What do you currently do?
I am CEO & Senior Partner of Ninety. Ninety is a social enterprise which owns various companies. The main one at the moment is Ninety Consulting, which helps large corporates behave more like startups, bringing low-cost, fast-paced, customer-centric experimentation from the Silicon Valley / Shoreditch scenes to big established monolithic brands. We’re predominantly focused on the insurance sector, where we work for global brands like Allianz, AXA, Zurich, and RSA, as well as some UK brands like LV= and Direct Line. In recent months, it’s been pleasing that our methodology and work has been rewarded with a slew of major industry awards
What was the inspiration behind your business?
Some people have a business for lifestyle. Others have it for a clear purpose. We’re in the latter camp: Ninety has a strong “why”, which is to do good business for our clients, and then use our profits to do good for society. I grew up in Burundi, the world’s poorest country, and – having experienced the level of need in the Third World – wanted to build a scaled business that could create a significant impact through distribution of its profits.
What defines your way of doing business?
We work like entrepreneurs. In fact, we hire exciting small-scale startup entrepreneurs and have them use their own default modus operandi to solve problems faced by our big-business clients. We find our clients love it. It’s the freshness of thinking, the ability to move at pace, the use of modern technologies, combined with the relentless focus on the customer, and the urgency to learn, learn, learn. We call our methodology “Change Different”: it’s a challenge to our clients to do change in a different way. Then for the fun bit: when a project is done, we calculate our margins and allocate 90% (hence the company name) of all distributable profit to the Ninety Foundation, from where it goes out to supporting social causes, particularly around sustainable solutions to poverty, using the principles of Effective Altruism. We look to start other companies in the Ninety group in the same way, becoming a start-up factory ourselves.
Who do you admire?
I admire people with bold vision, but very human ways of expressing those: Mother Theresa comes to mind, but also the thousands of social entrepreneurs out there trying to demonstrate a better form of capitalism. I admire people who are bold and creative, like James Dyson, Elon Musk and Richard Branson. And I admire people who commit so much of themselves to our vision: my fellow directors, Geoff and Andrew, for their wisdom, courage, achievements and selflessness; and my long-suffering wife Davina, for her belief in me in the darker times that all founders go through.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
A thousand things, probably. Top of that list, though, would be to make smarter hiring decisions, and particularly to hire for alignment to our mission and values. I’d pay far more attention to company financials, and particularly the cashflow. I’d delegate and build out a support team earlier to release my time to focus on growth. I’d work on focusing and narrowing proposition much more tightly. And I’d try damn hard to recruit more women: it’s a male-dominated world out there in digital tech & innovation.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
You’ll probably never be ready – there will always come a moment when you need to ‘step out of the boat’ and take the plunge. If you’re going to do it, though, don’t do small, and don’t do selfish. Life’s too short for small achievements: we may as well shoot for the moon. And there are enough people out there serving their own ends: be expansive in your generosity. Once under way, hang on to these words from Winston Churchill, from his speech to the Harrow graduating class in 1941. These have sustained me on more than one occasion: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never…”