Posted on March 13, 2014 by staff

Innovate To Accelerate

As UKFast ranks once again in the Sunday Times Best Companies list, Jonathan Bowers, managing director, and Neil Lathwood, IT director, explain how the firm uses innovation to drive growth and why even greengrocers should have their own film team.The link between innovation and growth is one that many businesses, especially in the digital industry, have embraced wholeheartedly, but what do we mean by innovation and what steps can a company take to really benefit from it?
Sitting with UKFast’s managing and IT directors in a meeting space surrounded by plants – flanked by waterfalls and accessible by a bridge – feels like a good place to start when it comes to answering these questions!
After all, innovation is one of the firm’s core values.
“It’s interesting,” Bowers starts, over the trickling of the water fountains. “For years, we’ve employed really clever people to offer telephone support and look after clients. A lot of them enjoyed doing their own pet projects in the background, and I think it’s a recognition and encouraging of these projects that’s led to some of our most innovative solutions.
“Being able to come out with innovative products that other businesses don’t have is something we’ve put a structure to over the last year,” says Bowers.
So, what does the company innovate? Original, breakthrough ideas or incremental changes that improve existing products and services? For UKFast, it’s a bit of both, as Lathwood explains.
“Creating something new might equate to an adaptation of something else or an amalgamation of multiple products or open-source codes that are out there already,” he points out.
“Our first question is always ‘what do the clients want?’ or ‘how can we make things easier for them?’ and sometimes that simply means adapting something, creating a software way of doing things that’s currently done by hardware, for example.
“In many situations, however, making people’s lives easier demands the creation of something new, such as load balancers. Years ago, we were the first people to take open-source systems, put that software with hardware and create hardware load-balancers that managed the resource across more than one dedicated server. There were theories about how it could be done but nobody was doing it in our environment so we were first to market with it.”
Evidence of similarly innovative products and services can be seen across the UKFast portfolio. For example, it was the first to create a load testing tool to help clients determine whether their IT infrastructure could cope with peaks in traffic, finding out how much a website could take before it crashed.
Knowing how much hosting power is needed for the demand they might experience is hugely important for businesses, especially those in ecommerce. But the path to innovation is not as simple as “ready, steady, innovate!” Companies must nurture innovation and work it into the very fabric of their culture over time.
At UKFast this has been achieved, in part, through empowering people. This is why many are working as directors of a department; people one might describe as internal entrepreneurs, such as the director of communications who created an internal PR agency and editorial team. But how did such an innovative culture come about?
Started in a back bedroom with little more than £2,000, UKFast grew because its founders, Lawrence and Gail Jones, ploughed profit back into the business.
“Every time they came up against having to invest in new systems or hosting products, they chose to create them rather than buy them ‘off-the-shelf’,” Lathwood recalls.
“We built our own systems because we had to and now the business itself is able to grow at the rate it does and do things like building its own data centres. It’s because we have this margin within the company as a result of our own in-house software allowing us to do things more efficiently than anybody else.”
There is no doubt that for businesses in the digital and technology industries, innovation is hugely relevant, but what about other kinds of companies? How can they embrace innovation?
“We’ve always said, even if we were a greengrocers, we’d have a film team,” concludes Bowers.
“Innovation can be about how you decide to share your products, tell your stories and build relationships. It’s important to communicate with people in the best way and, as new possibilities come up, think about how you can best present your identity as a business.”