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Interview with CEO Russell Gould

We are delighted to have had a really interesting discussion with Russell Gould, a highly accomplished CEO and entrepreneur with deep experience of working for online and fintech companies. We discussed the early days of the internet, how to build digital businesses and the nature of being a CEO;


So how did you get into the world of internet and e-commerce back in the day?

My first work related experience of the internet was in New Zealand. I was working for ANZ Bank in a marketing role and the general manager responsible for retail banking handed me a “special project”. Basically, I was asked to explore and make recommendations around alternative delivery channels for mortgage product.  I ended up presenting my findings to her and the Retail Board and this included strategies around mobile mortgage managers or roaming managers that would come to your house or your workplace, mortgage brokers, and the internet. I also included mortgage customer retention into the project as my early research indicated this was a major problem area for the bank.

Presenting to the board was a daunting but a great experience!  They bought into my recommendations and asked me to take the lead on development for each channel, frustratingly except for the internet!

It wasn’t until a few years later in the UK where I was working for Norwich Union, in a sales development role for IFA sales for banking products, which included mortgage deposit loans, equity release products and savings accounts, when I next got the opportunity to be involved in the rapidly evolving internet sector.

One of our largest customers, a well-known mortgage broker and IFA called John Charcol, was setting up an online mortgage broker, Charcolonline. They reached out in the year 2000 and asked, “Given your product knowledge and your product background, would you be interested in joining a new online business as our Product Director?” It sounded exciting, and I agreed to join.  I ended up working alongside some amazing people and we were very much at the forefront of digital.  The team included several ex-McKinsey consultants who were very much experts in online and strategy which really complemented the mortgage product and brokering experience.  It was a brilliant learning experience!

I guess this is where I really cut my teeth on the internet and digital space and quickly found that I really loved it, the fact that you could make changes, test, and get instant results was interesting.  I loved the pace of change and growth!


It feels like the online travel sector was one of the first to really take off. It must have been exciting working in that sector during its early years?

Yes, it was. It was incredible!  Everything changed so fast as the digital wave swept across the whole sector.

Working in travel was completely different to financial services. People wanted what you were selling and the demand for travel was much greater.  The digital experience was very poor, yet people found a way to navigate through and get the holidays they wanted! In financial services you had to work hard to sell, people didn’t (and probably still don’t) want a mortgage but they do want a home, they didn’t want a loan, but they did want a car, and they didn’t want a credit card, but they did want to buy stuff.

Whereas in travel, everybody wants to travel and enjoy a holiday, they’re much more eager to buy the product. Having worked in the financial services industry where you must work so incredibly hard to get traction, get the digital journey and usability correct, and get people to transact, going into travel, I was almost shocked at how hard the customers worked to try and buy product on systems that were relatively unsophisticated and not flexible.

Back then, the paper-based travel brochure was still effective. The “coffee table travel book’, was what people made their holiday decisions on.  So, most of the main websites offered by the travel companies were often replications of their brochures.  Very basic with very little flexibility.

I joined MyTravel, who had various sub-brands such as AirTours, Direct Holidays, Going Places and Panorama Holidays. As a group, they were doing around 3% of their business through the internet. Two years later, when we sold the business to Thomas Cook for £2.8bn, we were doing 30% of our bookings through the internet and a ton of the in-store sales started online. The scale of growth and the ride was amazing!

It wasn’t always easy because each business (or brand) had its own MD, its own marketing and product departments. Each had their own view on their websites and the importance of the internet versus high street travel agents.  Oddly not all were fans!  So, for me as both New Media Director and then Director of Digital Marketing and E-Commerce, there was a real educational process to get buy in to the digital strategy and opportunity.

After the merger, well versed in travel by now, after joining Thomas Cook the process was repeated and we grew online sales from 9% to 30% but this time within 18 months.

The volume of users in travel provided a fantastic opportunity to test and learn.  The wealth of data provided a great opportunity to explore analytics and what is now called data science.  We were at the cutting edge of tracking, usability, and personalisation.

Working in travel at that time was always a lot of fun!  We all had the opportunity to enjoy our product and travel!


What was the vision behind Everline?

The whole concept of Everline was to provide rapid cashflow funding to small businesses that desperately needed cashflow support to grow.

We recognised that you could effectively use digital and the internet to access vast amounts of business data, quickly analyse this in a robust manner to make informed lending decisions and then provide funding fast.  Making cashflow funds available and allowing business owners to focus on growing their business.

Everline was originally branded “Wonga for Business”, but we changed this very quickly for obvious reasons. Wonga didn’t have a great brand name at that point in time and B2B referrals play a big part in the SME space.  Our customers simply did not want to tell anyone they had taken a business loan from Wonga!

The whole principle behind the business was to disrupt banks who would take weeks and weeks to make decisions on funding for small businesses. Small businesses would have to provide a lot of information and documentation to the banks and the whole process was incredibly time consuming.  We realised a lot of that information and data existed on other platforms (such as accounting systems), in their bank account statements and so we built tools that allowed us to access this data, interrogate it and utilise it alongside credit bureau data to make informed credit decisions offering a much quicker process.

We were able to create a product and service where customers could get business loans within minutes. We were also one of the first businesses to have data scientists analysing and improving our decisions.

Our launch was manic, and we made the front page of most business newspapers and online news outlets in the UK.  The PR really hit a home run and a real success story of what happens when you get it right!

We eventually sold Everline to another business lender.


More recently, you became CEO of Vesta Property, which is an investment marketplace for properties. What was the idea behind the business?

Vesta is essentially a marketplace for buying and selling residential investment property.

I joined the business around two years into their journey, but pre-launch, as a co-founder and CEO.

Effectively my role was to redefine the vision for the business, ensure the go-live product was viable, raise funds, build a strong team, get the technology platform ready and to launch into the market. And that was incredibly exciting, taking a product from infancy, building out everything, all the tech, the proposition and launching.

We achieved nearly £500,000 pounds of revenue in our first 12 months. Unfortunately, then the market conditions changed significantly and the whole property market cooled, and times were tough. We also had to take a step back and rebuild and repurpose some of our technology. The second year was hard!

In the third year, we started getting growth again, and I got the business to a position where we were ready to scale and planned to drive hyper growth. That was when the COVID pandemic hit, and we had to rationalise, downsize, and try to survive.

Frustratingly we had just agreed a £3 million pound investment with a London based venture capital firm.  They had completed due diligence, and everything was ready to go and then unfortunately the VC firm’s own funding was delayed due to COVID, illness and then several other factors and so they couldn’t complete the transaction at that time.

This ended up putting us in a very, very difficult position with bridge funding, growing debts and the ongoing running costs of the business without the ability to scale. We did everything we could to keep the business operational and growing while we waited for the money to come in, however the property market was once again very tough.  The mini- budget saga did not help!

Unfortunately, we had to make the very difficult decision to liquidate the business at the end of 2023. It was a hard decision but the right one. Our biggest investor supported us right to the very end.  It was great to have his, and our other investors, full support right to the very end.

I oddly made myself redundant and then as a director continued to lead the winding up process, which has been an informative learning curve. It’s taught me about the importance of putting the right governance and structures in from the outset.  Fortunately, we had a very robust and experienced board, so that helped ensure we were very robust in our approach, decisions, and documentation at each stage.

Very sad to have to shut down something that we had worked so hard on for so long!  I really felt for the team who had stayed with me right to the very end and as we all believed in the opportunity.


Was there anything that you found surprising or unusual about becoming a CEO that you didn’t expect beforehand?

That is a great question!

I think when you’re not the CEO, when you’re not the person leading the business, you can often get frustrated because you don’t quite understand why decisions are being made or why people aren’t seeing it the same way as you.

You kind of hope one day when you are the CEO, that you will do it better – listen and make quicker decisions. However, I think when you get to that position, the lens that you look at the business from is very, very different. It’s not just about the here and the now, it’s about the long term, it’s about the people, it’s about the development, the finances, the brand and most importantly it’s about the customer.

As the CEO you must have all these multiple hats on at different times. You’ve really, really got to be good with people and managing a diverse group of stakeholders from your board to your management team, the broader organization, and investors.

You also must be good with managing your time and delegation. Ultimately the buck does stop with you, so you’ve got to get it right more often than you don’t.  You will never always get it right, but you’ve got to try to make the right decisions for the business and not just for you.

Making sure you have good people who compliment your skill set and your weaker areas is important. And you must listen and try and make decisions fast!


What are the areas where you tend to be most hands on as a CEO from a functional perspective?

I really enjoy getting involved in everything.  I like to understand how things work, why and where they can be honed and improved.   If I have to say specific areas, they would be marketing and product.  I have a wealth of experience across these two areas and feel this is where I can add significant value.  Looking at things from a customer’s perspective and understanding where things can be honed or improved fits well alongside this focus.

So, I will often get very hands on around product, around usability, and around design to help make sure these areas are robust and fully tested. I enjoy trying to figure out how things can be improved. Incrementally making improvements to your business and products continually is important.

That said I am also mindful of making sure my role as a CEO is fundamentally one of oversight, development, and leadership.  A great boss once said to me, “Your job as a leader is to build a strong team around you and delegate so that you can focus on the bigger picture, the wider vision and strategy of the company.  In essence you need to make yourself redundant in the day to day, so the team can run things and so you have the bandwidth to focus on the horizon!”.

I like to develop people.  There’s nothing more rewarding than helping people grow, seeing your team grow into leaders, and take on bigger roles.


If you’re managing an early-stage internet business in 2024, is it harder than ever to grow an audience without using expensive acquisition channels?

I think it is possible, but I think it depends on the product and the service you are offering. If you have a very good and unique product or service that people want, with social media and good customer service, it will scale and it will scale quite quickly.

You need to create the brand story from the outset and have clarity around the market positioning to help people understand how a certain product or service is different.  I think that’s where strategically the traditional digital channels like paid search and SEO come into play, because it gives you the opportunity to direct customers to the right information and transactional channels to help engage and convert customers.

In start-ups you just don’t have the big budgets, so it is important to maximise the chance of conversion from every lead you get.  When you get the product and service plus brand story and journey right your best source of new business is the referrals from your first and ongoing buyers.  You must nurture these and make sure your service delivery is excellent and prompts referrals.

In my early digital days, I put in place a strategic approach which formed the foundations of a strategy that I have used time and again.  Many of the people who have worked with me have taken the same approach and used this strategy at their next venture.

It revolves around focusing on a four-point plan – customer acquisition, customer retention, customer conversion and performance optimisation. So, putting a plan in place around all the activities / strategies you might use to get customers to engage for the first time, then focus on everything you can do to retain them and get them to repeat purchase and then critically focusing on all aspects that fuel conversion.  The final piece is to put in place a rich data structure that allows you to interrogate every aspect of the journey so that you can work out where you can improve.

I have used this approach, obviously adjusted for each business and budget, for bigger corporate and smaller start-ups and it works.  You must do the hard work at the outset, put in place the right structures and plan correctly but I have proven it produces results!


Recently you’ve been mentoring some entrepreneurs. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I live in Cambridge and always wanted to do something with Cambridge University. I was approached by the Judge Business School to explore providing business mentorship to students undertaking a Masters in Entrepreneurship and agreed to help.

The Judge has a unique aspect to the programme that brings in business mentors, people like me who have been there and done it and built businesses, as mentors to help their students. Each student has business ideas or an idea or even a business that they have evolved through the program. We sit alongside them, spending a little bit of time with them, helping them refine their business ideas, provide guidance, experience and general know how.

It could be helping them with positioning of a pitch deck, challenging them on aspects of their business or revenue models, etc, helping to optimize their launch strategy, or a whole range of different things.

Every year, I have between four and six students who I spend a few hours with every month, helping them evolve their business ideas. It’s great to give something back. And it’s also brilliant to be involved in these new ideas and these new initiatives and seeing them come to fruition.

It is incredibly exciting to see some of the businesses and always great to play a part in helping the future entrepreneurs on their journey.


Do you have a preference between working in a sort of more established versus more entrepreneurial environments?

I don’t have a strong preference between the two. I guess I thrive when there is the ability to make things better, enhance products and services, build, and grow things. This works in either the corporate or start up environment.  My experience sits across both.

Bigger more established companies are often more solid in the sense that they have a more proven business model and often deeper financial resources. They also have access to a lot more data points and that that can be helpful to inform opportunities for improvement. They do tend to be a little slower at adopting innovation however the rewards are often far greater when they do.

On the other hand, smaller more entrepreneurial businesses are nimble and agile, make decisions fast and this can be very exciting.  However, they are often hamstrung by finances and resource. They also don’t have the richness of data, so intuition plays a big part.

There are pros and cons with both.  My background and experience mean I can fit into either and I guess the most important factor for me is that I can add value and make a difference, I can go either way.


One day when you retire and you look back on your career, what would you like to have achieved?  

For me, it’s about developing people. One of the things I think I’m most proud of is that many of the people that have worked with me have gone on to be digital marketing directors, COOs, MDs, and CEOs.

Most were always on this type of trajectory but hopefully having played a small part in helping them along on that journey I have made a difference.  This is very satisfying. I’d like to look back on my career and say that I’ve helped people grow!