Megabuyte, April 2015. Original article.
The Megabuyte Interview: Lee Wade
“Let me start by saying one thing: I’m not interested in me. I’m interested in this company.” Exponential-e CEO Lee Wade sets the tone for our chat literally the moment I walk into his office, located near London’s Aldgate. I take my seat and sip my water with some apprehension: this sort of start rarely makes for a good interview. But I needn’t have worried: Wade is the lynchpin for his company’s unique culture of pioneering innovation. Not to mention when a CEO is as dedicated to his company as Wade is to Exponential-e, there’s a thin line between the company’s spirit and the person at the top.
Take Wade’s whiteboard wall in his office: it’s filled with notes, cuttings, charts and pictures. “There’s all manner of stuff up there. Look here,” says Wade, getting up from his seat for the first of several times during our chat. “Here are our competitors,” he points to a list. “Here’s their gross margins, their turnovers. That’s just a benchmark, but we beat every one of them except one, and this year we’ve matched their gross margins at 53%. It’s all random stuff up here. This is Harvard’s trapezium of innovation,” he says, pointing to a figure, and then to some fish swimming in bowls: “These fish tanks are our equivalent. These are the drivers of the Exponential-e business: applied innovation and dynamic disruption.”
Innovation on tap
The fish tanks are the business plan, explains Wade: cloud and connectivity specialist Exponential-e delivers two innovations every year, one major and one minor. This lets them swim alone for a bit, as it takes the competition two to four years to catch up and jump into their tank, by which time Exponential-e has moved on. “If you’re swimming in the tank alone you have leadership and exponential growth. That’s our proposition.” Wade has lectured extensively on this over the years, since before Harvard published its model on innovation. “It’s a growth model! Growth by innovation. Regardless of your market, boom or bust times, the model works. It’s held us in good stead.”
He points to another chart: “Here’s all the innovations we’ve had over the past 13 years. Many of them are world leading, and some of them are still a world first. ”Last August’s launch of the Desktop-as-a-Service GPU is one example. “DaaS has been around for years, but GPU, meaning high-powered processor accessed from the cloud, that’s the innovative part.” It enables industries such as the graphics sector to access powerful servers on a pay-as-you-go basis: “It cracks the capex issues all these companies face. We used the VMware’s Horizon Desktop-as-a-Service, Nvidia’s GPU card, and our own cloud infrastructure. It took us about 18 months. No one has done this ever before.”
This little breakthrough caught the attention of Nvidia, who has invited Exponential-e to work with them on their next graphics card and put that in the cloud too. While the investor community knows Exponential-e for its sector-leading organic growth, what the big-name competitors know the £60m revenue company for is its ability to deliver complex, bespoke jobs. Another chart: “This is the complex network we built for NBC for delivering high definition pictures of the royal wedding.” The big players needed nine months to do it, says Wade, whose team did it in eight weeks.
So what’s the secret, I ask; how do you nurture and maintain this feisty attitude to innovation beyond the startup phase? Wade sits down. “The esprit de corps of Exponential-e – do you know the phrase? It’s the strapline of the French Foreign Legion. It means a strong sense of enthusiasm and dedication to a common goal that unites a group of people. […] We got our brand values from a survey of our customers and employees: they thought we were smart and capable, approachable, strong, innovative, full of integrity.” Hiring smart people is vital: “I know meritocracy is a philosophical idealism, but we are as close as you can get. If someone’s earned it, you have to give it to them. I made a sales trainee the sales director after three years. Our managing director, he now runs the company, I took him on as a trainee from university.”
Three years to version 3.0
Right now, Exponential-e is working on transitioning the company into what Wade calls a world class citizen – or Exponential-e 3.0. And this has been the plan all along, Wade assures me: “It’s our culture that drives the company. All these things we’ve talked about add up to this: Exponential-e 3.0. That’s been on our wall for ten years.” Well, there’s one thing that’s changed: the scope has expanded, from Europe to the world. “What I’m seeking here is about one thing, and one thing only. Recognition! Because we believe we are the best at what we do in the world.”
Wade pauses for a moment. “When I was raising the money to start this company, I got thrown out of venture capitalist company offices. They said: ‘Hold on a minute, you and this company whose name I can’t even pronounce, you’re going to take on the world’s biggest telecoms companies and beat them at their own game?’ There was one guy, and I’ll tell you what he said: ‘You’re absolutely mad.’” This was during the dot-com bust years, when ‘internet’ was a swear word in the City. “But nothing’s changed. We’ve always had this goal.”
Version 3.0 will be presented this year, and Wade hopes the goal of world class citizenry will be reached after three years: “That’s when I’m done. I’ll hand it off!” He snaps his fingers. “Then I can rest easy, saying: ‘We did it! We got there! I knew we would. I never doubted it for a minute.’” There’s a lot of work left to do still, in terms of the company’s internal systems, but when it comes to the world of cloud and infrastructure, Wade is confident the company is already a leader. Right now, for example, Exponential-e is on a bidding shortlist alongside three household names: “We’re not being shortlisted just to sharpen their pencils. It’s because they know the superiority of our cloud offering. And you know what? We’re going to win! We’re going to beat those three because they cannot do what we can do. […] That’s what I told the VC guys 14 years ago: ‘We’re going to beat them at their own game.’”
Of course, for a plucky little London company of 300+ people to have this sterling reputation means a lot of phone calls where Wade has to tell suitors he’s not selling. “I was just talking to one this morning. I was a bit blunt, I said: ‘We’re not interested in private equity or a trade sale, please don’t contact us again.’” He laughs. One of these suitors with deeper pockets would probably be able to roll out Exponential-e’s world domination plans faster, Wade admits, but the plan is firm: This year, the company will look to roll out globally, probably focusing on Singapore, Sydney and Tokyo first, then New York and Amsterdam. “Our results this year are our best ever, and when our annual results get made public I get inundated with more of these suitors trying to buy us. But three years on, when we hit that 3.0 mark, then I might be interested.”
Timing and education
Exponential-e’s biggest strength – constant innovation – also represents the company’s biggest challenge. “We get things wrong all the time. Sometimes we misjudge when the market is right for an innovation,” says Wade. He lists a few examples, but the whole company was actually on the brink of collapsing before it even began in 2002, as the market wasn’t quite ready for its main product at the time: ethernet. “We were knocking on doors, and people said: ‘What’s ethernet?’ […] And I thought: ‘We’re going to go bust!’ We only had a small amount of cash burn money, to last us six months.” So Wade tasked a PR company with getting Exponential-e and ethernet on the front page of a newspaper. “There’s the front page, on the wall,” he says, pointing to a page from ‘Communications News’ with the headline: “Service provider launch at ethernet WAN market”. The story was then picked up by the bigger papers. “So then when we called up companies they said: ‘Oh we’ve been reading about that!’ That newspaper headline saved our life.”
Innovation only works when it’s complemented by an educational aspect, Wade has learned: “Our success is based on the continuum of education we’re doing – roadshows, launches, workshops, PR – to let the world know what we’re doing, as well as training of our Academy people.” The Exponential-e Academy is a true passion project for Wade, who brings it up several times. The Academy is run in-house and anyone can apply, but they have to have three attributions: ambition, aspiration, and industriousness. “At the end of three years, you should have attained an earnings potential of £100k a year, and we succeed at this all the time,” says Wade. “I tell people: give it ten years and you can be on top of any industry you want. Think ten years ahead and you will get there! But you have to live it, breathe it, dream it, sleep it – you have to sacrifice many things along the way.”
Ambition, aspiration and industriousness
Wade describes himself as a workaholic, and as someone who’s not really interested in money. “I fear the end of the line – the company being world class. I fear it, because what do you do then? One thing that does get me out of bed in the morning … “ Wade pauses. “Going back many years, I’m an academic, I did my masters in econometrics at University College London. Our Academy is so successful at what it does. If I built another one over there, in its own redbrick building,” he says, pointing across the street. “It would have a waiting list. […] The thing the Academy is really selling is the confidence to face off to the captains of industry. To sit down and tell them where they’re going wrong, and how they can solve it. The Academy is probably what I’m most proud of in this company,” says Wade. “That’s really what gets me out of bed: imparting knowledge, and creating opportunities for young people. If I’m not doing that, what the hell is all this about?”
Wade (56) lives in Essex, and has five children. “One thing my kids were brought up with – like with the Academy – is how ambition, aspiration and industriousness will get you everywhere. My kids were never given pocket money, they had to earn it. It teaches you the value of money,” says Wade. “None of my children chose university. They weren’t interested in the slightest. In spite of my encouragement! But I never tried to push them into it, because I know university doesn’t mean everything. No one forced me to consider university either. I went to one of the worst schools in Britain, growing up in Hoxton.” Wade laughs, remembering how run-down the now-trendy area was back then. He gets up and walks over to a picture on the whiteboard. “This is Hoxton Square. That’s St Monica’s school and church, that’s the youth club I went to. This is the football team. That’s me there!” He points to one of the boys in the line-up. “Funny how time changes you.”