How do you build a winning digital business?

Ed Bussey’s career spans continents, disciplines and industries; having been in the Royal Navy, a diplomat, VP of FigLeaves, Board member of Mr & Mrs Smith Boutique Hotels just to name a few. Your Ready Business sits down with Ed to discuss his career and his latest digital business Quill.

How did you get involved in digital business and what skills from the Navy/Foreign Service do you think helped?

My 13 years of government service taught me a lot of core skills, particularly around leadership and resilience. By 2000, I was ready for a career change though. I had already caught the entrepreneurial bug while studying at Cambridge University where I had set up a small business and sold it to a close friend. Together we went on to be part of the founding team behind one of the UK’s first internet retail pure plays, figleaves.com.

At this point, the Internet was just kicking off and I could see that it was going to fundamentally transform the world of business. So it felt as if building a digital business would be a smart move.

Although I was new to the broader landscape of digital technology, building any business is ultimately about leadership – specifically how you build, motivate and lead teams of talented people to achieve a mission. These were the skills I learnt, sometimes under very difficult circumstances, in the Navy and Foreign Service, which I’ve been able to draw on.

From your experience, what are the 3-5 things that have laid the foundation for their success of your digitally-oriented businesses?

I think it’s important to truly believe in businesses that you build. For me it can’t be purely about the money. I have to feel I’m also making a real and positive difference. In order to make the company a success, you have to put your heart and soul (and probably many hours) into it and believe in it. That authenticity of motivation influences everyone around you – your team, your customers and your investors. As the founder you’re the beating heart of the business, inspiring and energising those around you.

You must also have a crystal clear vision of what you are trying to achieve – and everyone working with you needs to be able to understand and articulate that vision with the same precision as you. This can be challenging in a world that is continually changing at speed. But that makes it all the more important and means that you need to be regularly recalibrating what you’re building with all of your stakeholders against that long term vision.

Don’t be afraid to go against the status quo. When we started figleaves.com in 2000 we were told people would never buy clothing on the Internet. We proved them wrong: clothing became one of largest online shopping categories globally. When we started Quill in 2010, I was told you couldn’t produce quality content at scale. We’re proving them wrong – by the end of this year we will have written over 15 million words of bespoke content, across more than 20 languages for over 150 brands and agencies around the world. Your idea might be disruptive, but that shouldn’t put you off if you believe you are solving an important problem in the market.

And finally, one of the most important things to remember is that you cannot build a successful business alone. As a founder, you often naturally want to be (and have to be) involved in every aspect of your business. While this might be possible in the early days, it’s clearly impossible to sustain as your business grows. And founding entrepreneurs are often not good at letting go. But to succeed fast, you need to relinquish control sooner than you might like, by hiring a strong team that you trust to do the job not just well, but better than you.

You started figleaves.com back in 2000. Is there anything new / different that people starting up a digital business today need to consider?

One key difference for me is that we now operate and interact in a world of ever greater transparency. That is the reality of the digital space and it can be an especially harsh reality for businesses who are not operating or interacting in a way that’s congruent with their audience. The days of saying one thing to your customers and doing another are (fortunately) over. Whilst the open scrutiny of much that has been previously hidden can be challenging, it is a hugely positive thing. It also means that, for businesses to succeed today, they need to have values and a purpose beyond simply making a profit.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned / piece of advice you’ve been given over the past 15 years?

One of the most helpful pieces of advice I was given early on is that the most valuable commodity for an entrepreneur is the opportunity cost of their time. If something is not working, you should draw a line under it very quickly. Move on and start something else. Too often entrepreneurs get emotionally attached to projects – especially vanity projects – that are in truth never going to work.

But equally if it is working, you should double down and give it your full and complete attention. Razor sharp focus and execution is essential for success in today’s business environment.

What have been your biggest challenges in terms of getting to where you have got to today, and what are your businesses biggest challenges right now?

My greatest challenge as the founder of a fast-growth business is finding enough ‘A players’ who have the right skills and who are a cultural fit for the sort of winning team I want to create. This is a challenge at the best of times, but is even more so when trying to bring people on board at the same pace at which a fast-growth business is growing.

An early-stage business such as Quill doesn’t always have the advantage (and budget) of being to hire ahead of the curve, so we are constantly on the hunt for talent to help drive the business forward as it evolves and continues to grow.