the phone, how to push something through webinar”. He adds that the pricing structure, which comprises an initial set-up fee and ongoing monthly payments, “is usually competitive with or lower than a company’s current intranet. You’ve also got to factor in the fact that a lot of these intranets aren’t being updated by the company seamlessly – they’re having to update them physically in the offices, which is extremely expensive.”
Has Saatchi learned much from his father, one of the most famous names in advertising? “Well I think the main lesson is brutal simplicity of thought. We tried to bring that to the marketing – pushing the message ‘Facebook for your company’. CEOs often feel they would be hated if they brought in another tool, and when they see how similar it is to Facebook – but without any of the distraction – that’s really helpful.”
And what about the most powerful man on the planet? “The main thing I learned from President Obama is that the entire personality of an organisation flowers from the leader. Everyone needs to know who’s in charge, and the leader has to be in touch with those on the ground. We employ 17 people at NationalField, and I make sure that everyone I employ, I’ve done their job, and I know their job.”
Although he claims to hate the term ‘entrepreneur’, Saatchi is displaying all the typical traits, working six-day weeks and handling all manner of tasks to drive his company forward. He says his biggest current challenge is living with his two co-founders – “we spend more time with each other than with our families”. For the company, the main challenge is “learning about the speed at which the market moves. I read something nice recently that Steve Jobs said, ‘victory in the technology market is spelled ‘survival”. I know what he means”.
NationalField has already taken Series A funding (although Saatchi is reluctant to disclose how much) and a Series B round is about to start, because, Saatchi believes, “the technology world moves so fast that you can’t just grow organically”. Saatchi says the next step in his masterplan is to open NationalField up to external developers, “so anyone, anywhere, can come to users and say ‘here’s this application we’ve built’, and the users can buy it. That’s a huge revenue stream for us, and it’s also really useful to our customers because they don’t have to come to us for everything and they’re not hoping we can build every application in the world.”
The pursuit of ever-greater intuition is another key goal. “Look at the Apple iPad – when you turn a page, you scroll across, just like the real world. Totally intuitive. For us the equivalent is keeping our site up-to-date with what people are used to, which for now means Facebook. Because the ‘guts’ of our site, with the hierarchy, are so different to Facebook, I’m not worried about copying.”
With a contract in place to work on President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, and frequent comparisons with Mark Zuckerberg, it would be easy for Ed Saatchi to become complacent. But he remains very much a man on a mission, saying he will only consider an exit once NationalField “has transformed the way companies are managed”. Somehow you get the feeling that, for all Maurice Saatchi’s fame and success, the son might very soon eclipse the father.