Closing any deal is an event created by a process. The event itself involves getting the deal over the completion line. It is no more than the summation of a process that starts once a degree of mutual trust and interest have been established. Opening is a fluid mix of sparking interest (i.e. potential but still unsubstantiated fit and benefit) and relationship building. Relationships matter as they create access and provide the agency that gets things done and the medium through which information and insight is channelled and processed. Importantly, they also allow us to understand first hand what is important to an individual and an organisation. That is where empathy starts. In dealmaking, to deal is to empathise; to be able to imagine things from your counterpart’s point of view. Empathy is not simply a matter of adding another invaluable perspective, it is that soft intelligence that can lubricate the process, help smooth the bumps, and resolve the thorniest of issues. While creating ‘an opening’ is a prerequisite to selling, it is not in my book selling. It is a skill apart and a high value one at that when there is a significant degree of complexity and multiple players involved.

Determining the degree of fit, and the business case that may emanate from it, is a critical stage. The more thorough the work here the greater the probability that subsequent activities will progress smoothly. This is an evidence-based stage characterised by information sharing. The more structured this process, the better. Have a plan of what to share, with whom, and importantly, when to share. Building the business case – the ultimate measure of fit – in particular should never be presented as a fait accompli. Rather it is a very deliberate process. Agreeing a methodology (i.e. how value can be evaluated) is important because sellers are often guilty of presenting benefit cases that underestimate adoption costs while buyers may try and inflate them. The best form of persuasion (i.e. selling) are ‘facts’ messaged and presented in a manner that is compelling by virtue of being irrefutable. That is the subtle art of ascribing meaning to facts.

The basis of all sales is arbitrage: the buyer pays x for something potentially worth a multiple of x.  For the buyer that is the difference between cost and value.  This is where IP based propositions that are a multiple better than the incumbent technologies should be at a major advantage. The higher the multiple the greater and more transformative the potential value. Of course, the imperative here is transparency. Indeed ’radical transparency’, to borrow an acquired phrase, makes absolute sense. No bullshit required. Just detailed hard proof that for many of the companies RIG works with can only come through a period of collaboration. To fall short of ‘showing the value’ is to sell your technology short. Falling back on persuasion, however articulate and passionate the advocate, is a poor substitute for empirical, substantiated, indisputable, shared and accepted evidence of value. In this stage at least, the best way to sell is simply not to.

Beyond the core challenge of agreeing a methodology for establishing value, there is always an extensive list of associated ‘issues’ (not least those related to IP) that must be worked through before a closing event becomes a possibility. Failure to identify or anticipate an issue will delay ‘the close’ or lead to premature attempts to close a deal that is not yet closable. An apt metaphor might be borrowed from my boyhood:  compare this final stretch to building a model airplane of the type that predate the machines that you can order on Amazon and that are ready to fly straight out of the box. For the plane to fly the build had to be completed to spec and the little engine perfectly calibrated. Everything had to be just right, which took a fair amount of checking and tinkering, otherwise the plane failed to take off or crashed shortly after take-off. The most important tool was a comprehensive checklist.

The critical challenge of agreeing commercial terms is the penultimate activity before ‘the closing event’. This essentially involves trade-offs between cost and anticipated value. The buyside argues cost (and if procurement gets involved it will almost inevitably try to divorce cost from value as is their brief) while the sellside must stick to the language of value. To fall immediately into a pricing dialogue dominated by arguments around cost is to be seduced by the dark side. Instead frame your arguments using the language of value. How challenging this negotiation is primarily a function of how well you have executed the preceding stages. Though you will be frequently told otherwise, there is little in truth that cannot be anticipated or established before the negotiation to ratify final terms. An agreed methodology to evaluate value will at the very least enclose the discussion within parameters that make reaching agreement easier. The result we get may in part be down to our planning and negotiation skills but in much greater part it is down to leverage. Leverage is power and that power is found, created, built, adjusted, and understood as the process unfolds from first contact. In sum, the most skillful closers are those who know how to create leverage and use it to shape their counterpart’s decision-making, so that they seek in their own interest, terms that closely resemble the ones the closer set out to achieve in the first place.


From electricity metering to cookie cutters

A common trope in the smart buildings and energy efficiency technology space is that there is no cookie cutter approach to effectively manage energy in buildings. It’s a statement that speaks to the myriad of factors that can affect how individual buildings operate and how one technology solution does not fit all sizes.

A few months back, an energy management and smart meter expert from a global consultancy was in our office to discuss big data approaches to energy management. In particular, we were discussing the growing significance of circuit-level data in the built environment.

As our conversation went on, we began speaking about his native Australia and funnily enough it turns out his sister-in-law has carved out quite a niche market in selling cookie cutters (I’m not using a metaphor here). Lisa set up Cookie Cutter Shop in 2013 having identified a significant market opportunity.

We thought it’d make an interesting post on our entrepreneur’s viewpoint page. Unfortunately, I didn’t get an all-expenses trip to Australia, but I did have the pleasure of speaking with Lisa…

How did you identify that there was a market for cookie cutters in Australia?

In my previous role as the owner of a bricks and mortar kitchenwares specialty store we were constantly asked for cookie cutters that we didn’t have in our small range.  We would try to assist customers to find what they were looking for and couldn’t find many of the items from our Australian suppliers or other retailers.

You’ve now built up quite a significant range of cookie cutters. How did you go about sourcing these and developing relationships with suppliers?  

Trade events are an excellent source of new ideas, inspiration and networking.   Particularly if you can attend trade events that are not in your local area then the opportunities for you to meet with new suppliers that could bring something unique to your business are almost limitless at the larger shows.  It was at our first trade fair in Frankfurt that I discovered the diverse and unique range of cookie cutters available from Europe.

How have you made your brand defensible in the market?

We have targeted a niche product within the huge retail category of baking and cake decorating.  There are many online businesses selling cake decorating supplies with a small range of cookie cutters but our main goal was to have the largest range of cookie cutters available from the one place in Australia.  If we don’t have it we will do our best to assist our customers to find it.  We have also more recently partnered with a manufacturer in Spain to make our own custom design cookie cutters so that we can offer cutters that are perfectly suited to our market as well as being the best quality.   As well as the largest range and excellent quality products we pride ourselves on the best customer service which assists us to retain our customers.

What do you see as your biggest challenge?

During these first few years the balancing act of adding new cutters to our range whilst not going overboard has probably been my biggest challenge.  I have always loved cookie cutters so every time I see a new shape I want to be able to offer it to our customers.  We need to balance the cost of our inventory and its storage whilst growing the business and brand.

The other challenge is that our products are reasonably low cost so we need a certain volume of orders to meet our fixed costs.  Keeping our fixed costs low is very important and has also been challenging.

Do you think your business model can be exported to different markets in the world, or did this work only in its particular Australian context?

I believe this model could certainly be exported to other markets in the world.  Especially those markets that don’t have an established network of larger cookie cutter suppliers.  There are certainly opportunities as we are sending many international orders each day at the moment.

What’s the most interesting cookie cutter shape you’ve seen out there?

This is a hard question, the most interesting cookie cutter shape.  The most interesting for me are the really detailed and intricately made cutters like our lighthouse cookie cutter or Cologne Cathedral.  These cutters make cookies that don’t need any decorating because they just look so beautiful with all the embossed details.  I also love checking out antique shops for vintage shapes.


The other interesting set of cutters would have to be the ninjabread men. They are a bit of a hit with customers also.

And lastly, what’s your favorite home cooked meal?

At the moment with a fussy 3 year old in the house, my favourite home cooked meal is anything that she will eat without too much bribing!  Seriously though I think my favourite home cooked meal would have to be a simple roast pork with ample crackling and apple sauce.  It has been my favourite for as long as I remember so it probably has some sentimental value also.

In regards to home baking I am enjoying experimenting with some of our Christmas cookie cutters this year and making some delicious vanilla butter cookies spiced with Gingerbread spice.

A conversation with Ffion Rolph, Rapid Innovation Group Project Director

RIG’s summer intern, Nadya Kelly, sat down for lunch with Ffion Rolph, RIG’s project director. Over some pizza and coffee, they discussed Ffion’s time at RIG, technology interests, and gender issues.

NK: How did you end up working for RIG?

FR: Honestly, I came out of university, and like most people, didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I had a couple of ideas. I’ve always been into politics – I studied it at university and had been working at the Welsh Assembly for a while before I came across RIG. A friend knew someone who worked here. I decided it looked interesting and after meeting Shields a few times, it seemed like the right fit.

NK: What did you want to do as a kid, and how does working at RIG square up to your first aspirations?

FR: When I was younger, I was (and still am) really into sports. I wanted to be the first female Formula One champion. I’m a bit of a speed freak. As I got older, I wanted to be a barrister for a while, but I’ve always had a strong interest in science and technology. I feel like at RIG, I’m really engaging the geekier side of my personality and getting to indulge that.

NK: What do you say when you meet someone new and they ask you what you do?

FR: I tend to tell people about the tech and the specific challenges that I’m working on at the time. I find giving examples really helps. Most of the time people find those technologies interesting so it’s a great starting point!

NK: Do you enjoy having a broad scope of work at RIG or would you like to delve further into specific companies that really interest you?

FR: Deep down, I am probably a generalist. I really like variety but sometimes it can be rewarding or even essential for RIG to develop an intimate understanding of molecular level science. We have to get to know the industries in which we work, inside out. I enjoy new challenges, learning about new technologies, and maintaining the possibility of getting involved in many different fields.

NK: The natural next question is what are your specific interests in technology, and what do you think is particularly interesting right now?

FR: At risk of sounding cliché, energy is a huge challenge facing the world right now. There’s an emphasis on finding solutions for energy generation but that really is only half of the puzzle. Now we have a variety of renewable energy sources generating intermittent energy, there will be challenges to do with ensuring supply if we are to successfully transition to a renewable grid.

The automotive industry is really what is driving things forward in terms of battery storage but I think there’s also space for other solutions that might be more geared towards grid-scale storage; things like Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES). I think that the energy storage challenge definitely needs a bit more attention and funding over the next decade or two. Once we match storage with generation, we will have a complete solution.

The other thing I think is probably water. I’m going for the big themes! We’re always told that the world has enough food to feed itself two or three times over but that we just can’t distribute it. With water, we will have to address increasing shortages otherwise we face significant political and humanitarian consequences.

I think people are starting to become aware of the issues around meat and how much energy it takes to create one serving of beef, for example. People are starting to think about sustainable farming, how we distribute food to the areas of the world that need that food. We might be looking back at subsistence farming, which is how agriculture started. So I don’t think food is so much of a problem, but water, especially with climate change, is going to become a very scarce resource, so making the most of the water that we have, being able to reuse it, treat it efficiently, to use less energy when treating it, is going to become very important. So, what’s interesting today is working with the technologies that address the treatment of water and the energy required to use it.

NK: Do you enjoy a particular part of the process of helping companies to grow the most?

FR: I think because I like learning a lot about new things, the first few months – which are all about having conversations with experts in the market, learning about why or why not a technology might be interesting, becoming an expert in that sort of space – is always very satisfying. If you have any intellectual curiosity, you’d love doing that kind of thing. Once you’ve got enough knowledge of the market to understand how the technology might succeed, it’s very exciting to put together significant commercial deals either with a large internationally recognised partner – the Veolias of the world – or to get involved in direct sales. There is a certain excitement involved in sales and a sense of achievement in completing any deal, so I think that’s probably where I would look to focus in the future. I’ll still retain the intellectual curiosity but I think putting together relationships to deliver technologies that make a sustainable and meaningful difference to people’s lives is fairly exciting.

NK: Given a good idea, do you think your experience at RIG means you would now be excellently placed now to become an entrepreneur?

FR: Definitely, and I’d like to think if I came up with an idea for a company and there was an opportunity to do something then maybe I could build that within RIG. I wouldn’t want to hand it over to anyone else. If I started a company tomorrow, I would grow it by following everything that I already do at RIG to the same principles. I would love to be able to do that one day. I mostly want to own a restaurant which is still being an entrepreneur but a bit more on your feet!

NK: Do you think there is a gender issue at RIG? Is it problematic?

FR: I think when you look at the company, yes, it is easy to think that there’s a gender problem because there aren’t many women, and all the equity partners and directors are male. I don’t think, however, that there’s any lack of desire to hire more women. We would really like to have more women on the team; we’d like it to look 50:50 at least.

While RIG has its part to play, there is also a societal challenge around getting women into STEM subjects and careers. We still want to do everything we can to change that. I play an active role in recruitment: I place vacancies for grads and interns, and the ratio of applications that we get is really five-to-one male to female. So, while we want to hire more women, when the pool is so biased, it can be difficult. That isn’t to say that we don’t make a concerted effort to hire women but it does highlight part of the challenge faced by RIG and companies like it.

So yes, there is a challenge around gender at RIG but the company undoubtedly has several feminists, including men. Everyone, including women, can be guilty of internalised sexism but RIG is definitely an atmosphere where those notions can be challenged. People are very open to new ideas.

NK: What’s been the most challenging thing for you at RIG?

FR: Learning to understand that not every company we work with will succeed. Obviously, what we are interested in is building companies that solve macro-challenges, global challenges. Some of those companies may grow to be very big but Shields has always said we’re quite good at keeping companies going or maintaining a reasonable rate of growth, but that’s not why we or any of the entrepreneurs we work with are doing this. It’s a cliché but it comes with the idealism of entrepreneurs: they want to either ‘change the world’ or build huge financially successful companies. I still do and will always find it difficult when we stop working with a company. There are many reasons why: the company stops being successful; we discover that there is no market for its technology; or there is a technical issue which cannot be resolved. Regardless, it always feels a bit like a break-up.

I’ve worked with a few technologies which, on paper, sounded great. There was one which had a great story… We were setting up conversations with global players across a number of industries. Things were progressing well but once we started testing programmes with some of these potential partners, the technology did not perform as expected. That was sad and it’s fair to say I found it tough.

NK: How do you address the subtle diplomacy involved in dealing with clients?

FR: I think you have to be fairly emotionally intelligent and have a good deal of empathy. I think you have to remind yourself that even though it may be clear that the market is saying one thing (i.e. it challenges the entrepreneur’s views), you have to imagine that if you had developed the technology over 3, 5, 10 years like some of our clients, it would be like your child. If someone tells a parent their child is naughty or does something wrong, the parent doesn’t take kindly to it. It might be a weird analogy but I think you know what I mean.

All of us want to see the technologies that we work with succeed, but it’s all about how you deliver messages. We’re all on the same team at the end of the day. We have the same objectives but the honest feedback is not always what people want to hear.

It is important to appreciate they (our clients) are experts in what they do; visionaries who’ve developed something entirely novel. They’ve seen an opportunity, they’ve developed a great idea, they’ve built a technology. That requires a great deal of capability so you have to be conscious that some of their objections are quite valid. It doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes frustrating!

The draw of a silly assumption

On paper it might make sense: hire a commercially minded executive who has ridden the tiger at a fabulously successful growth company, who has been there and done that, and low and behold the same result will transpire. Unfortunately, this will rarely happen in practice (at least not in the formative stages – see below) yet it is an assumption that in the sweaty heat of entrepreneurial aspiration is alluring.  It follows a predictable path in how we seem to process success and failure. If a project or indeed a company is hugely successful it is all down to us; if it fails it is because of someone else or some external factor. The ‘us’ part in business (most especially in the mythologising realms of entrepreneurship) tends to be reduced to the individual ‘hero’ leader and while individual agency and inspired leadership are critical, this is the most demeaning of fallacies to co-workers – as if they were simple appendages in constructing success. The art of building the successful venture company is a team sport. There can be no leader without a team and no team without a leader.

Of course, if we bet that hiring the battle-hardened veteran (the ‘grown-up’ as some VCs might put it to shepherd the innocents), will put the world to rights then the odds are high that a mismatch is on the cards. No matter how brilliant the manager, if the product sucks there is no salvation. If the new manager has led a team that grew from 20 to hundreds and built revenues from a few miserable millions to tens of millions then it will matter not one jot if that difficult-to-find first market has not been found.

In truth, growth managers who know how to build a company are valuable. They matter but they only matter once the company has located itself in the slipstream of a market that will pull it from being a start-up to a venture scale company and beyond. Before that, there is nothing to build on. All too often the ‘been there done that manager’ is hired too early. Their experience and competence has been forged in harnessing and exploiting the demand unleashed by locating a breakthrough market. Their expertise is in scaling – in driving and underpinning growth with structure and process. Their challenge is not the pioneering and discovery work that must always be undertaken and which so often limits the growth prospects of aspirant company.

Competent growth management will determine the parameters of a company’s success. They enable the scaling process. But they are not the answer to finding strong organic growth or to addressing product design challenges. That is not their role.