A million Trunkis confirm Rob Law’s leadership growth
Rob Law – Founder and CEO of Trunki
Rob’s story is an interesting journey from designer to successful entrepreneur. It started with the Prince’s Trust and now sees the business he founded about to ship its millionth Trunki. But it hasn’t been easy and along the way he’s encountered several road blocks in the form of hand luggage bans, factories going bust, trying to fund-raise at the height of the economic crisis as well as his potentially disastrous appearance on Dragons Den.
I interviewed Rob Law recently at his offices in a converted Bristol chapel known as the Mothership. I asked him about his decision to join Footdown’s Bristol Fifteen leadership mentoring group, in 2008, and his experience of being a member since then.
So what made you join The Bristol Fifteen group?
I was first introduced to Footdown at a Prince’s Trust event in Bath. Mike (Mike Roe – Footdown’s CEO) was there along with Charles Fallon (an early member of The Bath Fifteen) and they told me a bit about it. It came at a good time for me. Up until then there was no way I would have been able to take a day out a month because it was just all hands on deck. But I had been in business for just three years and, coming from a design background and with no formal training in business, I thought it would be quite useful to maybe bounce ideas off people with a lot more business experience than me.
So were you looking for help with your leadership skills at the time?
No, leadership wasn’t a big thing for me at that time. It turned out to be later but at that time, no. I was just getting valuable feedback and insight from people who had done it before. And I really enjoyed the format of the guest speaker in the morning. I took quite a lot away from the first few speakers I saw – ideas and insights on what I could do to improve my business.
Who were some of the most memorable speakers?
In the early days, the doctor guy, Alan Watkins who spoke about emotional intelligence; something I had always struggled with myself.
The profiling I thought it was really interesting when we did it as part of the group (Bristol Fifteen) and I thought it would be useful to bring to the team, especially as we had a couple of people issues, and the whole team really enjoyed it. A few of them were quite apprehensive, and one didn’t actually come in on that day, but the whole team thought it was really useful.
Rob also enjoyed the experience of Nigel Risner trying to determine people’s personal contracts: I don’t think we’ve quite nailed my actual statement, but it was really interesting to see the other people in the group get theirs with Risner. It really did seem to resonate with them.
What was it like to join the group in the beginning?
It was very interesting to see how they all bonded and were really trusting with their information, so it gave me the confidence to share that too.
I guess it also came at the right time for me because I was looking to fund-raise and thought I could get quite a lot of advice from the group.
So what are some of the different ways in which the group has helped you?
They have been a great sounding board because running your own business is quite a lonely thing. There are not many people that you can talk to. Quite often your partner is not a good sounding board, and you can’t share concerns you’ve got with the business with some of your team, so just having someone you could talk to has helped me.
And some of my earlier mentors I had grown out of. My old man had built a retail design business and was helping us out in the early days as the book keeper. I bounced ideas off him originally, but then he wasn’t able to offer any insights that could really help formalise some decisions I needed to make.
My Prince’s Trust mentor was fantastic, when we were starting up, but I had outgrown his kind of expertise to some extent. So I was winging it a bit and I remember very clearly one day, in one of the very early Footdown group meetings, where I said to the group that I was getting a bit tired of winging it. They all laughed and said, “we’re still winging it now” which gave me a lot of confidence.
Are there other specific ways in which the group has helped you?
During the initial fund-raising phase that I was going through, at the height of the economic recession, I pitched my business plan and presentation to them. They offered me some advice and feedback that was pretty valuable and one of the other members helped me to get a group of potential investors together, along with a few people I knew. When I pitched to a potential syndicate in Bristol, a couple of the Footdown guys came along just to offer some support. We ended up with a group that were very interested and I also had another offer on the table from a single investor. Again, I went back to the group and said, “I’ve got these two options. What do you recommend?” They all said, “Go with the single guy rather than the group”. And Rob is enjoying working with this investor so the decision was clearly a good one.
Where would you have gone to for advice and support if Footdown didn’t exist?
I don’t know. We use industry consultants that have worked in our various industries and I’ve used them to offer advice to the team, but with regards to my leadership, I may never have quite grasped the importance of that concept so I wouldn’t have gone out looking for it.
So some of the things you’ve gained from the group were things you didn’t know you were looking for, in particular leadership skills.
It was really after the first couple of meetings where a lot of the focus, and many people’s problems, were around leadership. It suddenly dawned on me that taking the business to the next level was going to be all about the people and the team. We were constantly evolving the recruitment processes, and it was all very well having the team on board, but then keeping them engaged and fully inspired was going to be quite a challenge. And that’s really what I starting learning a lot more about through Footdown.
So what specific things did you learn about leadership?
I got a lot out of the Good to Great book that was recommended. And I set about creating a very clear vision and a set of values for the business. But a lot more of the leadership stuff has come from Anne (Anne Summers, leader of The Bristol Fifteen) and dealing with people issues with her. She is a great sounding board when it comes to the issues that I’ve got with people and we now use her as a management coach for my management team. In fact, she’s on the company structure as ‘The Oracle’.
What have you done differently as a result of being a member of Footdown?
I spend a lot more time and effort really building my team, coaching my people and sharing with them what we are wanting to achieve so they are all fully on board and engaged.
Rob shares things he hears about in group meetings, such as the book Leadership and Self Deception, that: “I read on a flight to a trade show and I thought was really interesting. When, a week or two later, my whole sales team fell out, I sat them all down, bought them each a copy of the book and asked them to read it by Wednesday, when we will sit back down and talk about it. That really helped to open their eyes to how it was really themselves and not other people that were the problem.
Also, I’ve learned to address an issue very early on. Before joining Footdown, I would put it off and it probably grew into a big problem.
A particular example of the value of dealing with issues promptly occurred shortly after Rob joined Footdown. One of the Footdown members had sat in on an interview for a new head of sales, and helped confirm he was the right person. However, things starting going wrong soon after the new head of sales joined the company, as the culture of Magmatic meant that people weren’t used to being told what to do. “He stood on a lot of toes and upset a lot of people”. Anne helped with this issue as well and the result was: “It all worked fine. It took quite a bit of work, but we managed to highlight the issues and he really embraced the whole leadership thing too, which is just as well as he has the largest team here now.”
Finally, what would you say to other leaders about the value and experience of belonging to a Footdown group?
It does what it says it does on the tin. It’s about not feeling lonely as a leader. Having people I can call on and ask for help from. But Footdown has also made me realise that I needed to focus on my leadership skills to keep the team fully engaged and that is definitely worth it.