“Our mission makes us stand out”, With Douglas Brown and Tracey Shirtcliff of The Virtu Group

We are always thought to be not as knowledgeable or ‘technical’. I don’t code, but neither did my stand-in Chairman and he never got scrutinized for that. It’s changing and the more women who reach success and leave the ladder down for others, the better. Every time it makes the impossible possible, and sharing your […]

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We are always thought to be not as knowledgeable or ‘technical’. I don’t code, but neither did my stand-in Chairman and he never got scrutinized for that. It’s changing and the more women who reach success and leave the ladder down for others, the better. Every time it makes the impossible possible, and sharing your story, your wins and encouragement are vital.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tracey Shirtcliff, Founder/CEO, The Virtu Group, London.

Tracey started her journey in marketing technology back when Digital was called ‘Electronic’. She was the head of Electronic Marketing for Forte Hotels, founded and ran a content and web agency and launched an electronic person-to-person (P2P) payment application for NatWest. The Virtu Group was born out of the success of her first software business, Sohnar, which she sold to a global software solutions provider in 2015.

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?

I like to solve problems. The one I’m focused on right now is helping services organizations move from selling time, with all the inadequacies that entail, to a fairer, more efficient model based on selling outputs. It’s become a mission.

The issue became clear to me when I was running my first software business. I had thousands of conversations with advertising agency leaders who couldn’t understand why they weren’t more profitable. I saw it in the data running through the project management platform that my company was providing to them. I also saw it when I was working client-side in coalition with an in-house procurement team. Agencies don’t know what they are selling and don’t know how to price it. They’re not profitable because their pricing model and the process is inefficient, unmanaged and time-consuming. It needs to change.

This issue isn’t unique to adland, all services firms that charge for their time struggle with the same issues. If the pricing is wrong and the cost estimate prepared is wrong, then there’s no way the firm will make money on the work they do. Or certainly not make efficiencies to a better business.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

I had a very senior executive from a global agency network call me at 9 pm on Christmas eve and tell me that they should get our software and services for free as they are such an important brand. I was like, really this is not our first rodeo. We have created award-winning software before and I think this is business-changing. We left the call with me being told to have a think as they would not be paying for it. I thought it was an interesting tactic. Never give away your value. I tell agencies that every day, so I had to take my own advice.

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 had lines and lines of code that we were trying to decipher in order to give people a better model for pricing the work that we do. We worked for 12 months on a very clever algorithm, and when we got to the final hurdle of presenting it to clients they asked the question: how did you get that. I realized at that moment that we had failed to show the key ‘workings’ or the step we call ‘components.’ It took us 4 months to fix. It’s a funny mistake now that it’s behind us but it was not so funny at the time. It taught us that sometimes when you are too close to things you need to step back. We also needed to listen and change fast.

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?

There are always high and low times throughout the journey. It’s not always easy, in fact, I say if it was easy everyone would be doing it. The nature of the entrepreneurial business is that if your big idea is easily understood and accepted by the majority instantly then you’re likely too late to the party to really make a difference. If your idea is unfathomable to even the most forward-thinking people in the market then you may be decades too early. There’s a fine balance to be struck and it takes nerve and belief in what you’re doing to be successful. I am often, early … I see it and it takes time to move from bleeding to cutting edge. I live the mantra of Winston Churchill and share it with others constantly ‘Never, never never give up.’ It’s a single-minded attitude that will and has got me through some of the toughest days.

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?

I get help from all sorts of people, and it normally is at a time when you need to hear it. Serendipity. I’m also very grateful for the team I have now — some have worked with me before — and it amazes me that they will come back for round two, again. So in my current team, Julie, Frances. Caroline and Pierino and then some of the others that are new, need to trust you, sound off with you. We often have to laugh about our daily travails. Humor and camaraderie go a long way in a crisis.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite one is Winston Churchill: ‘If you’re going through hell, Keep going!’ It’s a twist on never giving up but it reminds me that there will be dark days and they will pass and that it’s always worth it in the end. Great advice. I think this year with Covid, everyone online, so much uncertainty and fear. Combined with physically being locked in at home, homeschooling my 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son. We have become closer but also experienced highs and lows that ‘normal’ life would not have allowed us to see. It’s always about resilience.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

As I touched on earlier. We want to address the inadequacies of buying and selling talent, i.e. creative, legal, professional services, through hours-based billing. We want to help services firms and their clients to move to a model that rewards innovation and efficiency and recognizes the skill and complexity of the work being done. The key to solving this issue is providing a solution that helps them manage the risk of moving to a new way of doing things.

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

Our mission makes us stand out. We are the only company in our space working with both buyers and sellers to create a pricing model and scoping process that benefits both parties. Win-win. One that aids understanding and transparency and enables both parties to more easily assess the ROI and effectiveness of work being undertaken. Think transparency, clarity, and collaboration — the way we say business should be done — we’re putting our money where our mouth is, as they jest.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’ve got a number of really exciting projects happening right now. Our SCOPE product, which began life as a tool for helping creative agencies better manage their pricing and scopes of work, is now finding a need in numerous other hour-based billing industries so we’re in the midst of opening up our offering to new audiences. Helping more businesses and learning other industries and their challenges, to bring home the win-win.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

This is my third business in ‘tech’ and I’ve been around and in it for a long time. Like anything, the barrier to entry sometimes is knowledge and other times it’s the fear of the unknown. In my last business, I put my male partner in as my part-time Chairman as I saw time and time again how people reacted to a young woman CEO of a tech business. My partner had even less knowledge than I did but got more time and response. I just saw that as a means to win, pretending I was not the one driving the business forward. I wouldn’t do that now, but it’s not easier now. The walls and ceilings still exist, but they are loosening for sure.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

We are always thought to be not as knowledgeable or ‘technical’. I don’t code, but neither did my stand-in Chairman and he never got scrutinized for that. It’s changing and the more women who reach success and leave the ladder down for others, the better. Every time it makes the impossible possible, and sharing your story, your wins and encouragement are vital.

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”?

Innovation. I love a good pivot when you are stagnating — so yes pivot, do something different — anything. Just by changing your office surroundings or introduce a suggestion hour weekly with the team, or a night out.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high-performing sales teams?

The composition of the team is really important. A high-performing team is one made up of individuals with unique and complementary talents, skills, experience and expertise. They use and share their own strengths so that the product of the team is far greater than one individual. Always pick people who you think are smarter than you. You’ll learn more too.

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?

Your network is the best thing you have, look after it, cherish it and deliver on your promises every time. No matter how clever your social marketing and digital comms are, there is no substitute for talking to people on the phone, on Zoom or in person. It’s old school but it works.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Clarity and consistency. Clear and straight-forward talking and good user interface. Always have the best UI because if it looks good people will use it and love it. The quality of the information in will be better and the quality of information out will be better too.

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?

Retaining customers is key. It‘s good reputationally and commercially. In my last software business, we were one of the first to put in a customer success team. Their objective was to make our customers more successful. We also paid sales commissions but the final 50% was paid after a client was live and happy, it made sure that the team never over-promised at the sale and stayed close as they needed to. If it’s connected between the sale and the implementation you can not go wrong. Finally, customer success leads to everything you focus on — they have a key seat at the table.

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.

  1. It’s going to take double the money and double the time to get to where you want. Just go with it.
  2. Sleep with a copy of “Crossing the Chasm” and read it ten times — and then take a market and dominate it.
  3. Have fun — it’s a long road and serious people are just not that cool to hang with day after day. See point 1.
  4. Employ people who are smarter than you, weirder than you, the old and the young — everyone has something to offer and diversity really does give you depth.
  5. Just because you did it one way and it worked last time, does not mean it will work the same way again. Things change. Be quick enough to realize when you do need to change — and change quickly.

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’d set up a forum to help mentor people — but not a traditional one. I’d match the off the walls, the haves with the have nots, the educated with the non-educated — and people from different industries and backgrounds. Diversity is key. I’m a farm girl from New Zealand, most people would never have expected that girl to do what I do now. Never look for round pegs, always challenge with a square one now and again, and you can learn so much from a different perspective, even one that has not been as successful as you yet.

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 🙂

I was fortunate to meet Richard Branson and spend a week at Necker a few years ago, while he was there. He is business hero of mine, but he certainly became more real, human. The trip was humbling and fun. So now it would have to be Elon Musk. Tesla, SpaceX and his vision is incredible. I’d love to chew the fat with him for sure.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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