Tech entrepreneur Julian Ross has had a “rollercoaster ride” in business, but says choosing the right customers – and having the courage to turn down the wrong ones – has been vital to his success.
The founder of Lancashire-based Wireless Social credits clients in the hospitality industry as being a key part of ensuring the business is still operating today.
He believes more businesses should look to build relationships and value the product they’re seeking to buy to ensure tech companies survive. It comes after he steered the Leyland business through a difficult few years that have almost seen it go under.
“We’ve had a rollercoaster ride as a business, it’s been a turbulent time up until a couple of years ago,” he says. “I’ve got through that by having faith and believing in what I do, even though at times I thought I’d destroyed my own business. Perseverance has been key, that and building relationships.”
Giving a Sh*t
Ross took over iKnow, a website that showcases holiday accommodation, in 2011 and set up his Wi-Fi business in Leyland after spending much of that year visiting his tourism customers across the country to ask about the challenges they faced.
Many accomodation providers wanted to offer free Wi-Fi, but they couldn’t see how the benefits would outweigh the costs when they might be a 15-room bed and breakfast. Showing the advantages of the data they could collect via social media, using Manchester-based Purple Wi-Fi’s product, Ross set up his business in February 2013.
Central to its success has been Ross’s goal to only employ and work with people who have what he terms the “GAS (give a sh*t) factor”. It’s a quality he searched for when recruiting graduates in the early days and one he stands by today.
“You can’t teach somebody to give a sh*t, they either do or don’t and if you show them the same care you don’t lose employees,” Ross says. “Our whole ethos is based on delighting our customers, we want them to be so happy with what we do because our business is an incredibly valuable tool for them.”
“We’ve never lost a tier one customer in five years and that’s because we build these relationships where we care about them and they care about us. I hate the word supplier – really we’re a partner for our customers.”
Money matters to start ups
Today Wireless Social has a 20-strong workforce and works with 150 household brands. It has five million active users, which is growing at a rate of 350,000 new users every month. Logging in at the likes of restaurants, pubs and hotels, these customers receive information and offers about the venue they’re in and the hospitality businesses receive vital information about who their customers are.
Yet this wasn’t always the case and he experienced a turbulent time for the first few years. Conversations with potential customers would take a turn when, at the end of his pitch, they tried to beat him down on price. It meant him walking away without making a deal and his self-funded businesses losing money for the first four years.
“There’s a lack of comprehension in industries from people buying from tech suppliers where all they want to do is beat people up and say ‘I want you to do that cheaper’,” he says.
“If they’re not careful they could bring on the downfall of a tech company. Some companies have great products but never get them off the ground because customers aren’t prepared to pay the price.”
He admits this still happens now, and it took courage to resist those customers in the days when things weren’t going as well.
“You have to hold your nerve, which can be difficult,” he says. “A lot of people negotiate for the sake of negotiating and once they do that it can totally change the mood of the account. We know we add lots of value and we’re not asking for a lot of money anyway.”
Although he accepts this is an aspect of business, he believes companies should be doing more to support fledgling tech businesses in this way. Asking for a small percentage discount makes all the difference when your supplier is in its early stages and the effects shouldn’t be underestimated.
“It’s the elephant in the room, but we nearly went under because of this,” Ross says. “It’s almost become commonplace but it doesn’t breed good relationships. In an ideal world, a company would say ‘this is the price and it’s the same for everybody. If you think that’s worthwhile then buy from us.’.”
Finally, a turning point
The turning point came for Wireless Social when Ross spoke at a business event. He had built the business up using his own funds, deciding the time he would potentially spend looking for investors would be better spent working on winning clients.
“There’s elation when you win a large account because you’re excited this business has faith in you, then there’s frustration when things go wrong,” he says. “Because of the way I’m built I’ll always blame myself and think that that customer didn’t buy from us because I didn’t get across the value they’d get from doing so. You can have the best product out there but it’s not always enough.”
Following his talk at a business forum, Wireless Social caught the eye of national restaurant chains Carluccio’s and Pho. Both were offered a free trial, as with all Ross’s customers, and both have continued to support the business.
“We hadn’t been able to hit that upper echelon until then, but that event changed everything and was the catalyst for us to gain credibility,” he says. “The IT director of Carluccio’s, Jon Taylor, said he wasn’t going to try and drive down the price because he wanted us to be here in five years’ time.
“If you go with customers who only want to get the best price out of you that’s incredibly short-term thinking. You end up with people propping up your business who don’t care about you.”
For now, the tech business is doing well, and Ross remains passionate about what he has built and the journey he has been on. He praises the hospitality community for its support for other businesses and believes the business would have gone under if it had operated in any other sector.
Yet he refuses to be complacent.
“We’ll never be out of the woods because we’re a tech company, we’ll always be hand to mouth,” he says. “Overall we’ve still lost more than we’ve made but we’re now in a place where the company is in a strong position going forward.”