Who are Livebookings? Why did you join them?
We provide online reservations for restaurants. We do this through our network of partners and through providing the tools so that a restaurant can take easily reservations through their own website. Essentially our job is to generate new and repeat guests (diners) using online channels. Well known clients include Gordon Ramsay Group, The Ritz and The Ivy and key partners include lastminute.com, TimeOut and Yell.com. We have over 6,000 restaurants in our network that take reservations online and we’re present across Europe and have a team of approximately 80.
I joined because I really believe in the business opportunity and I like the team. At the time I took the job, funding was not yet secured and we were running out of cash but I saw that it was such a compelling business model that it would get funded. I also wanted to avoid becoming seen just as the “site guy” in travel and build a strong commercial experience & manage a P&L so that I could broaden horizons later in my career. I also wanted to be in the thick of the decision-making and move back to smaller high growth company where I could make a real impact. The upside of a potential exit was also appealing of course.
As COO, what do you do?
My role is varied and I look after all business operations including HR. I also wear the “hat” of CTO, overseeing our product strategy and technical development. On our management team the other roles are Finance, Sales and Marketing. I guess I pick up everything else.
What’s your background and the career path you have followed to become COO?
I started out in travel, and in my early career I worked overseas. I was a nomad, moving from ski resorts to campsites and back again. In the travel industry, there’s a strong need for good overseas operations teams to deliver the holiday experience smoothly and this is where I found my strength; getting things done, on time to a high standard, managing teams to do so. Starting out at the very bottom (campsite courier / pot-washer), I worked to up managing teams of 80 seasonal staff as an Area Manager for Eurocamp and as Overseas Operations Manager for Simply Ski. In the late 90’s I moved back to London and continued to work in overseas operations and then I was “bitten” by the technology bug and found my first web production job with www.ifyouski.com in 2000. Since then it’s been a continual adventure of VC funding, takeovers and acquisitions, surviving rounds of redundancy, and gradually building experience, primarily in ecommerce, website production and general management. I was the manager of all of the site managers for lastminute.com’s websites and then I was the Ecommerce and Website Operations Director at Expedia before coming to Livebookings.
What makes a really good COO – the real ingredients for success?
I’m sure not all COO roles are the same. For me, I have three areas where I have a depth of experience that combine nicely in my current role; managing staff, technical awareness (I’m slightly geeky) and commercial/trading experience (specifically in a transaction based ecommerce environment). In addition I think a continual desire to learn is essential, as well as a willingness to get stuck in and turn your hand to whatever opportunities / problems come your way. The other challenge is being able to think strategically but to focus on execution.
What are the benefits of a VC-backed start-up? What are the downsides?
We are fortunate to have secured capital from Balderton Capital, as well as a number of other corporate and angel investors. This gives us input and direction with a strong board that is well connected and challenges us. It also gives us the ability to grow aggressively and to do so far faster than we could have through organic growth. There’s a real sense of responsibility to make the business plan work and managing the investment wisely. The main downside I see of VC funding is that the cost of capital is much greater than getting the money from a bank loan. For us the benefits clearly outweighed this as the returns should be greater.
What’s your biggest achievement at Livebookings to date?
I don’t see a “big bang” impact of any one single event. I am very happy with the organisation that we now have, and to get there my approach has always to evolve our organisation/processes one step and one conversation at a time. We have made a large number of small changes and together these build the capability of the team. Examples would be; decentralise the customer service function, introducing agile development practices, separating product management from product development, tweaking our sales proposition, introducing a new incentive package, building an HR infrastructure, beefing up our server capacity, hiring a Marketing Director, building a product vision, managing key strategic partnerships well.
What might you have done differently?
The one thing that I want to do more of and that I will do more is to spend more time with our customers. Now that our growth has stabilised (we went from 30 to 80 staff in a year), I see a new phase of getting closer to our customers. I would liked to have been able to do this sooner, but I’m not sure that the circumstances helped.
Give one tip on how to build the best team.
Only do what you do best. Everything else; find someone that can do it better than you and who is excited about what you are trying to achieve.