The Entrepreneur(s): Tom Cowgill and Ian Lancaster, Rewards4

What business advice do the founders of the £5m fan engagement platform have to share? For starters, "recruit staff based on character, not a CV"...

Founders: Tom Cowgill and Ian Lancaster
Company: Rewards4
Description in one line: Rewards4 is an award-winning fan engagement and rewards platform that connects sports clubs and organisations with their fans.
Turnover: Just over £5m (2016)
12-month target: £6m (2017)

Business growth

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • Rewards4 connects sports fans’ shopping and betting behaviour to their sporting passion to create a deeper sense of engagement, for free.
  • Our bespoke technology platform allows fans to collect reward points with their favourite retailers and betting partners, enabling their everyday high street spending to pay for the sport they love.
  • The platform is easily transferable and scalable across sports.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Cowgill: Making the move from corporate lawyer to business owner and establishing a successful, growing and wealth-creating business.
Lancaster: Taking an idea and developing it into an actual profitable business that delivers a real service to our members.

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

At Rewards4, we use a fantastic visual data analytics and reporting tool – Tableau. Our business model is very simple, so our business dashboards (which are updated on a daily basis) reflect this.

On a daily basis we check out:

  1. How many new members have signed-up to our programmes
  2. How many users have ‘activated’ their rewards accounts
  3. How many users have logged-in to their accounts
  4. What commission generating activity has taken place the previous day

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

We don’t currently trade internationally as there is so much opportunity in the UK domestic market.

However, international expansion is firmly in our sights and, now that our model is being proven in the UK sports market, we have already had approaches to take our platform to overseas territories.

Describe your growth funding path:

We have funded the business ourselves, initially from savings and by sacrificing salary etc. but more recently through cashflow. If we want to achieve our growth plans domestically and, more particularly, if we want to grow internationally, we recognise that we may need to tap into alternative funding sources.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

The development of our own bespoke platform, including our API feeds, which enables us to seamlessly integrate with our club partners’ ticketing and merchandising platforms – allowing for the easy redemption/use of points by members.

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

Cowgill: We're aiming to have 50 sports clubs in the UK signed up to our various programmes with 500,000 sports fans actively collecting points through our platform to spend on their favourite sport/club. During that time, our plan is to double our turnover and have set up at least one programme in an overseas territory.

Lancaster: From a commercial perspective I agree with Cowgill but, on a personal level, I want to see the company become part of a sports fan's overall experience in supporting their team or participating in their sport.

Growth challenges

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

Cowgill: Giving up a very well-paid career to pursue a dream and not really knowing where that might take me or if I would succeed, luckily the risk was worth it.

Lancaster: Telling an employee they no longer have a job is the hardest thing you ever have to do in business. Even when we have had people bringing the whole environment down, it is still a tough thing to do to look someone in the eye and tell them they no longer have a source of income.

What has been your biggest business mistake?

Cowgill: Not recognising quickly enough that changes needed to be made to the way in which we marketed our programmes to our membership base and that we didn’t have the necessary skillset in our marketing team to make those changes. However, this was rectified pretty quickly!

Lancaster: I think the biggest mistake for me was not realising quickly enough that you should recruit based on character rather than a CV.

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

Cowgill: Constant changes to tax legislation that makes it less rewarding for entrepreneurs, the more successful you become. After all, most of the money that we make is reinvested into the business and our staff which creates more growth and more wealth.

Lancaster: Uncertainty over new data protection legislation. It seems like regulations are being set to catch the companies that don’t put their customers first but, in doing so, they are not actually considering how the consumer wants to be treated.

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

Cowgill: Trying to take on everything themsleves (which you have to do at the start of the business cycle but which has to change if you want to grow) and micro-managing across the business rather than delegating to specialists and letting them get on with their jobs.

Lancaster: I agree, as you start your business you wear lots of hats but the skill is to quickly identify that you can’t do everything yourself and then understand what skills you need in your business to help you grow.

How will your market look in three years?

With the rapid pace at which technology advances, we expect to see even more opportunities for our sports club clients to interact, engage with and reward their fans.

We also expect to see:

  • A n even wider range of points collection opportunities through affiliate marketing channels as retailers, bookmakers and sport specific partners become ever more targeted in the way they incentivise consumers to transact with them.
  • Improvements in technology making it even easier for fans to spend points at their club and for there to be more channels and more opportunities for fans to do this.

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

Cowgill: You have two ears and one mouth, use them in those proportions! When planning your business, be mindful of the ‘four by two’ rule i.e. things will generally take four times as long as you’d planned and cost twice as much or vice-versa!

Lancaster: The best piece of advice we were told as we were starting out was to enjoy the journey; running your own business is never easy but the whole experience and journey is amazing. If you can find someone to do it with then it helps when you go through the tough times and creates some great memories when you enjoy the good moments!

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

Cowgill: Two skiing holidays a year!
Lancaster: I am planning to go to Las Vegas later in the year!

Executive education or learn it on the job?

Cowgill: Coming from a legal background – and therefore having been the product of a long ‘executive’ education – it won’t surprise you to hear me advise an executive education first followed by on the job training and learning. Although you cannot underestimate how much you learn on the job.

Lancaster: There are some roles that require an executive education but for me personally this has been very much about learning on the job. It is amazing how enjoyable educating yourself is when it is your own business.

What would make you better leaders?

Cowgill: Probably showing a bit more tolerance.

Lancaster: Learn how to create an environment where we pass on ownership, accountability and trust so that we actually create more leaders within the business.

What one thing do you wish you’d known when you started?

That you can’t do it on your own so your business becomes all about the people you employ. Recruit wisely and well and always try and recruit people who are more clever than you!

One business app and one personal app you can’t do without:

Business: The Tableau reporting app – to keep track of all our business reporting.

Personal: Cowgill – Strava – to keep track of my running and cycling. Lancaster – I am loving Instagram at the moment.

Business book:

Cowgill: What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School by Mark McCormack. It's an oldie but a goodie and a book that I first read when I was in sixth form and it inspired me to one day set up my own business. I also recommend any books by Michael Lewis.

Lancaster: I have a real admiration for the All Blacks and the culture they have created so at the moment I am reading Legacy by James Kerr.


(will not be published)