I met Owen at a networking event and then another and another…in every encounter I have been impressed with his passion for his business, his knowledge of IT and how much he wants to help others. He has helped me work out what I am doing and I wondered how he got to this point in life.
Owen’s grandpa was his big inspiration. Owen’s great-grandfather moved from Italy to the US and his son followed as soon as he was 18. His strong work ethic paid dividends as he progressed from casual labourer to farmer. “Grandpa taught me how to ride a bike without training wheels, and taught me how to drive & later operate the ride on lawn mower (both of those bits were family rites of passages) – they had 7 acres of grass that needed trimming. It was left to my Uncle Dave to show me how to drive the big tractor when my wife and I visited after Grandpa passed away. That was a nice moment with Uncle Dave, but sad without Grandpa. I’m sure if we’d been living in the States when it was time for me to learn to drive it would’ve been Grandpa that would’ve done that too.”
At school, the Air Cadets captured Owen’s interest and for years he thought he would join the RAF. But his eyesight was not good enough for him to become a pilot and he lost his rudder. After taking AS levels, he realised he wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and be self-sufficient.
I wanted to support my self, make things happen and not get into debt.
One day Owen spent several hours helping a customer, who could not read, use the on-screen ordering system. The customer listened to and bought a huge number of Johnny Cash records. When Owen apologised to his boss for spending so long on one person he was told “There is nothing to apologise for, you just made a customer for life.”.
So he left home and got a job in the Virgin Megastore Express in Burton. He sees this role as a key to learning how to create an excellent customer experience. But the shop closed and Owen found his next job as a sales assistant for second-hand caravans and accessories. After 18 months he asked himself “What am I doing with my life?”.
In Owen’s own words he “fell for” an advert that promised “shed loads of money” to anyone who wanted to learn IT. Owen paid for the course but took a long time to take it. As a result, he was only part way through when the company went bust. He seems to regret not being more active rather than the loss of the qualification or his fee. Nonetheless, he got an IT job in Burton and the Nerd was born.
One of the many conversations I have shared with Owen circled around the difference between a Nerd and a geek. In the world according to Owen, a geek is anyone with a passion and a Nerd is someone who has turned that passion into a way of making a living. He is proud to be a Nerd.
Over the next five and a half years Owen was a member of an IT team that flexed and saw his role grow. From the start, his drive and ambition gave him the impetus to take the lead and he rapidly grew his technical skills. He moved from desktops and desktop support to infrastructure (servers and websites), soon he was running and monitoring systems and then took training in fraud detection. As he found himself settling into a role implementing and maintaining specialist fraud software, he assessed the situation and found he was unhappy building up skills he could not transfer (and the software house was a “difficult vendor”).
So he switched jobs. Now he was working in a smaller team, but they served a huge client. With size came Owen’s bugbear – a lack of progress. He puts this down the ‘corporate’ nature of the client. Instead of providing IT solutions, Owen spent his time in endless meetings.
So he switched jobs. This time joining a Managed Service Provider (a company to which organisations ‘outsource’ their IT). He has mixed feelings about the job. On one side the team are friendly, he learned “a bunch of extra tech stuff” and he gained a lot of insight into how he wants to manage his business. On the other hand, he had to develop procedures on the run and spent a lot of time on the road at short notice.
A previous boss asked Owen to join a ‘think tank’ of entrepreneurs who were setting up a group of businesses. The offer was ‘sort out’ the existing IT (set up by a graduate trainee) and then manage it. He accepted, but after a year was searching for work. Another firm offered him a role as a one-man IT manager/ department, which he turned down “I wanted a team; to run something”.
In a coaching session Owen told his mentor he didn’t want to be a Managed Service Provider (MSP), when challenged ‘why not’ he answered ‘they are a faceless black hole, they drive for efficiency, not solutions, there are no relationships, no care’. His mentor said ‘you don’t have to be like that’.
Talking about this with an old colleague led to Code 56 (wait for it), Owen’s Managed Service Provider. Along with a couple of Investors, Owen set up the company. It started in the corner of an office, but now has its own front door and sign outside. Code 56 is one year old. It grew quickly and Owen recruited a new member of staff a couple of months ago. “We could be in profit now, but I want to build my team.”
“The corporate life is not for me, I get wound up by the longer political life of a large company. Some are better than others, but so many get wrapped around their layers. I want to see progression – fast or slow.”
Initially, his business model was selling chunks of time, but he found he was spending as much time looking for work as working. Now Code 56 is looking for customers who will pay a monthly fee for excellent support. Most of us would be cynical at that statement. When Owen talks about support he means taking the time to talk with his customers to understand what they want and need (though he does offer phone support and ‘screen sessions’), he will hold regular reviews to understand how Code 56 can help companies get to where they want to be. “It will be like having a dedicated IT manager, just on a part-time basis. We will be part of their team.”
Owen’s passion is not IT. He constantly asks himself how things work and why do they work. A friend once said to him “There are people who flick a light switch and take the light for granted. You want to know how the switch links to the light and everything that happens when you want to see through the darkness.”.
Throughout our chat, Owen returns to this theme and that gives me an opportunity to play with Word Art.
Running a business is a tough job, but Owen loves a challenge. Let’s illustrate with the story of how he recruited his new employee. “From the start, I was looking for personality over everything. I need someone who makes other people comfortable and can answer questions well – not your typical computer type. I asked no technical questions until the formal interview.” True to form Owen sought advice from his network, I heard him pick up lots of advice on interviewing and he recently thanked someone for taking him through the DISC behavioural assessment. The assessment helped him understand himself better and, the real pay off, a follow-up session gave him a tool set to understand others. From this, he built a list of questions. He ran the recruitment himself to save money and received 100 CVs to his ads. Starting with a telephone interview, then an interview with one shareholder and then an interview with both shareholders, he whittled the list down to one. But that person lives in Sheffield and turned down the offer when they realised how much time they would spend commuting.
And this is where Owen really stands apart. His reflection on that experience was “my approach was valid, but I had some lessons to learn”. Starting back at the beginning, he increased the length of the telephone interview and as “I couldn’t justify the time of my shareholder” he cut the first shareholder interview. He also didn’t wait for the closing date to start his interviews. He called his new colleague after being intrigued by his CV and set up the formal interview straight after. “I found a techie with an approachable personality – it is all about the customer experience”.
And now to the name: Owen and a colleague had a customer who ‘wanted the moon on a stick’ and they couldn’t say no. They found a way to provide the moon while making sure the solution actually worked. Chatting later they agreed that they needed a code word for ‘don’t say no’ – meaning we will figure out a way of doing this. Owen looked for a symbol in the geek’s go to font – wingdings2 – and found that ‘no’ looks like this:
He bought the domain (as a joke) and now Code 56 means enabling people by not saying no instead working out how to meet the challenge. “Ideally the solution is IT, but my brain doesn’t rest until I have solved the challenge so I will refer others as necessary.” He gives an example of an office move. Most office moves take place in ‘one drop’, while this makes a lot of work for the people doing the move is simpler from an IT perspective and less disrupting for staff. But the customer wanted to make the most of new premises as quickly as possible and the first people to move found a completed office in the middle of a building site. The move was far trickier as a result, “but we did everything we could to make it as smooth as possible for everyone involved and handled the bumps along the way as best we could”.
Let’s close with a virtual tour of Owen’s office. As you know the Code 56 sign is next to the door. Owen and his new employee sit in an office just off the workspace of one of his shareholders, but they have their own ‘front door’ and when you enter the space is their own – right down to the affirmations on the wall: