Felix Velarde

Feb 08 issue

In 1996, Felix Velarde founded eCRM specialist Underwired. A year later, he launched B2B multimedia company Head New Media, which he went on to sell to Lowe & Partners, the fourth largest advertising agency in the world at the time

Like a lot of new media agencies, we have a bit of a hippy atmosphere in the office. Digital media can be a high-pressure environment, so surrounding yourself with considerate and honest people makes for a better company culture and can help to reduce that stress. We tend to hire on personality rather than technical skill because you can train people who are bright, but you can’t teach someone to be a decent human being.

I tend to be a bit of a “handbag”, which means I sit in the middle while a lot of talented individuals dance around me. My creative director is the one with the skill, but that means I have to be very picky about who we hire. If you are a perfectionist and your strength is in leadership, you need a strong team to be effective.

Innovate to succeed
Businesses survive on change. To grow value you have to innovate and every so often have a bit of a shake up. I do this by having monthly brainstorming sessions with staff to see what could be changed in the company, and regular meetings with my planning director to discuss upcoming developments in the sector. If we like a new technology we might begin experimenting with different ways that we can use it to benefit the business.

The whole point of experimentation is that a certain proportion of projects are unlikely to bear fruit. For instance, the work we did in the 1990s on interactive television as a marketing tool didn’t go anywhere. The trick is working rigorously to figure out how to measure that success or failure, and to minimise the risk to
the business.

A successful company quite often relies on serendipity, so it’s important to be open to potential opportunities. For example, I was in a computer store about 12 years ago and I got talking to someone who was having some technical problems with his machine. I put him in touch with a friend who I thought might be able to help and he called up and invited me out for coffee to say thanks. We were in a similar business so I jumped at the opportunity to begin meeting up regularly and we were eventually able to send a lot of business each other’s way. He now runs one of the most successful direct marketing agencies in the country.

The outside view
It’s very easy to get tunnel vision when you’re running a company, but it can be avoided. Having outsiders come in and look at the business is invaluable. You shouldn’t be scared of someone telling you what needs to be tweaked. In fact, I think if you are scared of it you probably need it more than someone who isn’t.

Last year we conducted a commercial audit of the business and it was awesome. These were industry-specific management consultants who were able to articulate things about the business that we’d not picked up on ourselves. It cost around £15,000. I think it probably saved us three times that fee. I wish I’d done it a decade ago; I’ll definitely have a commercial audit every three years now.

It’s also important in a high-pressure environment to have someone not involved with the running of the business, like a retired entrepreneur, who you can go to see and offload to every six months or so. It’s liberating to speak openly with someone who knows what it’s like to be at the helm.