Businessman Richard Gibson helped steer UK tech start-up SwiftKey to its sale to Microsoft and now advises high-growth companies on scaling up and strategy. He shared his insights at The Business Magazine’s Southern entrepreneurs dinner.
Richard Gibson was CFO and executive chairman at SwiftKey from 2011 to its sale in 2016 for a reported $250 million. SwiftKey’s app “turbocharges and personalises predictive text” on mobile phones. You’ll find the app in Samsung phones and other brands.
The company’s two founders quickly grew the business from 15 to 150 employees. They brought in Gibson for his accountancy and private-equity expertise to help run SwiftKey. Gibson now works with entrepreneurs and business founders, helping them build their companies and achieve their visions.
Nearly 50 entrepreneurs from the region attended the dinner in May in the impressive surroundings of gin maker Bombay Sapphire’s distillery at Laverstoke Mill in Whitchurch, Hampshire. The event was sponsored by Barclays and law firm Osborne Clarke.
“SwiftKey was a fantastic experience for me – I’ve never worked so hard,” said Gibson. “Starting your own business is a difficult challenge and I’m always hugely respectful of anyone who makes the journey.”
Faith and commitment
From his SwiftKey experience, Gibson said he learned four things that you need to successfully scale up a business: commitment, faith in what you’re doing, the ability to take strong action to move forward, and a product consumers love.
“We had faith that if we did the right thing and did it to the best of our ability then somehow it would work out. And we had product market fit – consumers really wanted the SwiftKey app. I’ve seen so many companies struggle to gain momentum and gain scale because they haven’t understood what their customers want and need,” he said.
Asked what he might have done differently at SwiftKey, Gibson said: “Our management became complicated and we probably left making changes to the board for too long. You need to change to continue being relevant and specific to your phase of growth and avoid becoming stale.”
After a dinner prepared by Winchester-based The Little Kitchen Company, Gibson asked the audience for their experiences of setting a business vision and coping with transition.
Setting goals and visions
Guests discussed how setting out a business vision helps them articulate what they are trying to achieve:
“We have a vision, so we always know where we want to go.”
“We thought we could just make up a mission statement but when we got down to it, it was really tough, especially if you want to be able to fulfill it.”
“It took us about 10 years to write down our vision. Once you reach a certain size you have to have something to tell customers and employees.”
“Our vision focuses on key numbers, emotional ones, that our people can rally behind.”
“We found a long-term vision didn’t really work – people forget what it is. We have values that we stand for that are all about our people.”
“Most of our people are based on customer sites for long periods and ‘go native’, so we have to work hard to communicate our values.”
Managing change and transition
Gibson described the difficult process SwiftKey faced bringing in talented people with leadership experience as the business grew. “Some of our appointments didn’t work and some we perhaps didn’t really give the opportunity to develop,” he said. “It’s a challenge that I see a lot in the companies I advise. I think finding the right people is one of the hardest things for businesses to do,” he said.
Guests added their thoughts on the challenges to scaling-up a business:
“Successful transition goes back to your people. Are they able to adapt? For us, how we pick people is important. In the past, where we have hired too fast it hasn’t really worked. The founders interview all candidates – it’s just not worth taking on the wrong people.”
“As a business owner you have to put your ego aside and trust your managers.”
“If you have good communications underpinning your transition, then it’s going to be easier.”
“Transition has to be expected and our employees understand that, because it’s the direction of travel we are on.”