Podcast #60 - Paul Excell Discusses Tech Innovation

CJ Todd | March 24, 2016

Podcast #60 - Paul Excell Discusses Tech Innovation
Paul Excell is CEO and Chief Innovation Officer at iesquared.com. He is an internet pioneer with 34 years of experience in Global IT and business. Paul joins us to discuss the enterprise and startup mindsets and how innovation can help transform any organization, whatever the size.

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Adam:            Welcome to Episode 60 of The Crowd. I’m talking to Paul Excell, CEO and Chief Innovation Officer at iesquared.com.

                        Welcome to Near Me’s podcast, The Crowd, bringing you interviews from thought leaders in the collaborative economy who’ll be sharing their knowledge, diverse real world experiences and stuff you need to know to help build a successful marketplace. If this is your first time joining us, thanks and welcome. I’m your host, Adam Broadway.

                        Remember back in the day when you had to walk 20 miles barefoot through snow blizzards to get access to a punch card computer system just to teach yourself machine code and assembly language? No, you don’t remember? Well, Paul Excell and I do. We had a fantastic chat about where Computer Science has taken us since those good old days and I have to say Paul is the real deal. He advises company boards on how they can accelerate transformation through innovation and the right technology strategies. And as Chief Customer Innovation Officer, Group Technology Officer and VP of Global Services at BT, Paul was also responsible for BT’s service platforms over 3 billion dollars in Euro revenues, launched several global businesses and created a 2.5 billion dollar pipeline from nurturing a global innovation ecosystem.

Paul is on the Board of the Engineering Council and is a Chartered Engineer. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Engineering and Technology. He is a Fellow of the British Computer Society and he is the chair of BCS Entrepreneurs. He’s also an alumnus of London Business School. He holds a Masters in Information Systems from the University of Essex and an Honours degree in Electronic Engineering from the University of York. Paul remains an internet pioneer and having started his career as an apprentice has worked hard throughout his successful career to be where he is today. And it’s a pleasure to be able to talk to him about the enterprise and startup mindsets and how innovation can help transform any organization whatever their size.

                        Well, hello everybody. Adam here with The Crowd. And we are talking with Paul Excell who is the Chief Innovation Officer at iesquared.com. He is a founder. He is a CEO. He’s a Chairman, an executive coach. He’s been there and done that. And a bit like me, he’s a school dropout. I don’t know if I should tell the world that but you left school at 16, Paul.

Paul:               Yes, I did. At that time, my parents needed me to go out there and get a job. I lucked out because there happened to be what became the largest telco in the UK had just moved up to where I lived. So I got an apprenticeship there at their research center and I’ve never looked back ever since in terms of technology and the tech world that we live in.

Adam:            Yeah, absolutely. I mean, before we hit the record button, you were telling me some of the background about what you’ve done. And you’ve really covered the gamut of Tech and Computer Science and Engineering. And you sit on some boards and different things. Do you want to give us just a brief overview on the history as you’ve seen it with the tech world where it was, where it is and where you think it might be going over the next few years?

Paul:               Yeah, I suppose. To start with the really boring stuff, way back in ancient times when I was very much at school, I lived in a rural part of the United Kingdom. And in those days in order to get some programming time on any sort of computer, we had to travel nearly 30 miles just to get some programming time just so I could do my school work and did what was very much the first Computer Science examinations for people of my age 15, 16 in those times. Since then, I’ve obviously pretty much seen it all through university. And if I take my career at British Telecom, I’ve seen the technology world there go from it being a telephone company to an internet company to a broadband company to now a very much multimedia company offering all sorts of TV services and content services and so on right through to all the brilliant things of internet of everything today and so on.

So I had several great executive jobs at BT. I was VP of Global Services. I was Chief Customer Innovation Officer, Group Technology Officer. So I was able to see innovation and transformations and luckily for me I’d like to think spot them and help transform the company to make the best of them for our customers and so on. In recent times, I’ve had a lovely balance between working with some great and finding some great startups here in the UK. I’m working with some great startups around the world but also still working with corporate boards, advising them on technology innovation, what works, what doesn’t work and so on. So that’s a quick part of history on what I’ve seen.

Adam:            Awesome. I think you and I could have a really long chat about the good old and bad old days. What’s interesting to me though is this experience that you’ve had starting really young, working your way up into C level executive positions at massive global corporates and also being an entrepreneur and having experience in the startup world. What do you see are the main differences between these big corporates and the startup mindset?

Paul:               I think the main thing I would say is very much speed. And it’s not because corporates don’t want to be fast. And as we know in today’s very competitive world, speed and the way you get things out to marketplace ahead of time is often a competitive advantage providing of course you’ve done it end to end and you’re delivering a great experience. So the real difference I would say or is how you get speed in a corporate because that’s very tough. Corporate processes are designed to risk manage. They’re designed to align. They’re designed to do all sorts of things that are because the division of labor from the very top to make your whole process productive and efficient is great for being productive and efficient but is not particularly good if you want fast. And startups always have the benefit. They’re very flat. They’re normally focused around one specific mega pain point or mega opportunity and that’s what they’re going for.

In a sense, I realized thinking about staying up until the early hours of the morning UK time watching the Superbowl it’s interesting to me that corporates have to do both offense and defense, I think you would say in the US, whereas a startup really is just on offense. It has nothing essentially to defend. So it can go all out on offense and that gives it the advantage of a whole bunch of speed. And so that I think I would say is the main thing. And what comes with the startup of course is that startup culture and mentality of trying to do things incredibly fast and normally with incredibly little resource in terms of a competitive or corporate world. So a corporate world where you might have some money and resources, startups are designed. They have to because otherwise they don’t survive to be able to get stuff out there and find ways around problems and deliver a great experience or hit the pain point they are addressing.

Adam:            Yeah. You mentioned risk management which seems to be one of the sort of speeds humps that large corporates have in moving along faster and being agile and the startup mentality being more offensive as you said. Is this a nature versus nurture question? Could a corporate learn to act more like a startup? And are there sort of skunkwork programs that corporates could begin to enact that separate and have almost a startup culture separate but still inside the corporate machine?

Paul:               I mean, certainly in my corporate career, we were able to do, I mean, I wouldn’t necessarily say skunkworks but we’ve developed ways and means of protecting your game changers and your corporate entrepreneurs. And indeed although it’s a much overused phrase, ecosystem or partners in order to just give them the opportunity and the air cover to go away and innovate and where necessary be disruptive, again even if necessary disruptive to your own business model. So invest in and work with companies. Don’t get in their way. Allow them to innovate. And then at the appropriate time, work with them to scale up their solution so it’s useful to either you or your customers or you can gain some money back from your investment and shareholding with them. I honestly think it’s very hard.

There’s so much been written about this. The DNA of a startup person or somebody who’s an entrepreneur – it’s very hard for them to see how they might truly survive within a large corporate because the DNA is somehow different. But what I think corporates can do is have entrepreneurial people and people with an entrepreneurial mindset within it. And I think, personally I would say it’s absolutely vital because if you want to survive and indeed thrive in today’s environment, again although it’s a cliché, you have to be innovating. You have to be constantly thinking about, how do I take this whole thing forward?

In my head, you see two words around entrepreneurs. They’re women and men who are often quite obsessive. They’re obsessive about their idea. They’re obsessive about delivering for customers. They’re obsessive about wanting to make it happen. And also frankly, the good ones have a large slice of what I call paranoia because they’re never satisfied and they’re always thinking, you know what, there’s someone coming up behind me who can beat me and I don’t want that to happen. So I think you’ve got to try and find a way to give the, within a corporate environment to allow those sorts of people to thrive and survive. Then once they’ve got the idea, hand it over to the large corporates who can scale up the whole thing up.

Adam:            That’s good. Healthy paranoia. I always tell anybody who’s pitching an idea to me that there’s nothing new under the sun and assume that there are 20 or 30 other people doing exactly what you’re doing probably faster and better. So get moving. Start it now and be paranoid and be passionate. So going back though to the corporate mindset and how they can be more startup like, do the politics in line of business middle management interfere in this speed to market that a startup does avoid? You know, you end up with people sort of wanting to protect their turf within the corporate world. I mean, we saw even entire business models being disrupted with the likes of Blockbuster who had this arrogant stance. And then within 12 months, Netflix took them out, completely took them out due to the arrogance of management. Is that something that can be mitigated? How does a large corporate make sure that middle management doesn’t interfere in the speed to market that a startup avoids?

Paul:               Yeah. I mean, and clearly there is a big issue. And certainly in the past, I’ve worked with CEOs who got very paranoid or rather got very frankly frustrated about the amount of time and the loss of communication and the loss of alignment that happens in middle management in corporates as people defend turf and don’t work together as well as they could do and teamwork and so on. I guess, I bring it back that I’ve had and I’ve seen successful teams is it has come down to very, very successful leadership driving forward on a very clear your job is to make these things happen. There’s called a no excuse, no hiding place providing people with the support and so on to make it happen. So I don’t think I have a particularly sort of straightforward or rather I do have a very straightforward answer to this one. It’s about leadership. It’s about providing leadership, providing your people with a coaching and the support and indeed demanding of them the right performance so they can go out there and be the best they can be.

                        I come from a sporting background and working with great athletes and great teams. You see the ones that are very successful always have that ethos, massive attention to detail. They don’t go out training because they’re told to go out training. They want to make sure that they are as fit and they have all the skills they need to be because they don’t want to let their team down. So the great corporations, the great teams have this whole idea of collaboration, a very clear course of what they want to do. They communicate it together. They have the courage to deliver it forward. Sometimes, they have the curiosity to really think about, are we doing this the right way? Constantly challenging themselves. But ultimately, it comes down to that. And any corporates that allow their middle managers not to be the leaders of the future – because that’s what they should be. Your middle managers should be the people that are pushing you out of the way in your CXO job because they are the women and men that are coming through.

Adam:            Great response. You mentioned before that for the entrepreneur and the startup who are on the offensive, they’re wanting to be disruptive, they’re moving very quickly who then to get scale their exit strategy may be that they get acquired by a large enterprise or they take on the process and scalability that a larger company can provide. On the flip side, what helps guide an enterprise on that decision of build it versus buy it? So internally build the thing to compete with the upstart over here versus just buying the upstart. Is there some guidance that enterprises have as a rule of thumb? I know in my previous company before we got acquired by Adobe, the thought was that oh no, if these guys are going to be able to build what we’ve done and take us out of the market – in hindsight, that was a complete furphy. But what are your thoughts on that?

Paul:               Yeah. Again, there’s no simple answer to this because it really relies on people doing a lot of cool and proper analysis of the marketplace where it’s going and obviously the startup itself. I think in my head it always starts with, what are the absolutely core things to the value proposition that your company needs to deliver today and what it’s planning to do and where it needs to go in order to stay ahead of the game, stay number one, whatever its particular corporate goals are? And then work out, do you have those – are those skills available anyway? Are they something that you can simply outsource because they’re not something of interest? I mean, if I use this as an example, when mobile phones first started here in the UK, one of the strategic advantages for a particular operator was whether they had good coverage in the area. Now, that’s no longer a differentiator. Mobile phones, telco companies differentiate their solutions, their capabilities on content, on devices, on a whole range of bundles of services and so on.

So you got to work out clearly what it is that’s most important to you. Find out whether you can get that in from a particular startup or whether it’s worth and you have got the skills that you have or can develop in-house to give you that competitive advantage. If it’s the former, i.e., if it’s something that you need to buy in, you better get good and some companies are good at being able to integrate and merge without losing all the goodness from the startup because heaven knows, there’ve been so many situations whereby simply by buying the startup and the innovation even with some form of golden handcuffs for the founders and key personnel, you absolutely kill the value that you thought you’re buying into.

Adam:            Yeah, absolutely. I’ve seen exactly the same outcome and it’s a really good point. I want to shift gears a little bit and just putting our thoughts around the change in the way that people are consuming products whether they be services or physical goods and the way that marketplaces are now starting to take off. And the traditional model of course was with large corporations, the supply chain and the channel partners being the distribution of their products and services. And so you would have accredited resellers who would take product from a wholesaler and send it out the channel. And now suddenly, we’re starting to see all these little marketplaces in different verticals popping up everywhere. Of course, in the early days, it was eBay. And then you’ve got services-based ones like Airbnb and the like. The idea that I found from large brands was that we don’t get involved in the aftermarket because that cannibalizes our new product sales. But the research is showing that’s not true because people are doing it anyway. They’re going to eBay. They’re going to Craigslist. They’re going to these aftermarket places. And so, what’s happening is brands are missing out on the intelligence that they get from that aftermarket resale of their brand. What do you think brands can do to help leverage their existing communities which are becoming much more accessible and playing a part in the aftermarket? After all, this is going to give brands line of sight across their entire products, services, customer life cycle.

Paul:               Yeah. That’s a really great question because one of my own startups is very much in this space looking to use the shared economy. I’m getting skilled professionals into either temporary or rostered into company rosters using and just digitizing that journey. Some people will say it’s not super innovative but it allows people to get just from their smartphone or their tablet the job that suits them and and fills up the rosters. Essentially, think of it as people on demand or people in the Cloud, skilled people in the Cloud. I’d also sort of talked earlier I suppose about a number of little models that I have in my head or I used and I’ve written on a couple of times around successful innovation and sort of stealing a little bit of a Covey idea of seven English words that come or I’ve seen and having studied innovation around the world for 15, 20, 25 years. I looked at what made them different. And there are seven C words, customer, curiosity, collaboration, communication, courage, commercial because they understand the commercialization, and cost. We talked earlier about a number of them but I’ll come right back to answer your question around customer.

Why wouldn’t you want to have anything and everything to understand what your customer is feeling, seeing in that relationship? That relationship is absolutely fundamentals. So as a brand, you’re saying rightly so them taking a lot of time with omnichannel analytics, the use of obviously – there’s X billion mobiles. The number goes up every moment. All of us will have what? A thousand, 2000 internet addresses, all those kinds of bits and pieces. Why wouldn’t you want to maintain and have a great relationship with your customer? And it seems to me that the aftermarket, the delivery of a great enduring experience, the fact that there are stats out there that says that if you have a bad experience, you’re likely to go and tell six to eight people how awful it was. So it’s going to – so from a brand protection, understanding your customer more and also growing new ideas and revenues as you said, the Airbnb-type idea, the tabs idea which is my particular startup which is doing the same sort of thing for professional work people, professionals in the label, healthcare space, etc., why wouldn’t you want to do that? I mean, it seems to me it’s absolutely key. So yeah, I think it’s a really great opportunity. And brands would miss out on this at their peril.

I think if you look whether for differentiators now, where do you find them? There are a lot of people that got very similar signing services. But if you’re executing pristinely, if you’re operating, if you’re constantly in touch with your customers, then that’s not only the source of your revenue. It’s a source of your next innovation. And as a final word on this, the Chief Customer Innovation Role that I developed when I was an exec at BT was to exactly do this, to spend all my time with our top Fortune 100 customers all around the world and just sit and try to understand how we could do more with them. What were their particular pain points? Because if you understand opportunity or pain point, then you can find innovative solutions.

Adam:            And that’s absolutely the key I think too because brand loyalty is disappearing and it’s more around experienced loyalty. Who gave me the last best experience? Oh, I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation, Paul and very, very – I think everybody is very lucky to be able to get your time and thoughts around this. And particularly I think the experience that you have brought from being both in the executive role and the corporate world as well as the startup is advice for both sets of business types. As we wrap it up, I’d like maybe for you to share something that in your – looking back in your past and thinking about the advice that you were given whether it’s from a personal sit down when you’re a young lad or further on in your career, just one thing that resonates in your mind even now as you think about it. A piece of advice that you just went, wow, that was some of the best advice anybody ever gave me and you think about it still. What would that be?

Paul:               I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some great and wonderful people. And one was someone who was in fact a very successful entrepreneur and billionaire. And I had the pleasure of working with him and we’re still very good friends. And I remember in my very early career when we’re working together, he talked about persistence, this determination. So, here’s a quote. Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not. Nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not. Unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not. The world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. That’s always stuck with me, the fact that it’s just about you. It’s about creating that leadership, the ecosystem, supporting the people around you. My daughter is the president of a student union at a big UK, a leading UK university. And I sent that quote to her because that’s always stayed with me as something to live your life by.

Adam:           Great. I’m just so grateful to be able to talk and get these gleanings from you. Is there any final thing that you just like to round off for this podcast? And also of course, how could people get in touch you? I’m sure that there are some enterprising clients that are listening to this podcast that maybe want to reach out to you and then get some executive coaching and advice.

Paul:               So first of all, Adam, thank you. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of all this and share some thoughts. Innovation comes from collaboration. It’s one of the seven Cs as I mentioned earlier. So the more you collaborate, the more you develop ideas, the more you have the opportunity. You learn and so on. So it’s been an absolute delight to have this conversation with you. And yes, if people want to contact me, I’m most delighted.

Adam:            Perfect. And there will be a transcript that we’ll have of this podcast. For those of you listening, you will be able to read the transcript. You’ll also be able to click on the links that we’ll put in the blog post accompanying this. Again, Paul, wonderful. I look forward to catching up in person when I’m in UK next.

Paul:               That will be fantastic. I look forward to it too, Adam. Take care.

Adam:            Thanks for joining us for The Crowd, the podcast that keeps you connected. Join us next episode for more knowledge sharing and insights on the marketplace economy.