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Conversations with the Crew: Meet David Laing

by Rachel Murray, 28 February 2019

When I meet David for our interview, he’s extolling the virtues of DIY haircuts to Annie, the office manager. The night before, he’d cut his son’s fringe (“A tangible improvement!”) with the kitchen scissors and was offering to do the same for her in the future, after she’d already spent five of her finest English pounds on getting a trim at the pop-up barber downstairs.

Hoping this hasn’t sparked a desire to change career just as we’re about to discuss his current one, we walk to a quiet room at the end of the building to have a chat. I ask David to kindly to leave any cutting instruments behind in case his inner Nicky Clarke comes out mid-interview, to which he (luckily) obliges.

Hi David, welcome to 101 Ways! Tell me about your new role as CFO.

It brings together responsibility for Finance, Legal and Risk, so it’s much broader than simply looking at the numbers. The business is growing up and it’s really exciting to see investment in senior roles that will help take things to the next level.  

Having worked with Equal Experts for the previous seven years,
I have a huge amount of relevant experience as I’ve been down this road before. I’ve seen what works and importantly, what doesn’t work; I can therefore help advise at key decision points going forward.  

In three words, what makes you a good fit for 101 Ways?

Experience, integrity and approachable.

So, what drew you to the company initially?

I had heard really positive things about 101 Ways and was drawn to the strong sense of integrity the company exudes and the mission of wanting to do the right thing. There is a high level of strategic engagement with clients and that resonates with me.

Awesome! I’d love to know if the reality is any different?

It’s exactly what I imagined! I’ve worked with lots of different tech teams over the years, and 101 Ways feels like an extension of that. An agile environment breeds similar-minded people – those that are incredibly knowledgeable, are agile in the way they deliver software and their approach to consulting etc. I love the flexibility of it – the relaxed, non-corporate attitude is refreshing.

Earlier in my career, I worked for some very traditional employers, but having been in the technology sector for the last seven years, I can’t imagine going back.

What have you found to be the main difference between the two worlds?

The tech industry is much more relaxed compared to a traditional corporate environment, although there still needs to be an appropriate level of control in the business. People will naturally rebel against management being too prescriptive in the startup / early stage arena, so it’s more of a compromise between needing to keep things working smoothly on a financial level and treating people as ‘grown ups’. It’s my job to reconcile this and strike the right balance; minimal interference while still maintaining control.

I prefer working in SMEs because you can instantly influence something, and have complete oversight and engagement which is really satisfying. Working directly with the people that own the business is fundamental.

With that in mind, how are you going to help 101 Ways realise its scaling vision?

My previous role was with a really high growth tech company, so I’ve been down this path before.  It is important to create an appropriate infrastructure to support the growth of the business and allow it to maximise the opportunities available.  A combination of process, systems, automation and diligent financial and risk management will allow this to happen.

What’s your favourite thing about being part of a leadership team?

I love managing people and try to do it in a ‘hands off’ way; coaching them to take responsibility rather than doing it for them. It’s about making people feel like they’re in control and not treating them as a commodity. I think this breeds a real sense of loyalty in the team.  

It sounds like you’re very in tune with yourself and others, do you have a maxim that you live by?

Live for the moment – you’re a long time dead!

Tell us a fun fact that no ones knows about you?

I’m an obsessive mushroom forager!

Amazing! What else do you in your downtime to relax and forget about work?

I love cycling (I have a lot of bikes!) and have done the Etape de Tour three times – riding real stages of the Tour de France  whilst the is race going on (obviously not the same stages at the same time – sadly I haven’t met Chris Froome yet). 90 miles and four massive mountains – it’s no mean feat! But at this time of year it’s mainly indoors on Zwift – a virtual reality cycling and running video game that allows you to ride your own bike indoors and interact, train and compete with other cyclists in a 3D world. It’s very cool!

Failing that, I like to get outdoors and walking with my wife and children (aged 14 and 12). We walk miles every weekend and although they all moan initially, once we’re off, they love it!

Okay, thinking more generally, what do you think the challenges are going to be in the wider tech industry?

I’m sure you’ve heard this a number of times before but the IR35 legislation is always a challenge. In 2017, HMRC moved the liability for deciding employment status from the contractor to the client  for all public sector engagements, which is a complex and difficult thing to determine for anyone who isn’t an employment lawyer. HMRC are now consulting on extending this change to the private sector which will lead to significant uncertainty for the contractor market at a time when the UK needs it least.

As 101 Ways continues to scale the challenges will be around controlling risks during growth and managing increased scale in a managed way. Brexit has also lead to significant uncertainty, and many companies are delaying making investment decisions until there is some form of clarity.  To counter this, 101 Ways is investing both in the UK and overseas.

I can understand it’s a tense time! So when things get tough, what song is guaranteed to keep you motivated?

Mr Brightside by the Killers [we both air drum the intro in unison].

If you could invent any app, what would it be?

Zwift! They’ve secured $160m  in funding. It means I could cycle all the time!

Finally, what is the one piece of advice that you wish you’d been told / would pass on to those considering a career in tech?

Just believe in yourself – if you think something is right, don’t be told that it isn’t. Have confidence in your own ability!

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