Good people around you who challenge: When we started, the mix of personalities and experience helped us to drive forward. If you wanted to present something you had 4–5 people who would interrogate what you did and give feedback. This openness allowed us to deliver the best possible product.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicholas Kelly, chairman and co-founder of Axela Ltd, a company-centered around providing compassionate care services, which he started with his mother, Jacquie Kelly, a care provider for over 30 years.
With a background working in some of the world’s largest tech companies, Nicholas started the business in 2006 after seeing the difference dedicated and experienced care can make to the wellbeing of individuals. Axela is organised across three solution hubs: Axela Care, Respect Care, and Axela Innovations, operating in the UK and across the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Having worked first as a pilot and then in technology companies, including Apple and LinkedIn, one day I woke up and realised I really wanted to make a difference. It really was that simple.
I wanted to go to bed each night knowing I was doing something that mattered and made a positive impact on the lives of others. I was tired of drinking the cooperate Kool Aid.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I was doing some consultancy work for a client in the care space, and the CEO asked if I could take a meeting with a potential client who owns 300 care homes. I said yes, of course. It turned out he ran the largest care group in the whole of Japan and he subsequently invited me to the country to tour their facilities and give some insights on how care is being done in the UK.
I ended up being taken to an amazing dinner at a 300-year-old Japanese restaurant owned by the company and then being taken on a tour of their private art gallery, complete with Van Goghs!
The story didn’t end there — on my way to the airport I got to the check-in desk and realised I had left my passport at the hotel which was a three-hour roundtrip. Luckily, the hotel was amazing and sent a member of staff to the airport with my passport. It was a pretty special experience, but I did spend more time travelling there and back than I did in Japan itself!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We got invited to go to 10 Downing Street, home of Britain’s Prime Minister, for an event. However, the invite came over email, and we were told that due to it being short notice could we send passports and our addresses over to an email address? It sounded a bit strange so we did a quick search online and couldn’t find the person sending the email. It was also set to be held the day after the general election. So, we agreed it was probably some kind of phishing scam and we ignored it and thought no more about it.
Anyway, the day after the event we got a call from the Prime Minister’s team saying how sorry they were we couldn’t attend, how much they were looking forward to speaking to us and how they’d heard great things about us! There’s definitely a moral there.
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?
When we first started, we made mistakes; not in the product or the direction we wanted to take the business in, more in people we trusted. We spent money on tender writers, deck writers, a pricing analyst and people who promised that they could deliver warm investor introductions. They couldn’t.
We also had difficulty getting funding, mostly because the product we have wasn’t in the right sector for others that looked like us. We spent so much time having to fight for a seat at the table it was tiring and sometimes made us want to give up.
However, I know this was nothing compared my mum’s difficulties in supporting me as I was growing up and she was the one who made me change my approach. One day I was coming back from a pitch and something she told made me realise it wasn’t the same for me as it was for others. She said: “No one is going to give you anything for free in this world, you need to go out there and get it, no matter what”. That’s when I decided to stop fruitlessly trying to get funding or approval from the NHS and start trying to fund it myself. I’d get my product in any way I could, even if it meant getting in through the back door or via a Trojan horse.
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 about that?
My mum and my friends, both for very different things. My mum because she has a very similar work ethic and outlook. When we couldn’t get funding or even get someone to return a call, I spoke to her and she simply said: “I believe in you, what do we need to do to get this off the ground?”
My close friends (one of them is my co-founder) are also important as they are far from being yes people. They challenge and interrogate every thought, idea or even bias I think there is, and are always honest with me.
Years ago, I was made redundant from a tech company which knocked me for six. I remember being in a bar with my friend Dan and him repeatedly saying “so what, you’ve be let go?”. I tried to explain how I felt and that I wasn’t sure what I would do next, and he kept answering “so what?” He ended with; “if I know you, you have about three ideas already in your head and by tomorrow you will have a bigger, better job”. I realised then I never wanted to be an employee again and started my company the next day.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Stumbling is not falling.” — Malcolm X.
Everyone forgets that when we are babies we fail for months when trying to talk, eat and walk. It’s the same when you are an entrepreneur; you can’t always get it right; you need to learn to be resilient. You have to set an end goal and just keep chipping away until you get there. We learn from our mistakes and failures; it makes us learn and be stronger.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
The Black Lives Matter movement might have started on the streets of the US but it quickly became a world-wide movement. I am not sure if it’s backlash politics from the Obama administration which gave birth to Trump and Trumpism — I think it’s probably all of that teamed with the pandemic, unemployment and uncertainty for the future.
The catalyst was people of colour using social media as a medium for getting out a collective message, a collective voice. Something that up until that point had been there but very much displaced. However, the imagery of George Floyd was real. The imagery of Briana Taylor was real. Everyone was able to take a little bit of that away and instead of seeing a man with police pressing down on his neck, people saw themselves, their loved ones their friends and realised enough was enough.
I hope and pray we see a change — I hope that we see people of colour using this not just to have their voices heard but to actually come together and move forward.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
If your board and management team are staffed by only people that look like you, it’s very hard to really have a full representation of your workforce and target market. Boards are not currently representative of gender, race, skill and experience. This doesn’t send an inclusive message to anyone. There’s no diversification of thinking, change hasn’t come quickly, there’s no accountability and it’s harder for the average person of colour to achieve the same as their white peers.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Keep educating, keep sharing success stories, offer development positions — champion people. If that doesn’t work, stop playing the game and create your own. If the rules are always evolving just when you think you have your head around it, start anew.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Providing the best compassionate care services to elderly people, over profit. We believe that using data to understand the individual and their care needs is the best way to move from a reactive to a proactive care model. It’s saving lives and costs in the long term.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are one of the only companies in our space that has a footing in tech and care at the same time. So, we still operate care facilities and home care and also because of our background in tech, we are able to build it.
Our user testing is done by real customers and staff — not a group of developers in an office. This has allowed us to build what is needed what we think would be the most intuitive.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are developing care passport, a machine learning app that sits on your phone or tablet and learns about your care needs. It rewards you with digital currency you can use in the real world for achieving health goals. It stores all your care records in one place, allowing you to grant access and to support research. Your care data belongs to you, not the state.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Ask yourself: what do you want your legacy to be? When we started out, someone asked me why I was doing this. I said it’s for my children, and future grandchildren. As a Black man, it sometimes can be hard to think past the here and now. For me, I am building a platform for my children and others like me so that they can have a rolling start and for them to be able to do the same for the next generation. So, when I feel like I haven’t got anything left in the tank, I think about that. I named my company after my daughter so she would know I do this all for her.
I want to inspire other Black people, become an employer and change the narrative to allow everyone to have an equal shot.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Passion sells it. Your sales team have to know and believe in the product. We have shifted from the door-to-door salesman approach to a buying from advocacy approach. The person selling your product has to know it inside and out and has to believe in it. They need to be talking about it, getting the name out as much as they can. The person I buy from is the person that says, “I use this at home”, or “I have this”, or “this is what I would have”, and means it.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
PR; I have a great PR team around me, who have pushed me to come out of my comfort zone and share my experience, but also keep my authentic voice. This has not only opened doors for us but attracted customers and allowed us to stay hungry.
I was sceptical at first and worried about having more salespeople around me. But they know me and what I am about, and took the time to get to know me, when others tried to push their agenda onto us.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
I don’t know if there are three or four; it fundamentally comes down to ‘human centred design’ and treating every customer like your first. This is something that we have focused on since we started.
Everything we build is based on a simple question: “does this make it easier or better for the end user?”
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Treat every customer like they are your only customer. Someone once said you can never get a customer you have lost back. But it’s also hardest to get a new customer when you need one.
We run a care business, and in 10+ years in business we have never run a single advert, and despite my tech background we didn’t even have a website until three years ago as our reputation allowed us to grow at an amazing rate, because we put customers before profit. What we learnt was those customers became our advocates, their families became our advocates and soon we had more people knocking on the door that some competitors that in the same period spent 30–40% of their budget on advertising.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Ask for forgiveness not permission.
In developing cAir:ID we had to start with a system and get it into the end users’ hands quickly so we could learn immediately and keep honing it, rather than doing endless rounds of trials by a team sitting in an office imagining they were the end user.
2. Have the right team around you,
In the early days it’s hard; you need all hands on deck. It’s great having big names and faces but if they are not going to be driving the business forward and rolling their sleeves up, you don’t need them.
3. Good people around you who challenge
When we started, the mix of personalities and experience helped us to drive forward. If you wanted to present something you had 4–5 people who would interrogate what you did and give feedback. This openness allowed us to deliver the best possible product.
4. Diversity of experience
Age, gender and experience helps. Our team is diverse and this allows us to be more representative of those we create for.
5. Have passion in the project and shared values
Everyone that works with us does care training and spends time in the field which allows us to truly understand who and why we are building this.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂
I have been working on an idea, that will allow individuals like myself to give back. I want to go into schools as early as possible and speak to 9- and 10+-year olds and allow then to do job shadowing so that they can see, learn and understand. I want these children to learn something that took me a long while to learn: the game is rigged, the house always wins. So, start your own game and build your own house.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
If it was someone alive, I would like it to be with Barack Obama. I have so many questions, but mostly I’d like to understand more about his inspirational leadership.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!