At Unprecedented, we had the opportunity to talk to Richard Fletcher, Managing Director of Ignys Ltd, who talked to us about how his business is dealing with the pandemic and where he sees the economy heading in 2021.
I have always been interested in how things worked and after my A levels, I decided to do a degree in electronics. This career path took me from strength to strength as I worked for numerous companies including; Marconi Communications, Pera Innovation and a Nottingham based SME. It was in the latter that I realised that I was good at turning ideas into products and building engineering teams. I decided to start an electronics and software design consultancy, which originally started with just me in my downstairs bedroom working for a handful of clients and has grown into a recognised consultancy with some big-name clients. We currently employ a team of 10 brilliant people and have plans to double this over the next 24 months.
COVID-19 has meant I’ve been working much longer hours, sitting at my desk for long periods of time, worrying, planning and being under a huge amount of stress.
I have also had to break my rule of not watching the news. For at least a couple of years, I’d stopped watching the news because it is usually negative and biased, but COVID-19 changed that. I found myself having to watch news updates multiple times every day to form an understanding of what was likely to happen and to plan accordingly.
We moved into a larger office and lab space to support continued growth and offer extra relevant test services to our customers. It was becoming obvious that social distancing measures were likely to increase and so we planned to be able to work from home as best we could. However, there was a risk that a power cut, software update or similar could need a server reboot which could prevent the whole team from accessing important design files and so we replicated our office server and set it up at my house and everyone took their laptop home every night just in case.
When the lockdown came properly into law, we immediately felt an impact. We had customers calling to defer projects, new enquiries dried up completely and for the first time since opening our doors, we were concerned about what the future might bring.
We’re lucky that electronics and software are present in almost every industry which meant that we could continue with many of the projects that were underway but the sudden impact on our new project pipeline was very concerning. Interest in new product development, value engineering and compliance had given way for many businesses to the more pressing issues of cash flow and protecting employees from the virus.
We quickly decided that we should monitor what we could to get an understanding of the impact on our customers, and our plans to grow the engineering headcount had to be put on hold. The impact is that we’re around a year behind the business plan.
At the start of lockdown, we really ramped up our communication. We’d been used to working together in a fairly cramped office before briefly moving to new offices and then being separate at home.
I was keenly aware of the need to support the team through the lockdown challenges as well as making sure that we continued to deliver on our customer projects. We put daily, 9 am, team meetings to keep momentum and focus. Equally important we put “virtual coffee” breaks in the diary twice a week to keep the team spirits up and simply chat about the events in our lives.
We also ramped up our use of Slack instant messenger to quickly ask for and get answers, advice and support when needed. The idea of having dedicated Slack channels for #wins and #rants began. #wins was used to celebrate the good things in the day, and #rants were used for problems and irritations that would usually be spotted by someone in the office. The point of the channels was to spread the positivity and support the not so good.
The other thing we were missing was sessions gathered around a whiteboard. Process mapping, architecting software, solving technical problems, sharing ideas, and brainstorming was previously all-around a whiteboard. To help solve this we trialled some stylus graphics tablets and use the Whiteboard feature within teams to be able to draw and share. This doesn’t fully replace whiteboards but is a good stop-gap and also allows us to use OneNote for taking notes and reviewing documents.
What have been the Unprecedented decisions you have made? Those where there was no playbook.
The key unprecedented decision I made was to not Furlough any of the technical delivery team. Before the pandemic, we had lots of ideas for improvements and product development ideas that we would get around to when we had time. Instead of seeing the drop off of demand as a disaster, we used the time and space it created to work on some of these ideas.
We also increased our presence on LinkedIn substantially. The team were all encouraged to post, share and like relevant posts. The combined efforts helped our visibility and seeing engineers posting technical comments also helped with our perceived credibility.
In addition to this, we continued monitoring “how many phone calls get answered by anyone” and our Google Analytics stats. Gradually we saw more phones being answered, increases in website traffic and ultimately increases in project enquiries.
Looking at our client needs, we recognised that some had downsized their technical teams but still had some need for electronics and software expertise to support their existing products or to solve issues with new developments.
We created a series of discrete services to help companies select just the parts they needed for themselves. One of these was a ‘borrow an engineer’ which was used by clients for work including the feasibility of a new IoT product development, design review and subsequent corrections to a client designed product, providing an additional resource for product bring-up and adding functionality and tests to the software.
We’ve also completely redesigned our website and tweaked our branding to add a wealth of helpful information, raise our profile and make it easy for clients to get the help they need with their product development needs.
The best decisions during 2020 were to:
Press on with what we’re good at. Fortunately, electronics and software feature in most industry sectors, this meant that while some sectors had to completely stop, others ramped up activities to meet demand.
Bringing marketing in-house and increasing marketing spend. We had previously used outsourced marketing to promote the business and support our plans but it was apparent that we needed to ramp up our marketing activities and ad spend to reach more prospects to support the growth of the business. Bringing this in-house has brought the ability to react and pivot quicker, get a much-improved interaction between sales and marketing and to simply increase the volume and rate of change.
Coaching and training. External support, insight, accountability, and challenge is valuable during normal years. Maintaining training and coaching has been a key contributor to continuing to deliver excellent technical expertise. Having an outside perspective to ask questions and suggest areas that could help ensure we didn’t become myopic, it also provided networking opportunities and to sense check the plans against a quickly changing economy.
It is fair to say that my mental health took a battering during 2020. I was always thinking about the business, our projects and the team even when I wasn’t supposed to be working. There was never any off time. I don’t generally experience anxiety but developed a continuous anxious feeling in the last quarter of 2020.
This drove me to find ways to find a better balance. I’ve begun a short daily meditation, re-organised my work diary with a more regular working pattern and in general, I try to not work during weekends. At the recommendation of my business coach I also take a 20 walk after work in place of the commute to let the day settle and to file things away in my head. The combination of these means that I’m mentally in a much better place now.
In technology and product development, we’ve had a few conversations where companies are hitting 2021 hard to make up for the problems of 2020. I think that the first quarter of 2021 will be tough for many sectors, but I expect we may see an increase in new project enquiries but a slower commitment and start to those projects.
Beyond April, I predict there will be a marked improvement in sentiment and confidence that continues increasing until mid-July. If vaccination programmes, social distancing and lockdowns have reduced the number of infections then there may be more impact of summer holidays. If people can get away on a holiday that is getting back to normal then many will use rolled over holiday allocations and we will see another temporary slowdown until the end of September.
In the wider economy, the local high street decline is unfortunately likely to continue as local shops were struggling before the pandemic. I think there will be a brighter future for those pubs, café’s, restaurants, and cinemas that have survived because we’re social animals and I expect as soon as restrictions have stopped we will all be keen to make the most of things to catch up with friends and family and enjoy being able to go out again.
We are planning to grow our delivery capacity and capabilities through 2021. The top of the list is to recruit intelligent, qualified engineers that meet our company values. We’ve recently captured the company values and are in the process of shortlisting and confirming them, these are present in each and every one of the team. Now that we’re planning on doubling the delivering capacity, ensuring that these values continue throughout the business is vital.
Fast forward to 2050...What would you say to your future self...That you did well or badly in 2020 to learn from.
I’d say that we did as well as we could with the knowledge and skills we had at the time. I think we’ll be able to look back with pride that we looked after the team, the customers and set up the business for success. Having a positive attitude and optimism coupled with determination and hard work helped us navigate out of one of the most difficult times. It also equipped us better to deal with future pandemics as sadly the human race hadn’t learned much from the first one.
Before the pandemic, we were small enough and collocated in a cramped office and so our values were innate but never discussed. We knew what a good and bad job looked like, knew when someone fitted with the team and understood how to work with each other.
We’re on the journey to formalise our values and company mission and vision to ensure the essence of the business doesn’t fade through remote working, growth or over time. We’ve held two separate value sessions with the management team and engineers, the results we’re reassuringly similar. We’re continuing with this during the first quarter of 2021.
The pandemic has caused many of us to reassess what is important in our lives. In what ways have you recalibrated your own priorities and goals.
I’m currently working towards working fewer hours and taking more time off to spend with family and get back to enjoying some of my hobbies. Setting up and running the business has been all-consuming since the beginning. It’s now time to start reducing the businesses dependence upon me. This is good for me, the business and for the team, as it means that there are opportunities open for the team and, should I be incapacitated, the business is able to continue running, jobs are protected and customers are continually being served.