Young, Digital & Opinionated: How to be more digital and less corporate - lessons from the front line

Background

O2’s Digital directorate leads into unchartered territories and helps the business evolve to meet the changing needs of customers, brought about through new technologies.

This month, Ben Snowman, Head of Strategy within O2’s Digital directorate chaired a panel discussion with three successful digital entrepreneurs to uncover the secrets to their success.

 

Big vs small

The event started by understanding the pros and cons of large corporates and small digital companies. Matt, who left PwC to join Yammer, observed that large companies are geared towards planning and efficiency whereas digital businesses must have the single mission of being responsive. He observed, “There are always competitors out there and the only way you can win is by out-executing them. You must shorten your feedback loops and change what you do, quickly and decisively.” Tatiana, who left Barclays’ Investment Bank to set up her own business (Winerist, the TripAdvisor for wine lovers) added that the discipline she learned gave her the confidence to take quick and decisive actions to focus on growing revenue streams and retire things that don’t work. She added that the most important key to success is to “keep products simple, get them out there, iterate and avoid over-complication at all cost.”

 

Use your gut instinct and try things

Pete, marketing manager at RateSetter (one of the UK’s largest peer-to-peer lenders), talked enthusiastically about innovation and said that the company had a culture of moving quickly to try things out. “We don’t put much emphasis on research – we rely on our gut instinct most of the time, knowing that some things will work and others will fail”. Matt added that one of the most memorable aspects of working at Yammer was the fact that it was ok to fail. “By devolving decision making to people on the ground, people were empowered to try new things. If these things didn’t work, we learned something new then tried something else.” Tatiana agreed, stating at Winerist they use research as a calling card to show their credibility to open doors – it is not used to design new products and services because the market changes too rapidly.

 

A culture of self-expression and collaboration

One of the biggest differences of working in a digital business is the culture. More specifically, Matt noted that, “At Yammer, there was no need to mirror people to fit in – it was actually in my own interest to be myself”. Pete, who has seen RateSetter grow from 10 to over 100 people has seen the company mature and new processes appear, which restrict some of the agility experienced in the early days. The company is committed to maintaining the creativity and vibrancy from the early days and has a dedicated project in place to protect the culture which it sees as being so precious. Pete observed that, “there is a real focus on keeping things simple and flexible and we constantly refer to the way things used to work. It’s not that we are stuck in the past – it’s because we all really believe in collaboration and the ability to make good decisions quickly because this is the reason why RateSetter has grown so quickly”.

 

A flexible working environment

Flexibility of the working environment was also noted as a crucial factor in inspiring passion in people to help businesses succeed. Tatiana, commented that it was important for her team to work remotely and at times of the day that suited them. Yammer, likewise, believed in flexible working – all employees were given the option of unlimited holiday and there were no demands to work on site. That said, Yammer recognised that the best way of building a culture of collaboration was to create an environment that inspired people to come together. This involved giving autonomy to every employee to make decisions, regular co-creation sessions with clients and a ping pong table!

 

Top tips for O2 and other large corporates

The discussion ended with each of the panel outlining their three recommendations for O2 to become more digital. Firstly, try things, don’t be afraid to fail and be confident of either pulling an underperforming product or iterate it until it works. Secondly, devolve decision making to the most experienced people at the front line and eliminate the need for countless layers of sign off. Thirdly, know your customers personally – anonymous research is good but it takes too long to turn it into an actionable product, so co-design products with your customers.