As a (reasonably) young and successful person I get asked a few common questions: what do you drive? Do you play golf? Is that a grey hair? But far and away the most common is ‘why Bristol?’
I started GDS International as a publishing company 17 years ago in the UK’s eighth most populous city with four friends and £15,000. A lot has changed since then: we no longer publish – the world shifted and so did we.
Our first conference product went to market in 1998, and we refined and improved until we found our niche: putting the right people together in focused, business-specific senior executive summits.
But some things haven’t changed. We’re still headquartered in Bristol. I still get asked that question.
Firstly, if you’re not from the UK, you might like some perspective. The eighth most populous city must still be pretty populous, eh? No. It reminds me of the Robin Williams joke about world powers, once you get past number three, there’s a pretty big drop off. London has over 7.5 million people. Bristol has fewer than 0.5 million. The UK’s tenth most populous city is a bus stop in Cornwall.
So, why Bristol? From day one, I wanted something that would last and that meant building it out of the spotlight. I worked in London and knew the grass wasn’t always greener, especially in terms of staff turnover. Start-ups struggle when they have to compete for talent.
In Bristol we could take our time and learn together. It served us well, and we built strong foundations.
Sydney made business sense because of Australia’s close working relationships with Asia, and its shared culture and language with the UK. It made personal sense because the surf suited our employee profile. Happy employees = happy company.
By the time we got to North America, our foundations were a lot stronger, the company was a lot larger, and New York meant we could set and achieve bigger ambitions.
Today, we’re in an enviable position on the one hand, a challenging position on the other (one thing I’ve learned, business is NEVER without complications). Our summit and conference products are generating great buzz, we have some cracking onsite customer deal stories to share, and a skilled, experienced management team. We have opportunities to grow… but we need the staff resources to do it.
What to do? We convened an HR meeting and flew in the directors from all offices, together with our CEO and other senior management. The challenge was: how to more quickly progress the next generation: to take people from training to effective sales professionals effectively and fast?
Bright, motivated people in a room can get a lot done – especially when they start thinking around the root cause of a problem, instead of just trying to solve it as stated. What if we kept the best of GDS’ culture, the desire to provide people with careers by training them and promoting them through the company, and added to it with the very best people from outside – at a more senior level? What if we started headhunting?
Why now? Because we have good enough products, and we are strong enough in terms of culture and skills. I believe that bringing in new, experienced staff will actually help current staff because it makes the company stronger, and that provides growth and new options. We will learn from them and they will learn from us. Bringing in the RIGHT outside talent helps our internal skill sets: creating opportunity, not taking it away.
Are there problems with this strategy? Yes, definitely – which is probably why we have not done it before. The HR teams have to be at their best in terms of cultural fit and problem solving (experienced staff make different demands: they may require less hands-on management time, but they need more challenges and, at least initially, they are a lot less forgiving of internal mistakes). And the HR teams have to pick well. A good CV can hide a lot. GDS may be stronger, but we still need people we all want to work with.
Of course we have to get it right, but when we do it will mean more opportunity and promotion. We will be able to grow faster and develop GDS further. New, experienced staff will work with existing staff to build skills and offer positive competition and challenges.
As I said, we are in an enviable position. GDS is growing fast, we have good industry buzz so people are approaching us, cracking packages, culture, and opportunity. Can we sustain it? Watch this HR space...