Episode #16

Don't Fear the F Word with Revoco

This week we have a very special episode lined up – this is a recording from 4th November when Nic & Nat were interviewed by the lovely bunch at Revoco for their ‘Don’t Fear the F Word’ webcast series.
Here, ‘F’ stands for failure, and Nic & Nat talk about their biggest failure with regards to running an agency, how they overcame it and how, in the end, it probably shaped the future of CookiesHQ for the better.
Revoco started ‘Don’t Fear the F Word’ as they believe failure is not something that should be feared by founders, but should be something that is welcomed, embraced and learned from. Who better to relay this wisdom than the people who have been there, done it and worn the ‘I f**ked up’ t-shirt.

If you’re looking to grow your team in Bristol, give Revoco Talent a shout – you can find them on the webLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.

Join the conversation on the CookiesHQ Twitter. Head over to LinkedIn to find out more on Nic and Nat.

Read the transcript

Nic:
Hey, hello podcast. I hope you’re keeping safe and sound during this new lockdown 2.0. This is a very special episode this week, where Nat and I were interviewed by Iain Blair from Revoco Talent for their Don’t Fear the F Word webcast. Here, F stands for failure, and Nat and I talk about what has probably been our biggest failure during our 10 years of running an agency, how we overcome that and how in the end, it probably changed our future for the better.

Nic:
I really hope you’re going to enjoy it. I hope you’re going to learn a thing or two as well. Don’t forget to follow us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. You can find us by searching for Tough Cookies. And if you’re looking to grow your team in Bristol, give a shout to Revoco Talent. You can find them on the web, LinkedIn, and any other social media platform. I hope you enjoy it. Have a nice day. Bye

Iain:
Five, four, three, two.

Nic:
And we’re live.

Iain:
We are live. Good afternoon. Good afternoon, and welcome to the second episode in our Don’t Fear the F Word series. Delighted today to be joined by Nic and Nathalie, who I shall be introducing in just a moment.

Iain:
So what is Don’t Fear the F Word? It is all about the fact that businesses are often talking about the triumphs and the good times, and rarely do we ever hear or mention the challenges and failures that it takes to get to that point. So we like to do things a bit differently at Revoco, so we have turned that on its head and we’re on a mission to change that and talk about the fears and the failures and the F ups.

Iain:
So before I do introduce our two guests, I want to share with you a quote. “You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone. You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy, or any of your time, or any of your space.” Now, that was from a very well-known American singer and songwriter, Johnny Cash. I don’t know why he’s talking about failure, but it sounded great anyway.

Iain:
Last episode, we were having a conversation with Adrian from Lumio and we learned lots of things from Adrian, but one of the things of his mistakes that he talked about was the importance of shareholder alignment. Now, I really hope that’s not going to be an issue for our next guests, because it is the husband-and-wife team, Nic and Nathalie Alpi. They are behind CookiesHQ. Cookies is a Bristol-based software development agency that builds out digital products for startups and scale-ups and larger companies too.

Iain:
Nic has a career spanning back 17 years, predominantly within the web development space, as a freelancer, a short stint working for HP, and then founding Cookies nine years ago. His current position is CTO, but it wasn’t always that way, which I think we may hear about a bit later on. And Nathalie moved to the UK from France in 2008, following a master’s in international management and marketing, and Nathalie co-founded Cookies with her now husband, Nic, and is the managing director. So thank you both very much for joining us today.

Nic:
Well, thank you very much for hosting us.

Iain:
And congratulations on the setup. It’s by far the most professional webinar setup I’ve ever seen. So I’m obviously expecting amazing things, especially the sheep in the background.

Nic:
Thank you.

Iain:
So I’ve obviously given a bit of an intro, guys. Perhaps you could put a bit of meat on the bones about Cookies, where you started, why it was started and how you found yourself up in this startup space.

Nathalie:
Sure. Where do we start? So Cookies, as you said, is a software development agency in Bristol. We build, maintain and scale digital products, so a lot of web apps, a bit of mobile apps, sometimes voice apps even, for startups and scale-ups. So we work with other businesses, entrepreneurs, sometimes small teams, sometimes larger teams and larger companies. And we basically build things for them and help them grow it, to the point where they don’t need us anymore and they have their own internal teams.

Nathalie:
So in a nutshell, that’s what we do. We founded the company together nine years ago, but Nic was freelancing before that, so it’s continuing where he had started. In terms of my background, it was very short because I was only 26 when we founded the company. So basically, my whole career has been Cookies. I had a few jobs before that, but it’s all Cookies for me.

Iain:
But you’re not a techie, are you? You’re not a techie.

Nathalie:
I’m not at all, no. I manage things, I organize and I do some of the strategy side of it, but no tech at all. I understand tech as much as I need to. So, I think that’s about it.

Iain:
Okay.

Nic:
Yeah. Sorry. Go for it. Yeah?

Iain:
Nic, anything to add?

Nic:
No, I think you’ve summed up pretty nicely. My career has always been in tech somehow. I can’t do a lot of things in my life. I can’t do any DIY, I can’t do cooking. I can’t do anything except coding, so it’s pretty boring, but that’s the only thing I’m good at, so that’s what I’ve always been working on.

Iain:
Good. Okay. So that’s really great. Thank you very much for the introduction. Obviously, we are going to be talking about some of the things that haven’t gone quite according to plan. So I’m just wondering if you can think back to the last nine years at Cookies, what is the biggest failure? What are we talking about today, do you think?

Nic:
Do you want me?

Nathalie:
Yeah, go ahead.

Nic:
I think for me, it has to be understood that when you run a business, it’s a series of small mistakes that you make and you adjust, and then you rebound from them. Making mistakes is fine. Now, if we’re talking about proper F ups, I think we had one in 2015, where because of a series of bad decisions during the year, we ended up, towards the end of the year having to let go half of our team. So we were small at the time, we were eight, and we found ourselves having to hand notice to four people in our team and say, “I’m really sorry, but we’re going to have to let you go.”

Nic:
That was a very, very difficult moment in our life as a founder. It was also a changing moment in the life of Cookies. That’s what we realize now. But at the time, it did feel like it was the end of the world, that we had to let people go. And I did, for the first time in my life, properly feel a failure in that moment.

Iain:
Right. Now, that’s obviously something that many businesses with experience though. Hiring, and of course, the opposite of hiring. I sense from Cookies, in all of your brand material, and also in some of the words that came across in your write-up when we did the Revoco Talks, you’re very, very passionate about your team, and very passionate about the service that you provide to your clients because of that brilliant team. So I can understand why that sticks. But why did you have to downsize? What happened in order to trigger that?

Nathalie:
There was a few things that happened, the biggest issue in that year was that we tried to do something that we don’t normally do, and we did it badly, which is build a product. But as you said, we’re a service company, we’re not a product company. And we tried it and didn’t follow any of the processes, because we build products every day for our clients, so we thought we can do it for ourselves, it’s going to be fine. But we didn’t follow any of the processes that we have for our clients, funnily enough. And we did it badly. And we did for a long time and tried again and again, and it didn’t work out.

Nathalie:
So the product didn’t work. And whilst we were doing the product, we also lost sight, I think of the other things that we should have done as a service company, as in you’re talking to people to find new contracts, and making sure that our team was actually functioning properly, and all of that. So I think it’s the biggest root of that problem.

Iain:
So you build products very successfully for other companies, but when you tried to do it yourself internally and you didn’t follow your own processes and procedures, it went a bit wrong. Why did it go wrong? In a nutshell, is there a reason why the product… Is it that the product didn’t work?

Nic:
No, that’s what happened when you let me loose with an idea, basically. So you let me loose with an idea and obviously, I know everything and I don’t need any help, and I will do every single mistake in the books. And that’s what happened on this particular product here. So when we build product for clients, we follow a very strict process. We have a budget, we have deliverables, we have a lot of things. And here, what I had was, “Hey, there’s a bit of cash in the bank. I can take time to focus. I can take a month to focus on this product.” And one month turned into three months, where I was solely focused on this product that has never seen light of day, rewriting the product three times.

Nathalie:
And when we say product, I need to say Nic had an app idea in his head. So there was no business plan. Then there was no market research. There was nothing like that, that should go with the product.

Nic:
No, exactly. So then that’s part of the mistakes. So what ended up, after the three months was we were left with something that we finally were launching, something that we initially thought was going to solve our own problems, where actually when it was live, we were even ourselves not using it because it was completely useless as a product.

Nic:
But more importantly, that time of trying to make it work spanned between three to five months, depending on how you count on it. And at the time, because the team was very, very small, I was the main one to go out and speak to people and go to events, and therefore, I was the one who was normally making contacts that would lead to more work towards the year. Our sales cycle is extremely long, it can span between six to 12 months before we meet someone and then there’s something that we can work on together. We never rush in a sale. Therefore, all the marketing and sales activities that we haven’t done on the first part of the year, ended up biting us in the back when went the second part of the year, and then we find ourselves with a really dry pipeline of work. And we ended up in that situation where we had to let people go.

Nic:
So the root of the problem was that particular try of doing the product, and also, the fact that we were not diligent enough in any kind of processes, whether they were sales process or internal management processes. We were small, we were nimble and we thought we act as a small company and we play it by ear, as everybody says. But actually, having a process to follow, which Nat has now put in place makes things much better.

Iain:
So ultimately, if I understand that correctly, I guess you’re saying it was a massive distraction. So you came up with an idea, you thought it would really enhance and improve the way you work. You didn’t think it would take that long, so you went ahead and tried to build it. That then grew legs and probably took twice, three times as long, and whilst you were doing that, you weren’t then doing your day job, which you obviously did very successfully, which is meeting people. Business development, ultimately, right?

Nathalie:
Yeah.

Nic:
Yeah.

Iain:
Which, because of your sales life cycle, bit you in the bum about six months, seven months later, when you realized your sales pipeline wasn’t as good and your new opportunities weren’t as good.

Nathalie:
Yeah.

Iain:
Okay. Just to make yourselves feel a little bit better, I too have made a mistake very similar to that in my previous company. Again, to make you feel better, it cost the company nearly quarter of a million pounds. So, I’ve been there. It wasn’t just me. Thank you. It was a board decision. I’m going back a long time now, but we diversified away from technology. We were doing tech as well, but we went into construction recruitment because we thought it was a really good idea. Wow. Stick to what you know.

Nathalie:
Yes.

Iain:
We didn’t know anything about construction and once you’re in, and then you’re waiting for that to turn its corner and the investment to happen, it was a disaster. So interesting case point. When you reflect on that now, Nathalie, what have you learned from that? What did you learn?

Nathalie:
A lot of things. The first one is that I should never let Nic go with these ideas on his own. And actually, I did try at the time to get him to write a plan and to think a bit as a broader picture for that product, but I didn’t try hard enough. So now, I’ll be a lot harder on him and actually not let him go on his own, and also make it a team effort.

Nathalie:
The other thing is we got blinded by cashflow. So we were looking at the cash in the bank, but not looking properly at our profit, and I wasn’t looking at the figures regularly enough because we were small. So you think there’s cash there, that it’s fine. But actually, that wasn’t mistake, and when I actually properly looked at the numbers and the forecast, that’s when I realized it wasn’t going to work. So now, I do look at these things, and my accountant helps and we’ve got business advisors that help as well and keep me on track with it. But even when you’re a small business, the finances are very, very important, and you need to keep an eye on it.

Iain:
It’s all completely relative, isn’t it? It is completely relative. It doesn’t matter if you’re a small business or a multi-national, cash is king.

Nathalie:
Yeah.

Iain:
And without very careful cashflow management, it will literally bite you on the bum very, very quickly. So I could imagine now that you’re all over it like a rash.

Nathalie:
Yes.

Iain:
Yeah. I’m sure you are. Okay, brilliant. So there are some questions coming in, which I will try and field as we go through as well. Has your attitude to failure changed? From experiencing this at the beginning of your journey, has it changed to how you feel about it now, Nic?

Nic:
I think personally, my attitude to failure changes on a regular basis. The higher the stakes, the higher the pressure, and therefore, the higher the failure could be. But the higher the risks are, the higher the rewards can be. If I go back nine years ago, hiring our first employee for us was a massive risk, and we thought it could end up in a failure and the failure could have been we lost so much money that we can’t recover from it, kind of thing. I think, and now, obviously today it’s more like, “Okay, we are going to hire five people this time in one go,” and then again, that could be, hopefully it’s not going to be, but things would work for it, things would not. My attitude to failure hasn’t changed in the fact that I don’t really care about the failure itself. The only thing I care about is what can we learn from that failure?

Iain:
Okay.

Nic:
I am egocentric, but not that much. I will not be defined by failure, I will only be defined by what I’ve learned from it. And that particular moment of us having to let go people really caused for Nat and I, a proper introspection into who we are as a company, who we are as people, and what do we want for the future. And as bad as it was, because it was a really bad moment, that has been a turning point for us in how we run Cookies today and how Cookies has been growing so far since 2015, or during 2016 and 2017. It was really a decisive moment for us. So I’m only concerned about what we learn from it, but not the failure itself. I’m not going to let me myself defined by failure.

Iain:
Okay. And by the way, that’s probably why you agreed to do this webinar, right? Because that’s what this is all about.

Nathalie:
Yeah.

Iain:
We should be much more open about the journeys that we take.

Nic:
Yeah.

Iain:
And what we’re hoping is that entrepreneurs and people who are looking to set up their own business, or that are already in the journey, they can learn from this and share these experiences. We’ve got some great questions that I want to just throw in now. First of all, Christine has asked a question around that redundancy has been pretty tough, right? And especially in a small team. She’d like to know how you kept morale up with the team that were remaining.

Nathalie:
So it was really hard because we didn’t know how to go about it, but I think it was the first time that we really had to let go people that we genuinely really enjoyed working with and we cared about them. So we actually did the reverse with the team. So obviously, the two of us decided who we think we should stay to build back up again. We went to these two people and told them what the situation was, the financial situation, being completely honest about it and saying, “There’s no choice. Look at the figures. It’s not going to work,” and we’ve asked those two if they were up to staying with us and actually trying to build it back up and if we had their full support.

Nathalie:
If they didn’t want to, then we probably would have had to change plan. But luckily, they said, “Yes, let’s do it, the four of us.” We knew it was going to be hard, but they were properly on board with what the plan was. And then we went to the others saying, and again, being brutally honest about why we couldn’t keep them. And then we helped them find other jobs, and I think they all found another job within a month or so.

Iain:
That’s nice, isn’t it?

Nathalie:
So we contacted recruitment agencies. We basically sent them to all our contacts to say, “Look, these are amazing developers. Just go hire them. We can’t keep them and we’re gutted. But they’re really good people, so go for it.”

Nic:
And I think also, one thing to note is that we announced that we’re announced that we were going to let people go before their notice. Normally, they have one month notice, but actually technically we still had enough cash to give them three months’ notice at the maximum. So we said, “Look, you’re not in a rush. You can actually take time to find the right job for you. Don’t feel in a rush that you have to go and take whatever. We still have enough to support you. The longer it goes, the harder it’s going to be for the rest of the company, but we can do it. We will take a pay cut, we can do it.” So that was, I think, appreciated by everybody. And also, the fact that we actively contacted recruiters and people that we knew and said, “Look, these people are going. They’re from my team”

Iain:
Yeah. Let’s go and help them.

Nic:
Yeah.

Iain:
We hear about it so much, especially at the moment, don’t we, with the dreaded C word? That you can say so much about a company and how they act when things like this happen. So clearly, you guys rallied around and looked after. It was interesting though, what you were saying, Nat, how the team that were remaining with rallied up and raring to go and made sure they were on board. So that’s quite interesting feedback. Cool.

Iain:
Harry would like to know, as founders of a tech agency, what are the key things that hold you back from achieving your goals?

Nathalie:
Ourselves.

Nic:
Yeah.

Nathalie:
Time.

Iain:
Time, yeah.

Nathalie:
Time is a massive one, especially at the moment. But ourselves as well. I think it’s doubts, maybe fear of failure. And again, it’s this balance between how much do you try something new to try and expand, and how much are you actually willing to risk? And because as we said, when you diversify, then there’s a risk that actually, you’re going to go into something you don’t know about and why should you not focus on what you can actually do and do well? So it’s always trying-

Iain:
Does that depend on what the longer-term goal is? And Nic and I were talking about measuring what does success look like? Because success for Cookies might be very different. What is the goal here?

Nic:
Well, that’s the thing, I don’t think, especially in 2015, we never had goals. Today, we have goals. We have goals on a yearly basis about what we want to achieve from a staff point of view, from a revenue point of view and all that. At the time, we were playing it by ear, and it was fun, it was fine, but we didn’t have any goals. We were growing organically, slowly, put any words that you want here.

Nic:
So I think the first part of the answer is you have to define your goals very clearly. And what are the goals and what do you want to achieve? Because if not, it’s very easy to think that you haven’t achieved your goals, where actually, your goals were not really set and you don’t know what you want out of it. As of today, I think our goal is still very much centered around the team, and we want to grow one of the best team of Ruby on Rails/technical development or software development in the Southwest.

b
You’re not hiring at the moment, are you? I seem to-

Nic:
We are.

Iain:
Oh, look. There it is.

Nic:
So yes, we want to grow the best technical team. We do very much enjoy the web as a platform and what the web represents. So that’s why we haven’t delved that much into native apps at the time when native apps were booming. Again, another mistake during the business, but we do believe in the web. So we want to build the best web development team that we can to enable other people to build us some products, basically. So that’s our goal.

Iain:
Okay, great. I just wanted to mention, we’ve also had a question from a Mohit, out in India, who, it looks like they’ve applied to work with you guys, and he’s looking for some career advice. But what I’ll suggest we’ll do is in the feed on the right-hand side, if you’re okay with this, we’ll share your LinkedIn profile and perhaps they can get in touch with you.

Nic:
Yes, please. Yeah.

Iain:
Otherwise, we may go off course a little bit because I think they’re looking for advice around upgrading skills in AWS. I’d love to give you some tips there, but we’ll have to park that. So please do get in touch with the guys at Cookies direct, and they’d be really happy to help.

Iain:
So in terms of moving forward, I’m intrigued to know if you could go back or even speak to a 20-year-old yourself. A 20-year-old yourself? You know what I mean. What advice would you give yourself? That wasn’t that long ago for you, was it, Nathalie?

Nathalie:
No. Well, a little bit more now. But I think it’s trying to be more confident and you can do it. And I think, maybe it’s the fact that I was too young, or maybe that I’m a woman, and a lot of actually women have this issue of self-confidence. And Nic is supporting me all the time, but I think it’s be more confident and you can do it, and you have the skills, you have the knowledge, you can do it, I think is my message.

Iain:
Okay. Now, I know your personality traits are quite different from some of the conversation we’ve had, which is why it probably works so well at Cookies. Nic, I don’t think confidence is an issue for you, is it?

Nic:
It’s fine. Yeah, I’m fine on that side. But actually, my feedback to myself 20 years ago, or my piece of advice would be ask her out sooner. That’s the first one. But the second one would be, it’s going to be fine. Everything is going to be fine. Whatever the decisions, it’s never as bad as what you can picture in your head. Running a service agency, regardless if it’s a technical, regardless if it’s recruitment, regardless whatever, when you run a service agency, there’s a saying, I don’t know if you heard that one, but they say that, “You only have three ways to exit a service agency. The first one is yourself, a bucket load of money. The second one is you do a burnout. The third one is you die of a heart attack.” So just don’t sweat everything, and it’s going to be fine because most likely, those three things is never going to happen and who knows what the future is going to be.

Iain:
On that note, when we’re talking about exit and exit strategy, when you were building out your product, did you want to build out that product so you had some IP of your own? Was that also part of the…

Nathalie:
I don’t think it was really IP. And there’s another thing with building a service agency is you’re tied by time, because you sell your time and your staff time. So I think the main reason why having a product was so appealing at the time was to have a revenue, something that would take really low maintenance and would still bring in recurring revenue on a steady basis, which is a cushion and a nice thing, because you don’t have to fight all the time. Not fight, but put so much effort into finding your contracts and selling your time.

Iain:
It’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it? Annuity revenue is what every single business wants. It’s what everyone strives for. And if you’re a service-led business, like we are, and like you are, it is a constant battle of having to keep that pipeline up and that business coming in and delivering a great service.

Nathalie:
Yeah. So I think that’s what it was. But we’re clearly not great at it yet, or weren’t at the time.

Iain:
You weren’t at the time.

Nic:
We could do a better job now.

Iain:
Well, things are certainly flying for you now, because clearly you’re hiring, you’re growing again, which is so great to hear. So obviously, you’re very confident in the market. I’m guessing your pipeline is looking very, very strong.

Nathalie:
Yeah.

Iain:
So that is fantastic to hear. One of the things that I wanted to just wrap up a little bit as we’ve got about four minutes left. I’m getting some lessons, loud and clear here. I don’t know if you will agree, Nic and Nathalie. But one is around the sheer fact that, Nic, you know that you were very good at technology and a very good software engineer and a very good CTO, but perhaps realized that when it comes to running a business and looking after cashflow and introducing processes, you needed the yang to your yin, and I can see how that works so well between you two.

Iain:
So I think one of the lessons for me is if there are any budding entrepreneurs watching this, don’t try and be everything. Don’t try and be everything to all men. Know what you’re good at, stick to what you’re good at and compliment your own skillset with people around you. I’ve always been a big believer in that. I’ve always said, “I will try and surround myself with people who are better than me,” and I’ve done that pretty successfully in my career.

Iain:
The other thing is this distraction, isn’t it? It’s the sheer fact that you allowed yourself to get distracted in building out that product, which I’m sure was a good idea at the time, but the damage that caused in not doing business development and all the pipeline stuff and the morale of your staff and everything else. So I think the lesson in there is, again, really stick to what you’re good at, stick to know what you’re doing, stick to the knitting, dare I say it. Yes, we can diversify, but be really, really clear about what it is you’re good at and what your purpose is in the market. So those are big lessons for me.

Iain:
I also wanted to just say to anyone who’s listening, because it was just such a freak coincidence. Two and a half years ago, we did a testimonial for one of our clients and we wanted a child actor to come in and have a bit of fun with our client basically. It only turns out that it is Nic and Nathalie’s eldest son who did that testimonial. I’m going to ask G to share that testimonial on the channel because what a little superstar your boy is. He was so funny and clearly, I can see now where he gets his natural camera charisma from. But it was just absolutely superb, and it’s just such a small world that it’s come back.

Iain:
So I’m going to finish off by giving you one more quote. This is a really random one because it’s from an American standup comedian, but I like the end of it in particular. But this is from Chris Hardwick who says, “No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle, or they don’t exist.”

Iain:
I really like the end of that, “They have the depth of a puddle.” So the message in that clearly is we really appreciate your time, guys at Cookies, and we really appreciate the very honest conversation we’ve had around the mistakes that you’ve made and how you’ve overcome them. Everyone needs to experience failure. That’s what the whole webinar point is. But what is really exciting is clearly, you’re hiring. I know you’ve successfully secured some new people into the Cookies team and that you’re still looking. We’ve sent the details as well out, on the link there. And it’s so great to hear that that’s all happening, especially given, I’m not even going to say the word, but what’s happening at the moment. So I’d like to thank you both very, very much for joining us today on this webinar. And we wish Cookies, obviously all the very, very best for the future.

Nic:
Thank you.

Nathalie:
Thank you.

Iain:
Thanks for joining us.

Nic:
Thank you very much. Take care, everyone.

Nic:
I hope you enjoyed the podcast, and if you have any questions, please feel free to hit Nathalie or I directly on LinkedIn. Again, any stars or follow on Apple Podcasts and Spotify will be massively appreciated. And if you’re looking to hire Revoco Talent to help you with your recruitment pipeline, they are on revoco-talent.co.uk. Have a very nice week and we will see you again next week for a new episode. Bye.

 

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