In 2017, Soben Founder and CEO Scott Smyth took part in Cranfield University’s Business Growth Programme, the UK’s longest-running programme for business owner-managers looking to advance their businesses to the next level. Scott recently returned to Cranfield to share his highs and lows since taking part in the programme, and to impart some hard-won lessons to other ambitious business founders.
Scott trained as a quantity surveyor and spent the early part of his career working for other people. Frustrated by being a small cog in a big machine, he ended up itching to start his own business so he could prove that his ideas of doing things differently were right.
His break came in 2011. Following the financial crash of 2008 and the ensuing recession, his employer went bust. “I came home with a smile on my face, which my wife couldn’t understand. Suddenly it was easy – the decision to start up had been made for me.”
His initial goals were modest. He needed to make £2000 a month to cover his outgoings, and he confined their client base to his native Scotland. Scott was consciously cautious, conserving cash to reinvest in the company, and growing incrementally. Six years later Soben had 24 employees, but Scott was dissatisfied. This modest success was not enough. He hadn’t fulfilled a life-long ambition to work and travel internationally and he was convinced that both he and the company had a much greater potential to grow and develop. In his own words, “The business was stuck.”
Something had to change and so in September 2017 Scott enrolled on the Business Growth Programme. It proved an eye-opener. Asked some tough questions on the programme about his approach to business development, it became clear to Scott that he would have to make radical changes. “We were taking everything that came in through the door,” he says. From 500-odd potential customers, he narrowed the focus to 50, where Soben would be properly rewarded for the value it could bring.
Scott also realised that effective sales plans are built from the bottom up, with a laser-like focus on conversion rates. Previously he had scoffed at the idea of formal business planning. “My attitude was, I’m a surveyor. Give me a spreadsheet and I can fill it with numbers. Who needs to write a plan?”
Since attending the programme, he’s become a total convert to the virtues of planning. Today his motto is that ‘sales solves everything’, and as a result of BGP he introduced a rigorous CRM system. Now his salesforce’s bonuses are tied to the use of that system and everything is data-driven. “You don’t know what you don’t know,” says Scott and BGP has made him a passionate advocate of lifelong learning and an avid reader of business books.
Scott talked at some length about the “the friendship zone”, and the risk this can pose to B2B businesses like his. Too often, he believes, salespeople who focus too much on building relationships get stuck in a place where difficult conversations just don’t happen. Now he’s developed processes that force salespeople to close their prospects in or out at an early stage, saving time, money and scarce resources. As of October this year Soben has some 160 employees and operations not just across the UK and Europe, but in North and South America, India, south-east Asia and Australia.
How has he managed to increase his workforce sevenfold in four years? Recruitment has followed the growth in business with target clients, and the key to international expansion has been the concept of the anchor client: a big name that will justify the investment in new markets.
A leading data centre developer was the anchor client that took Soben to the USA. Scott had initially discounted Latin America as a growth opportunity, but a major client encouraged him to set up an operation and the business has performed strongly ever since. Anchor clients also create the opportunity to develop the case studies which build the firm’s credentials and attract new clients.
By its very nature Soben is a people business. Now that he is playing in what he considers to be the big league, Scott needs to attract the best and brightest to achieve his ambitions. In turn their drive pushes the business forward.
He has openly shared his aspiration to build a business of 1,000 people by 2030, with an interim target of 500 by 2023. The Covid pandemic has set his plans back by a year, but he’s now back on course. What next, he was asked. Scott would like the opportunity to spend more time with his family, running the business remotely – a villa in Spain was mentioned – whilst empowering the senior leadership time to “proceed until apprehended”, and to continue to push their respective business units forward.
A version of this article was originally authored and shared by Cranfield School of Management. To find out more about careers with Soben, contact [email protected]