Our #MVPtoVIP series celebrates the inspirational journeys of some of the fantastic founders in our Farillio network. This time, it's the turn of co-founders Bee Heller and Matt Grimshaw of The Pioneers. Get to know them better below...
1. How would you sum up the concept behind your business?
We’re like people management mechanics – we help organisations discover and implement new management practices and new ways of working that make their people more engaged, improve customer experiences and business performance.
There’s a simple idea at the heart of our business… if you apply a standard to a population of employees, you expect to get variation in performance or behaviour. For example, if you’re interested in how well your team members respond to customer complaints, you’d expect to find most people sit around ‘average’. They’ll tend to follow the company procedure; they don’t do anything wrong, but equally it’s not an experience that exceeds customer expectations. Some people will significantly underperform — they’ll actually exacerbate the complaint – but you’d also expect to find some people who significantly outperform their peers. These are the people that turn customer complaints into advocates and these are the people we call your ‘pioneers’.
Our work is really all about helping organisations to identify their pioneers, to understand what their pioneers do differently and why, and then to find ways of changing the culture so more people copy the pioneers and fewer people stick at ‘average’.
2. What were you doing before you set it up?
Before setting up The Pioneers, we both worked for a consultancy called The Storytellers – helping to align leadership teams around a shared story about the journey their organisation was on, and to connect their employees with this story. This experience gave us the confidence that we could create our own consultancy business and also inspired us to create a consultancy that was focused on making life better for the people working on the front line of businesses.
Before The Storytellers, Matt worked in the HR and Change team of a large manufacturing company. Bee worked for a large engineering firm managing business integration projects resulting from corporate acquisitions.
3. When did you realise that you wanted to run your own business and what led to you achieving it?
I think it was a combination of things. In part it was a desire to test our own ideas about how to change behaviour, culture and performance in organisations. From the outset, we’ve been determined to take an experimental and evidence-based approach – which means every time we undertake a project for a client, we’re able to show the impact on the business. In our view, there are lots of consultancies out there who do interesting work, but too few of them take a scientific approach to measuring and sustaining the benefits for their clients.
Also, I suspect just like everyone else who starts a business, we had the aspiration to create something and to build something meaningful that makes a positive contribution to the world. Probably equally important for us is that we wanted to create a business where we’d get to work with great people everyday.
How did we achieve it…? Well, no magic answer here: we just got on with it, we refused to give up, and we kept trying!
4. How did you find the process of launching the business?
Launching a business is exciting. The energy and passion you have at the start makes it feel much more like an adventure than work. It’s such a contrast from going to a Monday to Friday job (even one that you love).
When we started The Pioneers, we had no clients, no product, and no existing market for what we were selling, and neither of us had a huge network of contacts we could reach out or pitch to. Looking back, it perhaps wasn’t the ideal set of circumstances in which to start a business! But we really believed in what we were doing, we were buzzing with ideas we wanted to test, and we were confident that we could demonstrate that, by focusing on management practices, we could impact employee engagement, customer feedback, and sales. When we landed our first client and were subsequently able to deliver on our promise, we knew we had a real chance of making the consultancy a success.
5. What is the most challenging aspect of being a business owner?
You’re constantly doing things you’ve never done before (this is also one of the great aspects of starting a business). One day you’re learning to build a website while simultaneously swatting up on US tax law, the next day you’re pitching to a new client and delivering a workshop for an existing client. I think you have to be really disciplined with yourself to maintain progress on the things that really matter in the long term.
6. How vital is the power of a founder’s network to the success of their journey?
We didn’t have large personal networks when we started the business; and in retrospect, it would have made the initial startup phase a lot easier. However, the upside is that it also forced us to focus on building the foundations for a sustainable business: a sales and marketing pipeline that turns strangers into clients and a product that consistently delivers results.
We’ve worked hard to build our network and to reach out to new people because we love meeting great people who see the world in the same way we do. The time invested in developing relationships means that we’re now regularly introduced to inspiring people who others think we’d enjoy meeting, as well as people who others think we could help.
7. How have you built such a strong network?
To be honest, I think we’re just nice people and we try to help people where we can. You soon sniff out the people who are only interested in what they can take from you.
8. What tips would you give to entrepreneurs with a great product idea but no recognised market?
Find a way of demonstrating the value of your product.
We delivered our first three-month management innovation programme for free. We were determined to demonstrate that we could make businesses money by focusing on their management practices and culture. We convinced Hilton to give us one hotel to work with. We grabbed the opportunity and set about learning as much as we could as quickly as we could in the three months we had to deliver results. It was deeply satisfying at the end of three months to be able to point to significant improvements in engagement, customer feedback, and financial performance as evidence for the efficacy of our approach.
While it was a breakthrough for our product and gave us confidence that our approach worked, it’s still been hard work to open up a new market. People don’t make rational purchasing decisions so, despite the evidence for our approach (and the lack of evidence for the value of what they’re currently doing), we learned that it’s difficult to get potential buyers to innovate, especially when there’s general economic uncertainty. However, four years after that first programme, we’ve got more ‘competitors' than ever, which we see as a great thing because it suggests there’s now market for what we do.
9. Would you encourage an entrepreneur to go ahead with launching a product that they're passionate about but unsure will work?
I remember a few months after we’d launched, I read an article that described the role of entrepreneurs in an economic system as 'optimistic martyrs'; their role is to spend their time and money demonstrating the viability of ideas that others then capitalise on.
The more uncertain you are about your product, the more risk you’re taking on, but you need to decide what type of entrepreneur you want to be. Personally, I have a soft spot for the entrepreneurs who want to change the world, rather than those who want to create 'me too' businesses. The important thing is to de-risk the venture as much as possible by trying to test the viability of your product as quickly and cheaply as possible.
10. What does the future hold for your business?
We’re trying to change the way the world manages its people, so we’ve plenty on the to-do list! We’re now at the stage where we’re managing the growing pains of scaling our business: continuing to be busy with client work, while also trying develop our approach and bring in new partners.
Inspired by Bee and Matt's story? Join the conversation using the hashtag #MVPtoVIP.