From unicorn startup to tech phoenix

Danny Bartlett, December 11, 2017 4 min read

This article was originally posted on the Tech City UK website.

Four guiding principles that helped Ve rise from the ashes after failure. By Danny Bartlett, International Head of Communications at Ve Global

Please indulge me for a moment.

I was in Stockholm last month, visiting Ve Global’s team there. After office hours, I was eager to taste the cultural and historical delights the city had to offer and was told the Vasa museum on my Tripadvisor checklist should be ticked off first.

The museum is quite the spectacle. It was built around a fully intact 17th century ship called The Vasa, which sunk on the day of its maiden voyage, less than 1,400 yards off the harbour. The cause: a gust of wind, as her centre of gravity was too high.


The ship itself could easily have come from the set of a Pirates of the Caribbean movie given the lavish ornate embelishments on-board, the pinnacle being a 3-meter high statue of Hercules. This was one of  500 statues, some of which were painted in gold leaf no less.

Inevitably, all of this excess raised the ship’s centre of gravity beyond the point where it could handle even nature’s most basic tests. It was the perfect case of style over substance.

The extraordinary level of craftsmanship involved made the Vasa’s demise all the more tragic, but now as the most visited museum in Scandinavia, this Swedish flagship has eventually found success. Fair enough, it took 333 years and not as originally intended, but a new success regardless and one achieved from abject failure.

I like metaphors, clearly. So, using the Vasa for inspiration, I found one to help manage a failure I had to contend with – a Phoenix.

Earlier this year, Ve Interactive went into administration. From a £1.5bn tech ‘Unicorn’ – a metaphor I like a great deal less – to nearly going under in less than a year was a hard pill to swallow, especially when I was brought in to help raise Ve’s profile for an eventual IPO.

Despite a management buyout and the fact we never lost a single client, we knew we’d be anchored with the ‘Broken Unicorn’ label and that the negative press would take its toll on the business and our brand. From the ashes, then, the Phoenix strategy was born.

The strategy is built around four guiding principles. The first is transparency. The initiated will tell you that Public Relations isn’t a silver bullet. When faced with such a spectacular fall from grace, clever marketing or simply sticking our head in the sand were simply not options for us. We needed to be accessible and show that the company as a whole was acting with integrity and benevolence.

This meant being earnest and opening up to all stakeholders, especially our staff. On too many occasions previously, resource was focused on briefing external stakeholders, like the press, shareholders and the like, which I always found odd when your key brand ambassadors are your staff. We gave our internal communications an immediate overhaul, with regular video bulletins, global newsletters and more crucially, CEO updates detailing the direction of the business.

When it came to external stakeholders, we had an open-door policy and kept up appearances. Although we were having to make efficiency savings and much of the coverage remained relatively hostile, we didn’t shy away from events, or dissuade journalists from asking questions. It was crucial for us to ensure that the story progressed and that we continued to delete association with the former business.

Another guiding principle is longevity. Building our reputation back up will take time and investment, especially to restore the brand equity that may have been lost.

Since coming out of administration in April, we’ve landed a £15m investment to strengthen the business, completed a global rebrand, found a new home at the heart of London’s Tech City and will break even soon. This has built much needed confidence but we know there is still some way to go to re-gain people’s trust. This, we hope, will come once we’ve finished optimising the business and put it on a sustainable footing.

The third principle is perspective. There’s no doubt that what happened at Ve affected people’s livelihoods and as we’re yet to hit profitability, you can’t blame people for being nervous. However, Ve was given a lifeline. We weren’t reading headlines, like, “Tech Unicorn dies with 1000 job losses and 23 office closures.” We survived.

We also knew that our core technology was of value to those using it and that despite what had happened, our products were still having a transformational impact on clients. While waiting for the dust to settle, I doubled down on our commercial PR efforts. Placing big brand case studies in top tier media outlets, using our data to fuel data insight reports, and increasing our award submissions, helped key audiences recognise that this business had other interesting narratives beyond the current headlines.

The last, and in my opinion a more important principle, is purpose. One of the most commendable things our new management did early on was to establish core values and a vision and mission that the entire business could get behind. This gave the business a focus beyond what was happening and something to punt for in future. The mission was adopted by each department and in every territory, which brought us closer together. The vision allowed us to engage with the ecosystem around us and identity ways we could make things better, while the core values helped the individual understand the role they had to play beyond their own job description.

These four principles aided our brand’s recovery and from a comms perspective, they’ll maintain our reputation moving forward. It’s by no means a perfect strategy and I‘m sure many may still need convincing but it’s my hope that in the end, Ve Global will be remembered for how it dealt with the crisis and not the crisis itself.

Further down the line, my hope is that other scaling British tech businesses look at what happened at Ve and value what failure can teach them. Whether you’re looking to safeguard yourself against similar circumstances or have found yourself facing hardship, remember that steal is not tempered until battle, and Ve is more resilient, determined and experienced as a result. If you meet failure head-on, and don’t run from it, think long-term and remember that there’s a full stop at the end of every journey, you’ll find success, even if it wasn’t what you had initially intended.

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