“Here Are Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful App” With Mitch Russo & Ian Lee Emery

Customer churn can really hurt your business. Don’t assume renewals and make sure you maintain active contact with your high net value clients to make sure they are getting value from you. Develop a contact strategy that fits into your natural business operations and its more likely to stay in place. We maintain a contact […]

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Customer churn can really hurt your business. Don’t assume renewals and make sure you maintain active contact with your high net value clients to make sure they are getting value from you. Develop a contact strategy that fits into your natural business operations and its more likely to stay in place. We maintain a contact strategy around our release cycle for example.

I had the pleasure to interview Ian Lee Emery. Ian is the CEO of Head Light , a company that develops and provides software tools and consulting services to enable improvements in talent management processes. Talent® by Head Light is their suite of on-line Talent Management SaaS applications that are used for recruitment, performance management, learning and development and succession planning. They also provide white-labelled software for HR Consulting, Coaching and Training businesses so that they can deliver their own brand of talent management technology-enabled services.

Thank you so much for joining us Ian! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I started my career as a software engineer for GE back in the 90’s. I was largely working on what was called a bureau service that processed business transactions between companies. They must have seen something in me and then sponsored my MBA. This lead me out of technology development and into marketing, which of course is a shift in perspective and a new set of disciplines. Some years later I moved into the transaction processing software division of a telco and the whole Application Service Provision or ASP market was beginning to define itself. This became the SaaS model as we now know it. Having become weary of the ways of the corporate world, I moved into the HR software space with a small company and started to consider how businesses and employees interact and how companies make decisions about promotion, development, leadership skills, careers and so on. This wasn’t the mission of the company I was with and whilst working in a small business taught me a lot about the principles of business and to be multi-disciplined, I felt the need and had support to make my ideas a reality. That was 15 years ago and now we provide a talent management platform for medium to enterprise size organisations to help them manage and develop their workforce better.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I founded the company called ‘Head Light’ as I wanted to create software that gave employees the ‘aha moment’ about themselves — their strengths, weaknesses, blind spots, potential and so on. Our first product was designed to help employers spot those with characteristics that would suggest potential for higher performance.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I don’t think that I have ever seriously considered giving up — there may have certainly been some moments when I’ve thought ‘there’s got to be an easier way than this though’!. A particularly challenging time was certainly when I looked around at the marketplace and thought ‘We seem to be in a marketplace of one, us. No obvious competitors, no-one using similar language to describe themselves. We have a handful of customers but we don’t seem to have landed on a spot in the wider market that we can feel confident to build on’. The term ‘Talent Management’ was relatively new (and largely dominated by recruitment) and so we launched our ‘Talent Spotter’ product for use in recruitment and that gave us a position on which to build, and registered the trademark ‘Talent’ for software. Once that had happened, I felt confident enough to go to friends and offer them some equity in the business in exchange for some capital to get things moving. We’ve been courted by VC’s and others but not found the right partner yet.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Success to me means great case studies about client successes and the eagerness of our clients to be recommenders and advocates. I’ve learnt that the pursuit of revenue and profit is the pursuit of vanity. Clearly we need revenues and profits but they come from doing the right things rather than as an end in themselves. The ‘right things’ doesn’t mean going bankrupt doing a good job! I’m a strong believer in the view that ‘Strategy is what you say No to’. When people start out its tough to say No to a potential 1st customer — but ask yourself — does this client put us on the right trajectory from a strategic perspective — will this client be happy or always unsatisfied because of a poor fit?

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take-aways’ you learned from that?

Back in the very early days and not really comfortable in a sales role, I attended a hastily arranged pitch to a prospective client — it was me pitching and I had the junior sales guy with me who’d set it up. We arrived at the client’s site and as we were early, went a few doors down to get a coffee. Whilst chatting in the coffee shop I made some quip to my colleague about hoping that we were meeting the ‘organ grinder and not the monkey’ (i.e. decision-maker and not info gatherer). I was overhead by the person who would then introduce themselves to me as the ‘monkey’ at the sales meeting. I died a little every time I made eye contact with them during the pitch. We didn’t get the business and I still shudder when I recall it.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What I have learnt through experience is that each customer has their own views on important ‘stand out’ characteristics. ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is true here and whilst marketing work on crafting generic USPs, it is the role of sales to understand what’s important to the customer and to bring just those important USPs into play to create a stand out that meets the ‘eye’ of the customer. So, as we sell to the enterprise market, the decision-makers tend to be a group of people with different wants and needs. So we need to deal with some ‘hygienic’ factors straightaway — data security, ease of use, customisability, future proofing, similar client profiles etc. But all of these can be replicated by our competitors, so we need to add strengths that some of our competitors can’t — agility, domain expertise, pedigree of references, pricing model, alignment of use cases. We have to remember that those that select us have therefore invested some of their professional reputation and trust in us and that we are acting on their personal brand. Our case studies show this in action — our customers feel in safe hands with us and that’s a powerful message, backed with evidence.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

In terms of resilience and in many cases mental health, I have found that playing sport has been invaluable — I’m a competitive triathlete so I’m used to having to dig deep to get results and to pick myself up in the face of setbacks. Something I didn’t expect was the ‘perspective changing’ nature of physical exercise — for example I could choose to ‘take a problem with me on a run’. Whilst running, I’d consider the problem, its causes and some solutions, in an environment away from my desk, phone etc. At the end of the run I’d either have a few solutions or the problem would have a new perspective, and in some cases wasn’t even a problem anymore!

One of the challenges relating to ‘Burn out’ is whether you can step away from the business to refresh and recharge — certainly some physical exercise helps, but that can’t be the only stress management strategy. Practically speaking — have a place at home where you can work that is not shared with any hobbies — the reason is that when you go into the room to pursue your hobbies, you may now also be in a place of work and mentally you switch over and don’t get the break. Running a SaaS business means 24×7 responsibilities for a 24×7 service — outsource (but not abdicate) any out of hours and weekend service provision, but recognise you’re still on call to some degree. I have had to stop a band rehearsal on a Sunday afternoon (I play the drums) to ensure that a suspected service outage was being dealt with. With your own business, the relationship with work changes. Now when I introduce myself to prospective customers I say ’I’m the CEO. The buck always stops with me.’ I have to say I’ve not really solved this problem of stepping away, but I’ve made a conscious decision to stop ‘orbiting my phone’.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

We can chart a number of key individuals who have help us on our journey — the vast majority are clients that have supported us and placed their trust in us. Our first client, and it took me over 40 telephone call attempts over 3 months to reach her, initially wanted something different to what we understood. We focussed on business outcomes and demonstrated an alternative approach that we could help with and she was confident enough to take a risk. Other’s followed and then challenged us to find solutions to other related problems and that drove our product strategy and priorities, whilst building out our own vision of the product set. Each one of these ‘pivotal’ clients have been on a mission of their own for their employers — these people are passionate about what they do, are prepared to challenge the status quo and act as change agents. If you can find them, keep them close and align with them and their needs. I have some great and long-standing employees in the business. I generally find myself working for them now!

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. Approximately how many users or subscribers does your app or software currently have? Can you share with our readers three of the main steps you’ve taken to build such a large community?

We have over 100,000 users making use of our software — mainly in the UK but across the world and in multiple languages. It provides 360-degree feedback, performance management, succession planning, career pathing, engagement, skills management.

Our first step in building a community was probably more luck than judgement — an early client of ours was a police force. They work collaboratively with other forces and parts of the justice system — as such they share. We proactively created a user group just for this community and created a platform for information and best practice sharing. We invited police forces from across the country to attend and many became customers. This group is still going strong.

An important characteristic of many police forces is the largely operational nature of their employee-base — they ‘drop everything’ to attend incidents, are highly mobile and don’t necessarily have access to computing in the same manner as say office workers. With successful deployments in this challenging work environment, we translated that into relevance for other sectors (such as retail or healthcare) and won clients such as Travis Perkins, McDonalds and Ramsay Health.

Thirdly and importantly we set out at the outset to have a multi-tenant platform that allows for distributors to white-label our software as their own. This gives us an extended user community, incremental revenue streams and reach beyond our in-house sales teams. This technical strategy (one source code, one version, multi-tenant) has been a keystone — no custom builds, copy, paste, modify implementations and therefore no ‘technical debt’ which would slow down our rate of innovation and agility. This strategy is an example of ‘what we say No to’ when asked for features and capabilities that take us off this path. It’s always easier to ‘Say Yes’, take the deal (and the money), be diverted away from the community to serve a single client and then repent at your leisure. However, we do ‘say Yes’ to great ideas and build them for free for the community.

What is your monetization model? How do you monetize your community of users? Have you considered other monetization options? Why did you not use those?

As the market transitioned from on premise to hosted or cloud software, it was commonplace to offer a software licence and then a hosting and support contract. This was based on client size. We don’t offer that anymore and have transitioned to two models — a subscription based model based on a features set and number of users (e.g. now many people using our performance management module), on a rolling annual contract, or a model based on more how a consumer would choose to buy and select a product that they can configure. Using the analogy of buying a new car, now you can visit the manufacturer’s web site and use configuration tool to select the model, version, additional options and so on. We have that for our Talent Cloud offering where you select a base package, add your options, say how many people will use the features you have selected and then charge on a monthly basis. It’s like selecting a car you wish to lease and the anticipated mileage is akin to the number of users.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful app or a SAAS? Please share a story or an example for each.

One — have a technical strategy and stick to it unless it needs to change for good reasons — don’t take a deal that blows you off course, use technology that has a large labour pool of skills that can develop it, use technology that clients would expect and have faith in themselves

Two — deal with all the hygienics around data and security so that you limit the chance of an extinction event like a data breach. We implemented encryption before it was commonplace and gained ISO27001 as a security standard in advance of some of our competition.

Three — maintain an external perspective. A former boss told me that ‘one’s desk is a very dangerous place from which to view the world’. A bit melodramatic maybe but keep an eye on the competition, what they say and don’t say, where they appear, who they use and so on. You will need to out manoeuvre them when selling against them and if you don’t know them, you’re just in a guessing game.

Four — customer churn can really hurt your business. Don’t assume renewals and make sure you maintain active contact with your high net value clients to make sure they are getting value from you. Develop a contact strategy that fits into your natural business operations and its more likely to stay in place. We maintain a contact strategy around our release cycle for example.

Five — the world moves slower than you think (or would like). Take your time to get things right and enjoy the journey. A worthwhile market will still be there tomorrow. Customers can sense your passion for what you are doing — it’s infectious and can soften the hardest hearts in procurement.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If going out and enjoying the great outdoors was a pill, I’m sure it would be hailed as a wonder drug in terms of its mental and physical benefits. I’d like to see us go outside more and be on a mission to make the outdoors a better and more natural place by re-greening and rewilding areas that we have industrialised, neglected or destroyed. The act of doing this would bring benefits and the outcome of it would bring benefits. It just needs support to get done.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can message me on LinkedIn, make contact with me via our web site ( or twitter @HeadLightTweet, or join me at a triathlon sometime.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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