Growth Interview with Alan Cairns
We caught up with Alan Cairns, who has worked in a variety of high growth environments to get his thoughts on how to overcome some of the challenges of a growing business;
Can you tell us about how your career has evolved so far?
I joined Moneysupermarket in 2007 just after the IPO, having been hired by the Founder Simon Nixon and Chairman Gerald Corbett. Over an 8-year period with Moneysupermarket, I hired in some superstars including the new CEO Peter Plumb, Directors and NEDs. Together we grew the share price from a low of 33p to a high of £3.80. This included making multiple acquisitions including Money Saving Expert, which was perhaps the most successful acquisition of them all. I learned a huge amount during this period.
After this I moved to London and joined the online printing and design company MOO, a very values-led, VC backed, creative business with an awesome culture. After my time with MOO, I wanted to see if I could succeed in a smaller business and wanting to share all my learnings, I joined a start-up systematic Hedge Fund and in parallel became a Venture Partner for the venture capital firm Octopus Ventures. I really enjoyed both roles and learned even more about scaling; next I took a risk following a direct reach out from Harley Kisberg, the founder of iTech Media and joined as COO in January 2019. This proved to be an incredible role with lots of learnings. I recently moved internally into a new role as Managing Partner Ventures to build a platform and acquisition pipeline for iTech Ventures.
It’s perhaps rarer than it should be for people to transition from HR leadership roles into general management roles, but you are one of the rare candidates to have made that transition. How would you advise HR professionals who are looking to move into general management roles?
I think it’s key to play to your strengths. In my early career, I worked for JCB and moved out of the HR function to run a team of 450 people as an Operations Manager, so some of my learnings come from having had similar roles before. I also think that it’s about learning where your good experiences are and being able to fill in the skill gaps.
Most people who move from purely HR roles to general management roles have gaps, and you need to recognise what those gaps are. My advice would be “play to the strengths you already have, and hire people around you to balance your weaknesses”.
When you made that transition, what aspects of general management roles did you find challenging?
Over the course of four years, I have looked after engineering, operations, people, content, UX design, wellbeing, finance, delivery, and strategic operations. You cannot be an expert in all those areas. It’s more about being an awesome leader – listening to people, empathising with them, and helping experts to become the best they could be. I am not going to be better at design than the head of UX & design, but I can help them to become a better leader.
You have worked with both a venture capital firm and within portfolio companies of venture capital firms. Has “operating on both sides of the fence” influenced your approach to management?
Definitely! Working inside a VC I learned a lot about deal flow, how advisors play a key part in growing businesses and, in particular, how hard it is to make the right picks. There is, inevitably, a lot of “spray and pray”, especially at the earlier stages of investment.
Working inside a VC backed business I found it fascinating to work with multiple investors all with different investment horizons. Someone who invested early might be looking for the business to sell whereas a more recent investor might be looking at a longer investment horizon.
If you work for a VC backed business, it’s important to pick the right VC to work with, build a strong relationship with them and their advisors, and to demonstrate monthly, yearly increases in your key metrics, and of course, spend their investment wisely.
How much experience do you have of working in high growth environments?
Moneysupermarket, MOO and iTech were all high growth environments where I learned a lot. In Moneysupermarket we changed much of the business to being purely online whilst still maintaining a strong customer focus through a contact centre. We learned that to attract and hire digital marketers we needed a strong London presence (the HQ was in North Wales) so I found a suitable London location and hired in a team that became the centrepiece of growth. Money Saving Expert was the best acquisition we ever made. We had learned many lessons from previous acquisitions, and we didn’t try to reshape it or make it feel like part of a PLC, we offered the best parts of the group as support and helped them to grow in their own unique way, with their own unique culture. Working with Martin Lewis OBE (the Founder of MoneySavingExpert) was a career highlight, and I learned a lot from him.
In MOO, combining a London move with working inside a more creative business (with manufacturing in-house) I realised the value of culture, purpose and values in the creation of a business and how the EVP comes to life. I hired in some exceptional people who also helped the business to scale, notably Meri Williams (as CTO), Ed Goldfinger (as CFO) and Nick Ruotolo (as COO).
Over the last 4 years or so as COO at iTech Media I’ve worked shoulder to shoulder with the Founder and CEO, Harley, to successfully scale what was a small company – I was employee number 66 – to over 400 employees. It’s great to see the company flourish and build the strong culture that it has today. I have also learned a lot working with some incredible people who have helped shape the person I am today.
How do you ensure that a company retains a strong culture as it grows?
First, it’s about writing it down to really codify what your culture is. Culture is very important as it is a strong hook to attract people to join the business and stay there.
To me the core building blocks of shaping a culture are: deciding how much of your story you can and want to tell, transparency is key here. Think about who you want to attract and repel. Consider what people will want to know about the business from your employer brand alone. You need to recognise that some candidate questions will be answered by your employer brand because sometimes you won’t be asked questions directly by candidates on these themes. This includes things like salary transparency, family leave policies, diversity and inclusion in your company together with steps you are taking to improve these items. Build a differentiated story arc about why people should consider joining your company and back it up with stories, testimonials, pictures and data.
Sometimes in workplaces, confident, extroverted employees who communicate well tend to be rewarded the most in terms of promotion. How do you ensure that quieter, less confident employees get the promotions and recognition they deserve?
I think the key is diversity and inclusion. One size does not fit all. Some people feel more confident with in person meetings and others are more comfortable with written discourse. Ultimately, it’s all about performance and if you have effective ways of measuring performance you should be able to recognise and engage all employees regardless of their preferred communication style.
When you look back your career, what are some of the achievements you are most proud of?
I think there’s a few highlights – helping iTech Media grow from a small company to a flourishing company of 400+ with an awesome culture. Also helping to grow the Moneysupermarket.com share price 11x which gave a great return to investors – many of whom were pensioners – as well as employees with stock option plans.
I think also the sheer volume of awesome people I have hired, mentored, promoted and developed, many of whom now occupy incredible roles in the tech scene. I’ve also enjoyed transitioning from Chief People Officer to COO bringing with me all the best bits of the former role and learning a lot along the way.
If you could give career advice to your 25-year-old self, what might you say?
I would say understand and play to your strengths. Don’t try to be something that you are not. Believe in yourself more. Have more self-confidence in your ideas. Build lifelong connections and help other people to grow. Continue to learn and don’t think you’re done learning because you’ll never be. Stay grounded and humble.
Is there a certain cadence when it comes to hiring senior leaders into a growth business? At what stage might a company need to bring in senior external talent?
In short, earlier than you think! My strong belief is that Founders have huge strengths in establishing businesses and typically strengths in a particular disciplines like Product or Engineering but they don’t have strengths in all disciplines. It is about knowing what you are really, really good at and bringing in acknowledged experts in the areas you are not so hot in.
The key is timing, many Founders wait too long to hire in experts in People, Talent, Finance and Communications yet these roles can often make a step change in any business. There’s definitely no one size fits all or a specific cadence. My advice is to make one or two early hires that can make a step change in your business, and to look for people with battle scars and an internal playbook for successfully scaling a company. The value such hires can add far exceeds the role they come in to do as you also gain a mentor, a decision making partner and a contrarian view.
You have a lot of experience of working with founders. What do you think are the ingredients that lead to a good working relationship between a founder CEO and a COO?
It’s a relationship, so like in any relationship, pick your partner well first! The ingredients in my mind are: strong mutual trust, strong challenge where you disagree, build on each other’s strengths, challenge behind closed doors and be prepared to disagree and commit so you present a united front, agree clear areas of accountability so you don’t overlap and always stay humble, you didn’t found the business, you are helping the CEO to be the best they can be.
You also need to have huge empathy for the loneliness of a CEO role and the challenges that brings.
Lots of companies use agile methodologies when organizing product development or even a whole company. Do you have any favourite way of organizing a business?
I’m a strong believer in autonomy and delegating responsibility to teams, at its core, this is what Agile is about. So yes, whilst I am an advocate of agile development, like anything you can be too purist or too fixated on certain aspects. What’s the right fit for one business might not necessarily be the right fit for another.
One of the challenges in managing growing businesses is attracting talent. This can be challenging if you are a growing but small company and don’t have the financial power of other companies. How can you build strong employer brand with limited financial resources?
I think the core of building a strong employer brand is storytelling. It is compelling to write down the founder’s story and tell that to people. I also think being as transparent as possible is a key here. Decide who you want to attract and consider what people might want to know about the business, and tell stories which reinforce your brand. You should also tell stories about diversity, equity and inclusion.
How important do you think it is to have role models from a diversity perspective?
I think it’s very important and I would go further. On the company website, the first thing people will look at is, “are there people like me?”. You must make sure that their voice is included in the decision making. If all the management team are same colour and gender, potential new employees won’t get that vibe at all.