The Entrepreneur: Philip Letts, blur Group

The man behind the disruptive technology company shares his plans to become a billion dollar firm and discusses how the government's "historic lack of support" hampers business growth...

Founder: Philip Letts
Company: blur Group
Website: www.blurgroup.com
Description in one line: blur Group is a technology company that’s disrupting the traditional models for companies buying and selling services with its s-commerce platform
Previous companies: Surfkitchen (CEO); Corechange (CEO); Tradaq (CEO); Beenz (CEO)
Turnover: $2.8m (2012)
12 month target: Market forecast figures – $9.4m (2013); $24m (2014)
Business growth: 216% year-on-year growth (2012)

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • blur has developed a platform for ‘services commerce’ (‘s-commerce’) in a $2bn-plus global market for services buying
  • Users meritocratically buy and sell services from vetted service providers. Our expertsourcing model takes the premise of crowdsourcing to give everyone the opportunity to sell their services to any kind of company, while minimising risk
  • We’re first-movers in Software as a Transaction (SaaT), taking SaaS further by offering the software on a project-by-project basis – no more hassle with contracts and retainers

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

blur group, without question. Having been the CEO taking existing companies through the tricky secondary growth phase, I wanted to do it from scratch. Eight years and a lot of hard work later my idea of a company that really would change the way businesses work is now a reality – and I’ve seen it reach the stage where I’ve previously arrived in a business.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

The metrics that we follow daily are the ones that we make available to everyone on blurgroup.com. That’s new projects from customers, new expert service providers and the total value of the projects that are arriving on the Exchange. We track these through to the numbers that we report on each half year. A customer-centric business means we have to look every day at how we’re working for our customers and what that translates to in terms of success.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

I’ve previously told Growing Business that my ambition has been to create a truly global UK technology success story. blur Group already trades in 141 countries: our last metrics showed that our customers come from North America, Europe and increasingly Asia. We have created a new global HQ in the UK, with regional sales offices in Dallas and London, and a strategic operations center in California. We’ve stated that we will open up our third regional sales operation in Asia Pac later in 2014. But above the physical locations, the Global Services Exchange is that – global, encouraging trade between any region.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

blur Group was founded on cloud-and-crowd. We’ve taken the SaaS model and developed it into SaaT, all facilitated by pervasive broadband, cloud technologies and component-based architectures – ensuring scalability and robustness of a platform that is growing so rapidly and ensuring we retain our first mover advantage in s-commerce.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

We’ve always stated that we want to be a billion dollar business by 2020: who knows if that might come sooner?

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

Trying to get businesses on-board with the idea of buying and selling services online. Remember the initial wariness and hesitation towards the likes of Amazon and eBay? Well, it takes time to build trust for any new platform, be it e- or, in our case, s-commerce. On a personal note, perhaps both the hardest and easiest thing was my first graduate role was in financial trading, part of a prep to develop knowledge ahead of moving into my family’s traditional publishing business. But in it I discovered this strange technology thing that moved me away from the role I’d been coached for since childhood, and so made the decision that this was where I was headed.

What was your biggest business mistake?

Not quite down to me but having to ask for capital as the banking crisis hit was not the greatest timing.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

I wouldn’t say its Red Tape; rather, it’s historic lack of government support. Small and mid-sized businesses in the UK can’t compete in international markets without adequate backing from the administration. In a survey conducted by blur Group in late 2013, 66% felt it’s important to have a Small Business minister. It’s good to see both parties doing more in 2014, with Labour’s Chuka Umunna, in particular, backing the need for a Small Business Administration similar to that in the USA and the rest of Europe.

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

The most common mistake is the belief that things happen quickly. We saw it in the dotcom era, and we’re seeing it to some extent with the new world of instant apps and firms. The reality is that you have to decide at the start to be in it for the long-term: as I said this is blur’s ninth year since I first had the idea, and to many we’re still a young firm. The companies that make headlines very early on in their life are the exceptions, but often set the expectations for entrepreneurs.

How will your market look in three years?

We’ve made no apologies for our aim to disrupt the traditional network service providers who thrive on fat, long-term retainers and contracts by focusing on the delivery of services through more efficient, more effective platforms. We’re already seeing the parallels for s-commerce to e-commerce: blur’s current run-rate means s-commerce is now 0.01% of the total services industry. May seem small, but look how quickly e-commerce went from that share to its current 12%. We’ll track that.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Starting your own business is a plunge into the abyss: it requires real guts and commitment. Before you dive in, make sure you plan every tiny detail and take into account every conditional probability and once you’ve lunged, don’t think of monetary returns: just focus on your idea and put that thought of personal profit off for a decade.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

Unlimited numbers of blur-branded t-shirts.

Executive education or learn it on the job?

Executive education is invaluable in formalising the fundamentals like planning and process but it’s vital to be in the thick of it to really see what all this means.

What would make you a better leader?

I try to follow the simple advice ‘Leadership is Example’. So to be a better leader, I always have to ensure that anyone watching what I’m doing is something I’d like my teams to emulate.

Business book:

I always recommend my teams to read The Goal by Eli Goldratt. It’s simply written and addresses all the challenges that we face every day, regardless of our business. And not a business book but something that sums up leadership and that I refer to frequently is If by Rudyard Kipling.

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