Megabuyte, March 2016.
The Megabuyte Interview: Lawrence Jones
It’s late in the day by the time I meet Lawrence Jones, and I’m pretty sure our meeting is infringing upon the cocktail hour that’s already well underway at the Baglioni. The Kensington hotel where Jones likes to stay in London is aptly described on Google Maps as “posh lodgings on Hyde Park”, but the CEO of UKFast is casual in jeans and t-shirt. “We’ve just launched eCloud Flex,” says Jones as coffee is served. “It’s a flexible, pay-as-you-go product that I think was missing in our portfolio.”
UKFast provides hosting and data centre services to UK businesses, so when the market wanted pay-as-you-go, that’s what UKFast made. But at its core, UKFast is about relationships: “We offer that Best-of-British service, and I’m very proud about that. … We have a pod system where all our customers get dealt with by the same people, day in and day out. Each pod has four technical people, a couple of experienced managers and account managers, so we’re able to do project management and business development while also being technical and very hands-on.”
Then the caffeine kicks in, or maybe it’s just Jones getting into it, because it very soon becomes clear that Manchester’s own UKFast really isn’t like the other kids. About 250 people work for the company now, a bit more if you include those working in areas like security and building – UKFast builds its own data centres, literally. Jones nods when I call it a “DIY approach” – they build other things too, like desks: “We created a building company within the organisation, so we have plumbers, electricians, critical power directors.” With all these people around, why should Jones buy desks if he could build them? “Our desks change colour depending on the status of the person. If you’re on a conference call, it goes purple. If you need some help, it goes orange. It’s a bit of fun!” He laughs. It’s not just the desks: there’s also the Japanese garden, the auditorium, the bar, the gym (featuring spinning, yoga, and personal training for directors) – the dog kennel’s currently under construction.
The creativity gene
The cost of doing all this in-house is negligible, says Jones, and it saves so much time – not to mention how you can link everything together if you make it yourself. “We’re a technology company and we’re very creative, and I think that needs to come out in everything we do. We wrote our own telephone system, our own software for accounts, our own launch platform. Our eCloud Flex is all open stack, but built on our proprietary software. We design and build everything it in-house.” The importance of this was stressed to Jones a few years ago, when he lost a team member to Facebook, and realised his competitors aren’t in Manchester or London – they’re global. So Jones went to look at how they did it at Google. “I realised nobody has a monopoly on creativity, and actually, creativity doesn’t have to cost an awful lot of money. Creativity is the difference between average and great.”
The UKFast brand of creativity isn’t just for the staff: “We’ve built services [for customers] that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a hosting provider. We have a clean room with forensic guys dressed in beekeeper outfits to rebuild a hard drive, so if somebody lost their data we can recover it [ourselves].” Ok, I say, but why not just outsource things like that to specialists? Jones won’t hear it – he employs the best people: “Why wouldn’t I? I have 30,000 servers – something’s going to go wrong!” Having watched customers wait days to get their data back, at a steep cost, Jones decided to take the service approach: “Let’s do this in-house, and not charge for it.”
Jones looks for what he calls the “paper round gene” when hiring people at UKFast – that’s the willingness to work hard and do what it takes to succeed. His own metaphorical paper round was at the Chorister School in Durham, where he had a scholarship. Young Lawrence would come home with more money than he had when he started the semester. “My mum went to the maths teacher, asking, ‘What on earth is going on? Is he stealing this money?’” Jones laughs – what he’d do was buy sweets from the other kids at the beginning of term, and sell it back at a premium when they’d run out. “There was always an entrepreneurial side! But it was partly driven by the fact that we were never well off, and my parents always struggled.”
The Jones family business
Jones went back to his native Wales at 13 after his voice broke early – a brutal fate for a choir boy. “I came back to Wales and concentrated on rugby, piano, and cricket. I stayed there till I was 16, when my parents couldn’t afford to keep me in school anymore, and went to Manchester to seek my fortune.” Jones’ piano skills led to founding the Music Design Company, which he sold to Granada in 1997. UKFast was established two years later.
“I was about 30 at the time. I’d gone to New York and was just enjoying life: writing music, doing watercolours in Central Park, playing chess in Washington Square Gardens.” You pay $5 to play there, Jones explains, and he didn’t win much back then. “But I’d probably win now. I’ve spent a lot of time learning chess! … The internet was absolutely booming, and I knew I had to do something with that.” Jones went back to Britain and met “an amazing girl” called Gail, who became the UKFast cofounder and later, his wife. “Gail’s our Commerce Director. She’s an amazing woman. I’m creative and imaginative, she’s organised and straight. What I lack, she has in abundance, and vice versa. We’re the yin and yang. I couldn’t run UKFast without her, wouldn’t want to.”
The inspiration behind UKFast, or rather the frustration, was Jones’ attempt at hosting a website called TheGallery.com. “I thought, ‘If this is genuinely the service the British are getting, this is what we need to be doing.’ It was so naïve in hindsight, because we didn’t really know anything about technology – I was a musician, Gail was a chemist – and we didn’t have a huge amount of money. But what we did have was a reason and passion. … We’ve passed all our early expectations – I originally wanted to go back to writing music. The idea was to get £1 million saved and I’d build a recording studio, write music and wear scruffy clothes and be Bohemian. But I’ve gone way past that!” Jones did build his recording studio in the end, but the music has given way to another dream: “UKFast is an all-consuming family. Gail has three kids to look after, soon four – I have 250.”
Jones (47) and Gail are parents to Tegan, Poppy and Coco, with a fourth daughter arriving this summer: “I’m trying to get Gail to slow down, but she works really hard. She loves it!” They don’t have a nanny but they have a chef, “otherwise you spend your life cooking”. Date nights are Tuesdays and Fridays, he adds: “Those are our nights together, no matter what.” He recommends it – great discipline in a marriage. Not that they have an embargo on talking about work during those nights: “Oh no, we do. We have the calculators out, those little black books are everywhere” – he points to a pile of notebooks in the chair next to me. “We’ll look at our goals, we’ll be ticking stuff off. It’s non-stop, but it’s who we are.”
Building a nurturing company
Much of the risk in building UKFast has been mitigated by recurring revenues, says Jones. He learned this from his days renting out grand pianos – he had about ten of them, charging £30 a week; “I don’t think I’ve ever really, since then, taken a massive risk.” Of course, Jones is well aware that nothing he’s done would generally be considered cautious. But once he’s done his calculations, it just doesn’t feel like such a risk to him anymore. “What I would say is, never go for broke. Never spend everything you have, because if it doesn’t go to plan – when does anything ever go to plan? Things always take longer, and they always cost more. … If you are flexible with your goals, then you have half a chance.”
The merit of standing on your own two feet was stressed to Jones during the early days of UKFast, after he’d been making hay selling mobile upgrades. “We built the very first bulk text messaging system in Britain, and ended up being the fastest-growing supplier of Orange phones. … It went from nothing to being a massive part of the business.” But then one day UKFast managed to text the entire board of Orange, who loved the bulk texts – until they realised it was external. “They were furious because they hadn’t come up with the idea, and cut us off without warning.” They eventually came back, but it was too late. “My wife and I sat down and asked ourselves, ‘Do we really want to be selling Orange’s network, or do we want to be building our own?’ UKFast wasn’t a mobile network, but it was physical, cables under the ground. We thought, ’We’re small, but at least we’re in charge of our own destiny.’ So we decided we would never re-sell something of that size as a core product … because if they decide to pull the plug, you’re dead.”
Asked how worked out how to manage 250 people after the startup days, Jones cites listening, reading and getting it wrong: “I’ve lost some brilliant people over the years by not understanding how to get them to the next level. But now, we understand. Now we have a good business that nurtures people. And if there’s no room for them to grow, you can advise them to set up another business, and then fund that.” He can be pretty hands-on at times, Jones admits, but his favorite thing to do is find someone talented, hand them something, and watch them develop it. This has led to the UKFast University, a cloud and e-commerce Master’s degree with Manchester Metropolitan University, and an apprenticeship programme with the Dean Trust; Jones feels strongly about giving back to Manchester, the city that took him in. “But when people say, ‘How have you done it? How has Lawrence Jones done it?’ I tell them, ‘It has nothing to do with me. It’s these guys who’ve done it.’”
The ultimate motivation
Jones is refreshingly direct when he talks, and surprisingly open about his life – his blog on LawrenceJones.eu is kept fresh with business advice and personal development insights. Most remarkable is the story of the Pic Blanc avalanche in 2001, which almost claimed Jones’ life when he was buried under snow for more than eight minutes. I ask him about it because he’s written about it several times, and it’s only later I learn he doesn’t usually discuss it. But there’s no doubt the experience changed Jones’ life in a profound, enduring way:
“When you’re being suffocated and you’re conscious that you are dying – it doesn’t take very long. You go to sleep pretty quickly. But those few minutes feel like a lifetime. … When you wake up from a situation like that, there’s a lot going through your head. It took me weeks to work out, was I really alive? I was convinced I had died, because I was aware I was dying.” People would come up to him in hospital afterwards, touching his arm for good luck, Jones says, laughing. “But I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about it. When you know you’ve been given a second opportunity, I can wholeheartedly promise you that not a day goes past in my life without trying to make an effort.”
The next effort for UKFast is Secarma, the ethical hacking arm: “Our customers need it. We spent 16 years getting people onto the internet, and we now need to spend the next 16 protecting them.” Jones recently came back from Le Farinet, his hotel in Switzerland, having taken some of his staff skiiing in an effort to cure their back-to-work blues. “All the businesses are complementary, even the hotel. They all work to help and support each other. I’ll never end up owning something like a dog food factory – that wouldn’t make any sense. But I might end up owning a power station.” Maybe a wind farm, I suggest, and Jones counters with hydro-electrics. The UKFast centres already run on green energy actually – it costs extra, but Jones thinks it’s the right thing to do.
Then follows a five minute detour into power grids, and I ask Jones if there’s any topic he can’t get enthused about? He laughs: “People ask me, ‘How can you be so upbeat all the time?’ But listen, life’s difficult and life can throw you some really nasty curveballs. But you can be grateful. Some people say, ‘I have nothing to be grateful for.’ Well, I’m grateful for the air I breathe. When you’ve had it taken away from you – something as simple as just breathing air, walking around Hyde Park this morning. It’s a beautiful, glorious day, looking at the sunshine.”