National Business Awards Entrepreneur finalist focus: Lawrence Jones, UKFast

Describe your background and journey into the business world
Well, my background revolves around music and sport so I’d definitely describe it as a journey into business. I was born and grew up in Wales and spent some time in Durham Chorister School before coming to Manchester at the age of 17.

At that point, I played the piano to make money, performing in the Midland Hotel and a few other venues. I realised that there was a business opportunity there and set up my own company, supplying musicians and other entertainment to venues across the North West.

When that took off, I began importing grand pianos and renting them to the venues, which brought in a nice stream of monthly recurring revenue. Granada bought the business, named the Music Design Company, in 1997 and I started looking for my next opportunity – UKFast.

How did you fund your business?
Gail, my wife and business partner, and I set up UKFast without external funding and it has grown organically over the past 13 years, which enabled us to take on the investment for the development and build of our move into the data centre arena.

We were disciplined with money and resisted the temptation to splash out when money started coming in, which led to a couple of months where cereal was our main source of sustenance! It was a tough time but when you are focussed on what you first set out to achieve then you just keep going. The vision on what might be in the future keeps you afloat.

How are you managing the challenges associated with starting up your own business?
At the stage the company’s at now, I’m facing the challenges of expanding the business rather than establishing it but the ways I deal with these problems are very similar and can be applied to start-ups. I use goal setting to focus the direction of the business and really outline where we want to be and what we want to achieve.

Gail and I take time out now and again to sit down in front of the fire with a pad of paper and a pen and list out our goals, personal and professional, and the dates we want to have achieved them by. The only rule here is to dream big and not limit your imagination. We’ve found this is a great way to focus and to maintain perspective.

Somehow, when you’ve set out your goals like this, they embed themselves in your subconscious and just seem to fall into place – you should always have a spot on the horizon to aim for.

Can you give any advice to others starting up businesses?
Remember that starting a business is a journey, not an idea that you suddenly come up with and then drop when times get tough so know your outcome. Know that there can be no giving up and keep your eye on the prize. And manage your finances as best you can.

Don’t be tempted to raid the coffers as soon as money starts coming in because, trust me, you’ll get a whopper of a bill and that’s not a great feeling! Separate personal and business finance; paying yourself a small wage means that you’re giving yourself an incentive to sell and make money.

How do you foster innovation throughout your business?
Innovation is woven into the very fabric of UKFast, it’s one of our core values. Innovation comes down to how you manage people – we don’t micromanage and we avoid excessive criticism. You can have the most creative, talented person on your team but they can still whither under criticism. Praise and encouragement are far more effective.

We also make sure that everyone in the company is able to take ownership of their part of the business and feel empowered to make decisions and generate ideas in that area of specialism.

We’ve implemented the Google 20 per cent rule for our technical teams so that they can spend 20 per cent of their time working on their own projects. Our entire internal management system was created bespoke by the R&D team because of this time spent innovating and exploring.