“I want to take a company from the lab to its first million and beyond”: An interview with James Evangelou on his 1 year RIG anniversary

James Evangelou joined Rapid Innovation Group in September 2015 after graduating from Cambridge and spending 6 month teaching English in Colombo. He spent a lunch with RIG Engagement Manager, Ffion Rolph, talking success, challenges, and his bid to take over RIG.

First things first, are you still happy to be here?

Yes! I’m still enjoying myself and I think there’s a lot to look forward to in the next year.

Good stuff. And thinking back, what made you want to join RIG?

Well, I was fresh out of university and looking for a job. I liked what RIG does and the technology areas in which it works looked very interesting.

After I met some of the team a few times, I felt there was a good fit. The third time we met, I was torn between working for RIG and taking an opportunity to teach in Sri Lanka for 6 months. When Shields told me to go to Sri Lanka and join RIG when I came back, I knew it would be a good place to work.

Did you have any preconceptions that turned out to be wrong?

I thought that there might be more of an individual focus, or that teams would be more distinct. In reality, there’s more of a company-wide team ethos. We all maintain our own areas of expertise but we address challenges together by drawing on the collective experience.

What’s been your biggest challenge over the last year?

I suppose I could try to define my greatest challenge with a particular moment or event. More generally, however, I think a great challenge for any new recruit is understanding and managing expectations in a new work environment. This comes back to the preconceptions you just asked me about. When I joined, I was told about the lack of formal hierarchy at RIG. But I still had my own notions about how things would work in practice and, at first, I had a tendency to defer to others’ experience or knowledge.

Over time, I’ve had to challenge myself to realise that it’s not about age or experience but about who is the subject-matter expert on a particular type of challenge or technology. In my first year, it’s been a challenge to put myself forward as a leader, but one which has brought a lot of opportunity.

And how about your greatest success?

I’ve really enjoyed finding interesting new technologies that we would like to work with and establishing the relationships to facilitate that. It’s also been rewarding to identify key applications and multiple value propositions for emerging energy technologies. The opportunity to prove and develop these with some of the largest energy service companies in Europe has bestowed a responsibility on me which requires organisation while fostering creativity.

What do you think are some really exciting technology areas right now?

I recently went to a conference on the ‘Industrial Internet of Things’ and this is an area I think is pretty interesting. What’s cool about it is that it overlaps with so many other things. It could be linked to advanced materials, industrial manufacturing, and a host of other things. This overlap is what makes it so interesting.

Beyond this, I’m also interested in energy infrastructure technologies – software or hardware – because of the significant macro challenges that they’re solving. The interplay of distributed generation, energy storage, and the significance of data in the wider energy ecosystem is demanding open innovation and collaboration It’s bringing out some clever technology in the process.

Any tips for some technologies to watch?

Energy storage is an area which is continuing to grow and is seen as an essential component of any electricity grid. The recent $85 million investment in the Germany battery company, Sonnen, is indicative of this perception. Storage, however, is a broad category that ranges from smaller scale home batteries to compressed air in large underground salt caverns and it will probably take a combination of these technologies to achieve a sustainable energy mix. For me, what’s really interesting is the integration of domestic battery technologies and their battery management systems with elements of device communication. This will help usher in the promised  era of smart homes and cities of the future.

I’d also like to add water technology to this list. Given the importance of water in our world and its increasing scarcity, an interesting water conservation or anti-desertification technology is something I’m keeping my eyes peeled for. The issue of water scarcity goes far beyond my interest in cool tech; it could well be one of the defining geopolitical issues of this century.

What do you think is one of the critical commercial challenges for an early stage technology company?

Finding the market before ‘finding’ the product. Tailor the product to the market and not the other way around. If the market isn’t obvious or there is no demand, then you need to look at selecting another market. How you position yourself relative to the market and the opportunity is more critical to success than how much time you spend perfecting your first prototype.

Define your ambition for us: where do you want to be in 3 years’ time?

Other than taking over RIG? I’d like to work with a really interesting technology, become an expert in that space, then develop and execute a strategy to take that company from the lab to its first million and beyond.

Finally, what’s it really like working at RIG?

Working here is both challenging and rewarding, and those two go very much hand in hand. The opportunities to work with interesting technology and be on the road mean that working here isn’t your standard office 9-5.

The people you get to work with at RIG aren’t half bad either.

Sink or swim: The Saga Continues

Here I am, back at RIG, 18 months after my original foray into the world of acronyms and I am continuing the irony of working with engineers when my father tirelessly worked to make me into one. We have not had a chance to discuss wind turbines yet, but I am sure that he will be interested in his engineer way and ask me questions that only an engineer can answer.

RIG stands out in terms of the experience you gain as an intern or recent graduate; you get thrown into the deep end from the first minute. This can be overwhelming but when the dust settles, you can be thankful for the experience. For exposure to client meetings and boardrooms from day one, for being given significant levels of responsibility and for doing work that is important and meaningful.

Plus, I was at a dinner party on Saturday and I think I impressed my engineer friends with my newfound knowledge of wind turbines and renewable energy. I also surprised myself by downloading their knowledge and storing it for when it will inevitably become useful at some stage in this project delivery.

I was greeted by a surprising amount of familiarity on my return to RIG. Taking photos of sleeping co-workers on public (or private) transport is still fully acceptable and my first two weeks have still been a period of intense information overload (but thankfully a lot less acronyms).

For now though, I will do as Dory advised and just keep swimming.

Recruitment Matters

I am flying to Geneva to interview a potential hire. It will take a day and it could be regarded as a time extravagance. But I don’t think so. Recruitment is the most important arbiter of company culture. The more senior the hire, the more this is true. Few activities are more important yet too often, too little time is found for an activity that is a significant determinant of the level of success a firm can achieve.  I would put my money on saying that the greater the investment in hiring practices, the greater the return. Skimping, rushing, or failing to work out best practice for your organisation is a false economy. Your organisation is who you hire.

Talent spotting and assessment is part of my job. It is one I enjoy thinking about. While there are occasions when we must hire, in general my approach is always to be on the lookout for talent. That means meeting a lot of people and hiring very few. If your organisation is harder to get into than Oxbridge then you are on the right track. At RIG, my hiring judgements are a mix between ‘facts’ and ‘feeling’ (which is judgement distilled from experience). I will hire a ‘junior’ quickly with feeling predominating. The more senior the hire, the more I bias the ‘facts’. Yet first encounters are essentially impression interviews. My goal is to get a sense of whether I want to proceed or not. IQ is very rarely an issue. Everyone who interviews at RIG is bright. I frequently half-joke that, in terms of IQ, that I am the dimmest person in the firm. In my mind, this is not a self-deprecating comment.  I take seriously the notion that if you want to build an A-team, always see yourself as a B looking to hire an A. IQ, of course, is just one dimension of intelligence. It has been argued that having a high IQ and relatively lower EQ is a defining characteristic of successful technology entrepreneurs. In our business, however, EQ is a form of intelligence that is as important, if not more important, than IQ. What our clients lack, we must have in spades.

When I am not entirely sure about my first impressions or I feel that my own prejudices are in danger of colouring my judgement, I will ask one or two of my partners to speak to the candidate.  There is no set agenda; I simply want their impression. While all of our partners are very different characters who will naturally look for different things, there is always a remarkable common sense of whether or not someone will fit.  I cannot recall an occasion when this was not the case.

The second encounter I often hold with one of our younger consultants. I value their opinion. They are closer in age to graduate candidates and will ask questions and arrive at insights that would otherwise pass me by. They are thinking whether they want to have lunch with that person, or be away with them on a three day gig. And, of course, then there is the matter of practice. Interviewing – asking smart and well formulated questions – is a core skill in our game. Never miss an opportunity to practice internally.

I take note of how candidates react to being questioned by one of our younger consultants. Some senior candidates clearly don’t appreciate it. They won’t work at RIG. RIG is flat. Junior consultants are actively encouraged to challenge their seniors. It is intelligent contribution that matters. If you are the best person to lead in a given situation then you lead. Younger candidates sometimes answer the question but refer to me. In this context, eye contact is the communication that matters. If they cut the younger consultant, they will not progress.

Common interview questions are well sign-posted. Candidates have answered them before. While I may admire how an answer is articulated, pre-packaged answers tell me very little. I know that much of the information that the standard sort of questions are designed to elicit will emerge should we progress beyond this stage. So I have two approaches I like to deploy. Often I will go through a case we are working on and ask the candidate what they would do. Or I pick an old case and ask them if we chartered the right course. Some candidates, irrespective of age or whether or not they have a business related degree, feel pressurised and put on the spot thinking that there must be a right answer. Others enjoy the exercise, ask lots of questions, and see it as a problem to be solved. They quite naturally seem to develop and assess a range of options to addressing the challenge. The latter will prevail and progress.

The second approach that I deploy is to inverse the interview and to get the candidate to interview us. I do this for several reasons. First, both parties need to gather data to make an informed decision. Consistent with this, it makes sense to give the candidate an opportunity to ask questions. Second, it drives home the point that selection should be mutual. We choose a candidate; the candidate chooses the firm. This, of course, is the basis of any employment contract though the balance of power between employer and prospective employee may differ greatly. In the competition for top graduates, the balance is pretty evenly weighed. Of course, many firms do not act this way. They proceed in ways that are consistent with their culture. Our approach is no different: it speaks of how we think about things. Third, you often learn more from the questions a person asks than the answers that they give. Given that candidates, most especially newly minted graduates, are generally more conditioned to answer questions, this is a revealing technique.

As our hiring process unfolds we derive data and impressions from a variety of exercise and sources which is then discussed internally. This part of the process cannot be rushed. I must feel there is a fit and know where and with whom the candidate will slot in. I will risk losing a candidate rather than rushing to a decision. Selection is much to do with pattern recognition. When I was younger, the pattern I knew best was my own. The temptation was to hire people like myself. That temptation has long been tempered. I have no doubt that our strength lies in our diversity. It is the dimensions that I question. We all have our strengths, preferences, and weaknesses; people we can spark off and work with effectively. Selection is not simply a matter of the individual. It is the shape and performance of the team that matters. Concocting that special brew is certainly part science, but it is also a creative pursuit and an act of imagination.

Gender and the firm

Our firm is not unlike many of its clients: the majority of our employees are male. This has been true since our inception. It is not an issue that has been much discussed internally. Nor is it one that I have discussed with clients and their predominantly male management teams. On both counts I am surely at fault.

I have championed the notion that it is the CEO’s responsibility to make sure that within its means, the company sources the best candidates. I have not been shy in advocating that growth companies should ‘always be hiring’; always be scouting for the ‘best’ talent rather than settling for the three or four candidates caught in the net of a recruiter’s trawl. And here of course is the rub: tech has always been and remains a heavily male enterprise. Recruiters work on the basis of matching a role with previous experience. The more senior the role, the more it seems the pool is loaded on the male side.

If attracting ‘the best’ is to be a serious proposition then the addressing the imbalance between male and female must surely be addressed. Can we claim to be hiring the best when we know that girls are outperforming boys across the board from nursery through to university? Add to this the common assertion that while IQ determines one’s success up to university, EQ will be the greater determinant of success thereafter. On this front, too, it would seem we are prepared to settle for less than the best.

At a senior level, companies need to pursue recruitment strategies that are more akin to internal promotions, where candidates are assessed not on their record of doing a similar job but on performance indicators that they have the talent and aptitude to do the job. The recruiter may well argue that this approach increases risk, but this is merely an argument for the perpetuation of the status quo. On this basis, no founding, first time CEO is qualified for their role or likely to be successful. The paradox here, of course, is that most great technology companies are closely associated with their founders who remained at the helm long after the start-up phase has passed.

It is with less senior hires that there is an opportunity to remake the future, level the playing field, and secure the best of the best. For the first few years at RIG we advertised our annual summer internships on the Cambridge Careers website. For us, internships are a serious business that are used to assess potential entry-level employees. For several years the number of male applicants outweighed the female applicants. We reviewed the language we used to described ourselves and reduced the emphasis on technology. The point, of course, is that to create a balanced pool of applicants takes some thought and design. Our primary commitment is not to employing equal numbers of men or women or to ensuring that the senior levels of the firm are populated by both genders; it is to ensuring that we are always hiring the best of the best.

Sink or Swim: Trial by Acronym

On board the 9.31 train to Horsham for a day with the client, I realise what I’ve gotten myself into. I’ve spent all week trying to get up to scratch with geothermal energy, FPSOs, LNGs, FLNGs, pipelines and platforms. You’d be excused for not understanding what some or any of that means. I’m still getting there myself. And at this particular moment, nervously sipping my orange juice, I’m sure my cover will be blown, and all the PHD engineers will see me for what I am – a second year arts student who has not even acknowledged science since GCSE.

We arrive at the office, and I meet all the tech specialists, the design specialists, the development specialists – a lot of specialists – and almost straightaway we are in the boardroom reviewing the pipeline of projects and clients for the near to medium future. I find myself caught in a deluge of energy firms I have never heard of, and acronyms are bouncing off the walls: EFA; PO; H2S; CAPX; OPX…I realise there are only two ways this is going to go: I either drown, or I swim. So I take notes and stay engaged, and I find myself extracting a lot of value from these meetings. Plus, I get the added bonus of conversation on the volatile oil reserves of my all-time favourite place, Kazakhstan.

Well, I made it to Day 5, so I’d like to think I swam. It’s been an intense week, and I’ve had to learn (or fail) quickly, but I have learned some important lessons that I’ll be taking with me to week 2:

  1. If you don’t know, ask.
  2. Mistakes are a learning experience.
  3. Thorough research pays off.
  4. You have to work quickly and still retain accuracy.
  5. Taking photographs of sleeping co-workers on public transport is fully acceptable.

This is only the end of the first week. I’m still a small fish swimming with the big fish. But I’m pretty sure FNhahe (Finding Nemo had a happy ending)

By Rumbi Makanga, summer 2013 intern

A Flying Start to an Internship

At 9.30 in the new part of the King’s Cross Station, I met up with RIG founder and MD Shields Russell to catch the 9.45 train to Cambridge. I was going to a client acquisition meeting on my first day, and I could not be more excited. After having discussed gardening and the Swedish start-up space for about an hour, we got picked up at the station by David Gates, to whom I will have the pleasure of reporting to for the coming two months. We had a quick briefing at the coffee shop and divided roles – note-taking seemed like an appropriate one for me.

The structure of the meeting was based around a presentation prepared by David on how RIG and the client could work together to increase profitability and the value of their business. From this presentation, a very stimulating conversation emerged, and the clients willingly admitted to having an extensive tech-knowledge but a limited focus on the commercial parts of the business. That was it. In a joint effort Shields and David explained how the RIG team could solve their problems with a very low risk for the client but with a huge potential upside for both parties. I do not think I was the only person in the room who was sold on the RIG business model.

After having (unsuccessfully) sprinted through Cambridge station, we were back in central London for our second meeting of the day. We had a more informal meeting with the founder of a completely different kind of business at a completely different stage than the first potential client of the day. After he outlined his 10(!) different products, it was interesting to learn how it can be a problem just to find the winner. Not a bad problem to have, but still a problem.

After having seen the face of my friend when I answered “I was in meetings all day” to the question of how my first day was, I really understood what a flying start to the internship I had. It goes without saying that I am very excited for the coming 7 weeks.

Lessons learned day 1:

  • Define clear roles within the organization. Everyone’s responsibility = no one’s responsibility.
  • Don’t be too nice to your clients – charge for the work you do.
  • Define a clear strategy for up-selling. You have already done the hardest part in acquiring the client.
  • Cambridge is absolutely beautiful.

Post by Erik Lehmann, summer 2013 intern

Tales of a New Starter

I’m in Dublin, sitting on the tarmac. The plane is ready for take-off, almost two hours late – wind is to blame. I joined RIG nearly 2 weeks ago, and so far I’ve been in the office for just one day.

I’ve stayed in 4 hotels, taken 4 flights (I hate flying), and I’m on the way to being an expert on all things renewable energy and high penetration wind power on Ireland’s electricity grid. Talk to me about TSOs, DSOs, DNOs, ENTSO-E, ROCOF and DS3: I’m down with all the acronyms.

This afternoon I presented our findings to our client following an interview that we conducted this morning with a high-voltage manager at Ireland’s national DSO. In Wales, we’d say that I did “alright like” (especially given that some rather rowdy individuals from the Irish Student Media Awards were attempting to break into my room at 4am this morning).
I’ve been riding an intense and very steep learning curve for two weeks, but it’s all been very interesting and enjoyable so far. I’ve learnt what Customer Relationship Management is all about, how to create a 3 month plan, and I’m also entering the world of blogging for the very first time.

A few weeks ago, I never would have believed that I would know all about “grid code compliance” or even understood what “spinning reserve” was all about. By now, those are the sorts of things that are filling my dreams each night. It just goes to show you what a fast-paced, engaging and informative industry I’ve found myself working in.

Right, I think we’re finally about to take off. It’s late and I’m on my way back home, and I’m still looking forward to tomorrow.

Jessica T, Internships, and Life at RIG

Jessica Tayenjam studied Modern Languages at Cambridge University. She speaks French and Spanish fluently and has lived and been educated in the US , UK, and France. Jessica started as a RIG intern. Today she runs RIG’s internship programme. She was interviewed by RIG Principal, Shields Russell.

SR: You run the intern programme, so let’s focus for a moment what it is like working at RIG. So tell me this: you could have had your pick of jobs, so why did you elect to work at RIG?

JT: I had the experience of working in the civil service and that was not for me: too bureaucratic, and it took too long to make a difference and make things happen.

Being a good Cambridge girl, I then had three options: banking, law, or consultancy. The first two were easy for me to rule out: 15 hour days and the general opprobrium of the world at large held little appeal, and my family is already riddled with enough lawyers.

So by the process of elimination that left consulting. As ones does, I diligently I submitted my applications and was lucky enough to get a handful of interviews with consultancies. The bigger firms seemed largely concerned by whether a language student could do maths and with the level of my Excel skills.

RIG didn’t ask me any of those questions. They were more interested in who I was and what I could bring to the company. For that reason, I chose RIG. And, of course, it didn’t hurt that one of consultants looked like Robert Pattinson.

SR: How has what you do at RIG changed over time?

JT: Roughly speaking, my work has evolved from doing what I was asked, to getting other people – colleagues and clients – to get things done, and now to thinking about what we should do, and why, and how. We are in a continuous cycle of problem-solving and execution. I used to be a bit player – now I play the whole circuit.

SR: Does working in a small firm present special challenges?

JT: You have to get along with everyone. There is no padding. You will be held accountable and need to hold other people to account, from ‘Why haven’t you washed your mug, Shields?’ to ‘Why haven’t you delivered for your client?’

SR: There is a gender imbalance at RIG that we are trying to address. Is it an important issue for you?

JT: Yes, definitely. Diversity in all its forms – not just in terms of gender – is a strength, as it gives us a range of experiences and opinions to draw upon. This is important because we don’t want to be a firm that just thinks or acts in one way.

SR: We use interns as a low risk way of sourcing and of assessing talent and fit. As the person responsible for running the process what are you looking for in the first instance?

JT: Obviously there is a basic threshold that all serious candidates must attain: they have to be smart, they have to communicate and present themselves well in their application, and they must be diligent.

Beyond that I am looking for people who have something interesting to say in their cover letters. I seriously doubt any university student has a ‘passion’ for consulting (as many claim to). I’d rather hear about something they genuinely are passionate about, and how they can transfer the skills learned there to the work environment. I think it is important for candidates to be involved in and care about something beyond just their academics.

SR: The most important thing about one’s first job is the opportunity to learn and build competence. How does RIG go about this?

JT: It is not a backroom training exercise. You are a key team member in a live client situation. We learn most at risk. There is no one to carry you, so you have to pull your weight, but it also means your contribution has the potential to be significant.

You get the opportunity to follow your interests, but you have to play your part in creating that opportunity. For example, I have developed an interest in B2B2C companies, which I probably know more about now than anyone else in RIG, and I pursue this interest in our client acquisition and marketing activities.

But it’s not all perfect: we need to be better at growing teams and defining team roles. We are a work in progress.

SR: Finish the sentence – People who do well at RIG are…

JT: Smart, open-minded, dynamic, adaptable, and hard working.

SR: People who would not enjoy RIG are …

JT: Unopinionated, timid, and find the idea of being a self-starter a bit of stretch.

SR: What interests do you have outside of work?

JT: I play rugby, I am a compulsive cleaner and a tidy nut (organisation is me), and I love to cook and travel.

SR: Would you say any of these interests have carry over into your work?

JT: For sure – I favour people who are team players and have little time for people who are not and who are reluctant to commit. Team spirit and a positive attitude are traits I value, and I appreciate people who are also willing to step up and lead the team when needed.

SR: What is the biggest lesson you have learnt at RIG?

JT: Always get Shields to buy lunch.

 

 

What I Know About Hiring and Firing: Part 4

In this fourth installment of this series on hiring and firing in growth companies, I look at the importance of ‘developing’ job profiles.

4.       Sweat the role

The hiring process is one with broader implications. Effective hiring starts with an attempt to define the role.

That is not to say that the hirer must be hostage to the role defined.  In the context of a start-up, role creep is simply adjustments made for learning and for talented individuals that make you think again. No two individuals will execute the same role in exactly the same way.  Find the “right person” and you will find yourself adding specific responsibilities and reassigning others.

What the hirer must bear in mind is the overall structure within which the role resides. That structure is largely determined by the company’s business model. The organising principle simply states that the optimum organisational structure is the one the best enables the company to ‘create, deliver, and capture value’.  For entrepreneurial ventures (businesses under construction), this is the point of departure that must be periodically revisited as hiring accelerates. Once the business logic for a function is firmly established, focus down on the role.

In start-ups, roles are widely defined. As the business develops, the span of roles contracts, and more specialisation is required.  To be the best ultimately demands recruiting and/or developing specialists.

Start by trying to define the key outputs of the role. These will determine the responsibilities of the role and inform how performance will be measured.

Second, try and be clear about how these outputs are to be delivered. Map the processes. Even where these maps are sketchy, they provide an invaluable source of discussion with the candidates. What will differentiate a strong performer from a weak performer is their method and the process they follow ( though they won’t talk about it in such terms). Interrogate their experience: explore how they might tackle the challenge given your particular circumstances.

The great challenge, of course, of hiring in a start-up scenario is that the basic premise of recruitment cannot be fully adhered to.  Recruitment is basically about finding a fit (i.e. between a desired set of capabilities and an individual who has demonstrated these capabilities in similar circumstances).  Hence the importance placed on the job profile by recruiters. A detailed and “knowing” description of the profile is ideal.

And there is the rub: in the start-up scenario job profiles, like the organisation itself, are often works in progress. Rather, the preoccupation is an on-going search for what works and can scale. The need therefore is not for a perfect fit for an imperfect, partially defined role; it is for an individual who can pioneer, work out, and define the role. That is how start-ups flow: from roughly and broadly defined roles, through first attempt, partially defined roles, to well-defined roles. People who are well suited to start-ups love these pioneering rolse.  People from larger organisations, used to operating within tightly defined job parameters, rarely do.  That is why in the early evolution of the organisation,’ big’ to ‘small’ so often ends in failure.

Click on the links to view part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series.

 

What I Know About Hiring and Firing: Part 3

In the past two weeks, I have been sharing my insight on the recruitment challenges of growth companies. In part 3 of the series, I discuss the benefits of promoting internally:

3.       Promote don’t hire

As the organisation grows, new roles and positions must be created. These generally fall into two categories.

First are those roles that demand some specialist competence and experience that is not found within the existing workforce.

Second are those positions that are essentially more senior management roles for functions that already exist, albeit in emergent form, and where some basic competence already resides in the organisation. In this context, consider promotion over hiring.

Ambitious, self-starting, driven young individuals are drawn to start-ups precisely because there is an opportunity to assume responsibility, pioneer a role, and simply ‘do stuff’. The self-learning opportunity is immense. Passion trumps experience. These individuals are what make start-ups tick. In many ways, they define the culture. They should be encouraged and rewarded.

In many cases, they may already be fulfilling the part, if not all, of the role you envisage. Give them the role before you give them the title. When they demonstrate the ability, talent, and energy to go further, promote them. That is the reward for working in a start-up – to gain more experience faster.

Find them mentors that can support them in tackling their most critical challenges. Look for mentors in your ‘circle’, and that includes tapping members of your board. While they won’t play the role themselves, ask them to suggest someone in their network. Get them to pull a favour. Mentoring works. Use it.

The fourth part of this series will be published next week. Click here to view part 1 and part 2.