Today’s Guest David Johnston
Get ready to meet a real-life business superhero, the champion who led a B2B publishing team to unbeaten heights, earning him the nickname "Thierry" after Venger's Invincibles! Following his HMRC publishing stint, he negotiated mergers, settled disputes at the Cabinet Office level, and built an impressive portfolio in M&A. Now, he's shaking things up by redefining the non-exec role for everyone from private equity teams to SMEs, pioneering innovations in governance, regulation, compliance, and legal services. Fasten your seat belts—it's a thrilling ride with "Thierry" at the helm!
- Versatile Career Path: David's transition from a legal background to leading a B2B publishing team demonstrates the value of adaptability and diverse skill sets in today's business world. His journey is a testament to the importance of embracing change and leveraging varied experiences to drive success.
- Strategic Business Growth: Johnston's experience in scaling a business from £4 million to £120 million offers practical lessons in understanding competitors, innovating in marketing, and managing growth. His insights highlight the critical elements of business development and the evolving role of technology in this process.
- Work-Life Harmony: Beyond business acumen, David's involvement in choral singing and founding "24, Venti Quattro" choir underscores the importance of personal interests and hobbies for wellbeing. His approach to balancing professional endeavours with personal passions offers a refreshing perspective on maintaining mental health and overall happiness.
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David: [00:00:00] I did a range of things. When I was through the heady days, I learned how to horse ride, for example, um, which is a... It's a, I recommend it, it's a great way for people, if you're ever up to your ears in management, stress and stuff, um, a horse doesn't care about that, but you, you do have to listen to what they want rather than tell the way.
Um, but no, I've, I've just launched a new choir up in Banbury and, uh, It's had a very good reception for its first run out. It's called 24, Venti Quattro, and launching that was every bit as hard as launching any of the products and whatever back in the old days. And it really is cathartic in getting 24 good singers together and pointing them at some really good music has been fun.
Matt: Welcome to Push To Be More, with me, your host, Matt [00:01:00] Edmundson. This is a show that talks about the stuff that makes life work, and to help us do just that. Today, I'm chatting with my guest, David Johnston, from NED Legal, about where he's had to push through.
What he does to recharge his batteries and to be as well as what more looks like. Now the show notes and transcript from our conversation will be available on the website at pushtobemore. com and whilst you're there if you haven't done so already make sure you sign up for our weekly newsletter and each week we'll email you the links.
And the notes from the show automatically they go direct to your inbox totally for free, which is amazing. Oh, yes. Now, this episode is brought to you by aurion Media, which helps entrepreneurs and business leaders set up and run their own successful podcast. Why on earth would you want to host your own successful podcast?
Well, it all comes down to marketing. I have found running my own podcast to be [00:02:00] really rewarding. It opens doors to amazing people like nothing I have seen. I've built networks, made friends, had a platform to champion my customers, my team and my suppliers. And I think just about any entrepreneurial business leader should have a podcast because it has such a huge impact on my own business.
Of course, this all sounds great in theory, doesn't it? But in reality, There's a
whole chunk of problems that go along with this, uh, Matt, like distribution, getting the tech right, getting the right strategy. Who do I talk to? Who do I get as a guest on the show? The whole nine yards. That's where aurion Media comes in and solves all of those problems.
You see, I love talking to people, but I'm not a big fan of all the other stuff, like production. Who likes production? Apparently, aurion Media does. They take it off your plate, uh, and I get to do what I'm good at, and they brilliantly take care of the rest. So if you're wondering if podcasting is a good marketing strategy for your business, and I [00:03:00] think it probably is, do connect with them at aurionmedia .
com. That's a u r i o n media. com. Com. So that's the show sponsor, the fabulous aurion Media. Now let's talk about our fabulous guest. Get ready to meet a real life superhero in the business world. Excuse me, clear my throat. The champion who led a B2B publishing team to unbeaten heights, earning him the nickname Thierry after Wenger's Invincibles.
Oh yes, and following his HMRC publishing stint, he negotiated mergers. Settled disputes at the cabinet office level and built an impressive portfolio in M& A. Now he's shaking things up by redefining the non exec role for everyone from private equity teams to SMEs, pioneering innovations and governance regulation, compliance and legal services.
The whole nine yards basically. Fasten your seatbelts. [00:04:00] Oh yes, it's going to be a thrilling ride with Thierry at the driver's wheel. Thierry, great, I should probably not call you Thierry. David, great to have you on the show, great that you're here man, how are you doing?
David: Thanks, Matt. It's a long time since I've been called Thierry, but it brings back some good memories.
Matt: You know what, as I was reading it, I'm kind of like, I think I'm showing my age slightly because, um, you know, apart from VaVaVoom, you know, you're kind of like, Thierry was an absolute legend, wasn't he, when playing for Arsenal, and I remember many, many times watching him play, thinking I wish I could play football like that, um, so yes, are you an Arsenal fan?
David: I'm wrong shaped ball, really, to be honest. I'm, uh,
Matt: Oh yeah, Rugby Guy,
David: Northampton Saints team, which is, it's the real supporters club where you have to put up with more pain than glory. But, uh,
Matt: That's what it feels like to be a Liverpool sporter this [00:05:00] year, um, which has been my burden I've had to bear. Oh, it's great to have you on the show, so, um, David, let's kick off, shall we? Now, As you know, this show is sponsored by aurion Media and aurion Media specialise in helping people like yourself set up and run podcasts for their business.
So I'm curious, if you did have a podcast and you could have any guest from your past or your present, the only caveat being that they have had to have had a big influence on your life, who would be a guest on your show and why?
David: give it some thought and it's tricky to pick any of the, uh, guys above ground, frankly. Um. The biggest one I guess was J. S. Bach, and Johann Sebastian is a theme right the way through from when I was a nipper.
David: He's, uh, he's a stunning character to watch. Uh, most people have this horrible picture of the, uh, the Dauer, [00:06:00] German.
Um, sort of mathematician, style musician. He was much, much more than that. He was a very dynamic character who also got kicked around a lot by, uh, by the way life treats you. But, uh, yeah, he's been on my shoulder pretty much all the way through. And a champion of excellence. That's very much his thing. Uh, the other, I would guess, surprisingly and it was kind of an antidote to doing an MBA
many, many, many years ago. Um, a guy called Rob Townsend is probably out of fashion now, but he wrote a book
Matt: don't know.
David: Organization. Up the Organization. And he still sticks with me. I'm probably a fan of people like Porter and Christensen on the economic side of things, but Townsend had that unique ability to actually just take the mickey out of stuff and lighten things, especially big company bureaucracy and the hard stuff he did with a smile.
Matt: Yeah, no, absolutely. It's, I think it's a quintessentially British trait, isn't it? To, um,
Matt: to make fun of the, of the
David: absolutely. You've got to take the business seriously, but not yourself. That was
Matt: yeah, yeah.
David: approach to it.
Matt: That's, I mean, that's interesting. Townsend, I know, um, Bach, I obviously know, but, um, I'm not gonna lie, it's the first time anyone's sort of mentioned some, someone like Bach, a musician or a composer.
So, why Bach? I mean, I, I mean, I, You know, you sort of talked about his life not being as we pictured it, but why, why does he sit on your shoulders? What is it that kick started that? I'm curious, where did that come from?
David: He was counter cultural in the sense that when he was composing and when he was doing most of his best work he was in what would now be called the flyover states in America if you follow me, really. He's in the middle of Germany, in the middle of... Nowhere, really. He's in a backwater. He's producing some of the most intense and varied, beautiful and challenging music of the time.
Really nobody [00:08:00] came close. He had a tough life. Uh, two wives, 20 children, most of whom died.
Matt: wow, did not know that. I
David: it was, uh, but he was also a guy who just didn't take prisoners. He, um, had a sword fight with a bassoonist who was taking the mickey out of his compositions. Um,
Matt: did not know that either.
David: he did, he, uh, he's not your typical classical musician by any stretch of the imagination. He was driven,
David: um, but he was also a very, very empathetic guy. And, uh, he did something, I think, which. Uh, stuck with me all the way through of, uh, listen, um, really trying to get underneath things and drill in
David: and don't take things at face value.
That's been with me, as I say, ever since I, uh, I came out of school really.
Matt: So, when was that discovery of Bach for you then? Because it's not, I'm not being funny, it's not something, I mean, I've had three kids, I'd never sat down [00:09:00] with them around the dinner table, rightly or wrongly, to talk to them about Bach. They would have heard his music, but kids were never sort of seemingly interested in classical music.
So, at what age did you start to get interested in Bach, and what was that catalyst?
David: it was about the same time as I got interested in Led Zeppelin, funnily enough. And
Matt: Of course it was!
David: if you know, uh, if you know Kashmir, you'll understand why. The, I'd gone through the usual piano lessons and whatever as a, as a school pupil, and by the time you get to grade five or six you start actually playing some stuff that's really quite fun, and a lot of that was Bach, and just as my dad was giving up on me getting, getting more interested in the guitar than the piano, um, I was beginning to hit some of the, uh, the really fun Bach stuff, so first of all through keyboards, a little bit through the keyboard.
I was a fairly mediocre cellist until rugby broke one of my fingers and, um,
Matt: well. [00:10:00] And then you became a really good cellist
David: no, was a lot better at rugby than I was a cellist. That's not saying much. Um, but yeah, I kind of ran that around those two tracks. The
David: Led Zeppelin was actually a great release for me as well. And I still, you know, I'm delighted my two daughters, um, came to Led Zeppelin.
They're now in their early thirties. So, um, that that's stood the test of time as well.
Matt: Yeah, fantastic, well fantastic. It is interesting isn't it how, I mean I remember when I was at school I did flute lessons. And, I don't know why I picked the flute, I just picked the flute, uh, it was just something that I did in sixth, I had to learn a musical instrument, so I said, I just want to learn the flute.
Actually, I do know why I learned the flute, and that's because my dad had a James Galway CD. Um, and I, I was going to do the saxophone because obviously Kenny G was around when I was, you know, thinking about this, um, and then I just randomly heard this James Galway CD and I thought what he did sounded beautiful.
And so I said flute and then of course I had my [00:11:00] first flute lesson and strangled everything with inside of a six mile radius. And so I, it was then I realized actually, uh, making music sound really good is, is, is not something you do straight away. Uh, you know, and, uh, I certainly didn't do that, but, um, but no, I, I, I totally get that.
David: It tends to take the 10, 000 hours rule in software and in music. If you're not doing your 10, 000 hours, you're not going to get there.
Matt: Yeah, that's very true. And my, my kids are very good musicians now. I mean, I can sit down at a piano and I can play. I can't read music. I can just play the piano. Um, But my kids are great, so Josh guitar and cello, Zoe on the piano, Zak's a drummer. In fact, I have his drum kit, I don't know if you can see it, his drum kit is behind me, uh, in the, in the studio here.
Um, no, it's not that I play drums, it's just that there's nowhere else in the house to put it. But it looks really cool as a backdrop.
David: They come with headphones now as well, which is a real...[00:12:00]
Matt: we had to get him an electric drum kit because the neighbours weren't happy. But yeah, it was one of those, wasn't it? So, um, no, I love that. I love that. So do you still play the piano?
David: No, I'm mostly involved in choral singing now, and I'm still, I came back to that fairly late actually, I parked it for the career and the kids and all that sort of stuff, but about 10, 12 years ago, got back into singing in choral societies and then smaller and smaller groups.
Matt: Mm. Oh, fantastic. Is that like a church choir that you're involved with?
David: Uh, not so much. I mean, the Church has really given up on most things, but, uh, the musical tradition is still very strong independently of them. Um, so yeah, classical a cappella singing is kind of my thing.
Matt: Fantastic. Fantastic. That sounds awesome. I wish I could sing. Um, I can't, as my wife likes to remind me quite often, I can't carry a tune in a bucket. So, um, it's, in fact, one of the requests I get [00:13:00] more frequently from my wife than anything others is, please will you stop singing?
David: fair enough.
Matt: Which is, which is fair enough. So, I mean, love of music asides, um, you know, obviously. You've had your career. Um, tell us about the nickname Thierry. So it's a few years since you've had it. Why, why Thierry? Because, no offence intended, it's not like you look like Thierry. So, um, and I'm assuming you don't play football like Thierry.
So what was it that, uh, that caused this nickname to sort of appear?
David: Well, it's, uh, yeah, I'm saddled with a great face for radio. Um,
Matt: You and me both. That's why I do the podcast. Yeah.
David: It's a career path that I don't think anybody could ever write because I started off training as a lawyer. I then ended up setting up a law centre in London in the middle of the miners strike and Thatcher's days [00:14:00] and some seriously heavy duty politics. But I then ended up kind of reversed into legal publishing.
and ended up in charge of, uh, mergers and acquisitions for a Dutch conglomerate. I don't think anybody's ever gone from, um, a law centre to M& A.
it's not the normal progress, I don't think. Maybe, maybe I'm wrong,
but yeah, I'm
David: normally fit that. But the, uh, the major step up was working for a firm called Kroner, which was a... Uh, law to business publisher, um, still run by the founder's nephew at the first time I started there.
And we went through a rapid growth, um, the sort of four million pound business that I took on. Um, went to 26, to 65, to 120
David: in the space of seven or eight years. And in doing so we had every challenge you can imagine. We were up against some very [00:15:00] big blue chip competitors. We had a very strict Dutch Um, Overseer, Dutch Owner, and they were continually throwing targets at us of increase your sales, increase your profits, increase your client retentions, increase, you know, decrease your staff turnover, um, increase the cross selling, uh, reduce your cost per sale.
Um, every metric they kept throwing at us every time and we creamed every one of them.
David: they, uh, there came a point where they, they knew we had, we had everything under control and nailed and they said the one thing you can't do is you haven't actually acquired any companies and integrated them. Um, so we went away and we, uh, we nailed that one too.
But because I'd come up through, um, I, I started off, uh, I came out of Northern Ireland and, and Belfast as a, as a, As a nipper and got railroaded into a law degree, which left me with an ability to not be scared of pinstripes.
David: So, the Dutch are [00:16:00] very sceptical of the city and the whole M& A. Culture at the u, the uk and they want, they asked me basically to go and, uh, and jump into that, uh, that shark infested pond and, uh, guide them through it.
Um, so yeah, that's, that's kind of where the Thierry came from. It was, uh, the invincible team that was in Kroner at the time, literally beat every target every. Home and away every time, um, nailed it and it was the best team I've ever seen in terms of being able to bring people with them. I mean there are people who can't, particularly at this sort of 5 to 7 million turnover.
There's a pain barrier, there's another particular one around 12, 26 to 30 is downright bitchy. Um, and at each of these stages, the tiers between managing people and managing managers of people, you find people step back or step aside, but we were able to bring with us in the main, um, a very strong team.
Um, I [00:17:00] would say the, the strongest facet of it was the development of what I call the NCOs. Um, the team leaders, um, they were by far the best in the business. And, uh, the ability of that particular business to build foundations that really last, um, was quite impressive.
Matt: Well, a lot there, David. I love, I love how I just rolled off your tongue. Oh yeah, we took this business from 4 million up to 120 million in about seven to eight years. Um, and all the while the owner has given us yet more and more targets, never satisfied. Uh, you know, uh, What was, I mean, you, you, you alluded to the, to the NCOs, non commissioned officers, which is what that stands for outside of the UK, it's, uh, it's a military term, isn't it?
But what, besides that, or maybe was that the only thing, what were some of the secrets from going from 4 million to 120 million? I mean, that's a, that's a massive deal. That's a [00:18:00] rapid growth set there.
David: Um, yeah, it's what I would call knowing your competitors and then ignoring them. Um, we, uh, We were able to steer the business between two, um, big drivers. The legal publishers thought we were Fiber Nights. They thought we were, um, consumer publishing. The consumer publishers thought we were legal publishers and not very good at it.
And both of them kind of, um, stood back and really ignored us. They didn't understand what we had, what we did. What we had was an ability to get in front of People dealing with red tape in small businesses. So, um, if you, Mr. Kroner, the original founder, set up a newsletter in 1942, um, for shipping and import export.
I mean, in the middle of the Second World War, that boiled down to whether you were on the convoy or not, um, but he got all of the, the, the inside information that anybody, um, dealing with that had to have, and, uh, that was the genesis of it, and [00:19:00] it went through it. The seventies, um, employment law booms. It went through the health and safety regulatory changes.
And, uh, basically they put together in many cases, tens of thousands of subscribers, um, to health and safety guides, to employment guides, to how to run a school guides, uh, as well as the import export stuff. And, uh, they quietly built a massive platform. What we did was we took that platform and professionalized it.
We helped the guys. Um, on the, on the kitchen table on a Sunday, um, make sure that they didn't spend more than half an hour to an hour on dross
David: because, as you know, the, the, the fun of the kitchen table on the Sunday is actually getting through the damn receipts, uh, was in those days. It's, it's got a bit better now.
Um, so yeah, that was fundamentally our, our mission was to remove the red tape, um, spell it out in. Um, plain English. Um, and it was a very well received message, but we then [00:20:00] basically took the price points up. We took the cross selling up. We took the product development in particular from, um, one or two new services a year to dozens.
David: And we were able to push all three levers at the same time. Um, We were selling more, we were selling more often than we were putting price up. Um, the competitors really thought we were mad, which was great, because they stayed away from us for three to five years. Uh, then they tried to copycat, copycat, at which stage it was too late.
But, um, the client base loved it. They, they not only bought more, they renewed more, and they paid more, which is, um, very rare to see. Um, I've seen it three times now, but, um, that first introduction when it was my P& L, um, was a real eye opener, when you actually get ahead of the puck, as the, the saying goes.
It's a real boost.
Matt: No kidding it's a real boost and that's some rapid growth, I mean that's proper rapid growth. [00:21:00] One of the things you mentioned was that your Dutch owners kept throwing more and more metrics at you and you kept nailing, you and the team kept nailing those metrics. As someone who runs a business, who gives his team metrics, I'm curious, um, how you responded to this.
Did you, whenever you felt like you'd hit a target, it sounds to me, David, like, um, the owner would then go, right, now you need to do this, now you need to do, and there's always this constant, you've never really achieved, You just sort of got to base camp rather than to summit, if that makes sense. How did, how did that make you feel?
Did you respond well to that constant introduction of new metrics? Was that annoying? I'm just kind of curious to know what your response to that was.
David: I found it instructive, actually. This was back in the days when spreadsheets were still kind of new, and the Dutch run companies by numbers. If you like, Wenger's not known as a [00:22:00] particularly strong footballer himself, but he knew exactly how to play the guys. The Dutch... Could quite happily fly in with the, on the Siegel management techniques and they would, they would bat one metric against another continually just to see how flexible you were, how robust you were.
And, um, I, I very quickly learned that you had to understand how all of these various metrics that they, how the numbers guys were thinking. So what I did was I, um, I built a, A model of the subscription business and the leavers that worked on it and refined it really over two or three years, um, so that I could get ahead of the questions they were asking and it drove them nuts because they, um, they kept coming up with, you know, more and more convoluted questions, but equally, um, My technique of following Townsend's advice of getting those guys off my back was to, uh, to minimise the amount of time I had to deal with their BS questions while I was actually driving the business.
And, um, it worked a treat. [00:23:00] The, we, my model for running the subscription business was probably more accurate than the CFOs, uh, at group levels by, by an order of magnitude. So,
Matt: Um, um, um,
David: It felt like you were going into the headmaster's office with a magazine down your backside but, um, it, it, it, um, it, it always ended up as a bit of a laugh which was kind of good fun.
Um, but yeah, the, the first, the, the jump to 65 was all organic, that was completely organic growth. Um, and as I say, that relied very heavily on the, uh, um, the growth in the managerial tiers. Um, decentralized, we encouraged groups to get more ownership of what they were in charge, what they could, what they could handle and how they could change it.
So we had, we had teams involved in both the, uh, product development and the marketing and the editorial production side. So they had all three levers.
David: rather than playing silos. That liberated an [00:24:00] enormous amount of entrepreneurial ability and, uh, it was great fun.
Matt: It sounds... it sounds like a wonderful time, uh, you know the way you're talking about it and the sort of the tones in your voice and you are, you're ahead of the people who are running the company, you feel like you know what's going on. Um, the guys involved in the company, um, have a sense of autonomy and this was, it sounds like this happened before autonomy was a cool thing, uh, you know, and talked about in all the management textbooks.
And also the other thing that I've picked up on you guys being super pioneering is subscription businesses, which cause all the rage now, you know, from Netflix to most online businesses are offering you subscription. Um, you know, Amazon Prime, a subscription business in effect, rakes in gazillions every year.
And it's, um. You know, but you were doing this pre internet, pre Google, and pioneering the way in a few of these things, it sounds like.
David: Yeah, yeah, I mean, there were, there were [00:25:00] two... Subscription businesses are really hard, um, because they're very easy to get complacent about. They're very hard to build, um, they're much more difficult to manage, especially as a market leader. You have an enormous amount of responsibility. By the time things start to go backwards in a subscription business, it's too late to fix.
Um, so you're, you're really... Um, always conscious of keeping product development and pricing in particular on a very, very tight leash. You have to know exactly what you're doing. It doesn't say you have to be cautious, but you have to know exactly what your, what your play is. Um, and there were, you know, two examples.
The, uh, We were the first to introduce, uh, telemarketing and telesales into B2B, um, legal publishing. So, that involved, um, nicking the library of all things. We didn't have a budget. We weren't, um, forecast to do it at all. We weren't being given any space to do it. None of the other teams were particularly enamoured of it.
We, we put six people in a, in [00:26:00] a, in a library, shut the door, and worked out our own scripts over a matter of weeks. Um, it completely transformed the industry within... Um, but it was a complete pain for the first, um, two, and we had to work at a number of protocols around it. So yeah, there was, there was some fun of that, that's a classic, again, a Townsend thing of, um.
Find, find the, the gap in the armor of the, of the beast that you could stick your dagger in. And, um, that, that worked to treat. But it was, it was very, very hard to do. It trebled the new sales capacity of the business within two years.
David: And, uh, that was, that was kill. Um, there was the usual stuff as well, the, the off pitch work.
Um, One of the Dutch guy's mistress was determined to get me kicked out and have my job because it was the biggest, biggest slice of the business and she spent two years making my life a bloody misery. Um, but hey, um, that just comes, yeah, that's the old saying, if, if there's no [00:27:00] flack, you're not over the target.
Matt: Yeah, no, that's fair enough, that's, it's a little bit bizarre though, isn't it, when you think about, I mean, you know, I'm only hearing one side of the story, to be fair, but it's kind of like, well, this is working, it's growing at a rapid rate. So why is the, why would I want to change that? Why do I think I could do that better?
You know, it's a bizarre way to think, isn't it, in a lot of ways, and it's quite, it's quite arrogance towards something like that. So you were early pioneers of telemarketing, telesales, um, in a subscription business, which is. I mean, now I've got the advent of, I can set up a direct debit, you know, online.
You can go online and put your credit card details in line, just take money off that automatically. And we do that with a lot of clients. But, um, back then you're doing it, what, by check, by, it's, it's. That's a lot of admin straight off the bat, and I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm, my hat's off to you, sir, because I run e commerce businesses, we have, you know, memberships and where we take monthly fees off [00:28:00] people, and it's a pain in the arse as it is, um, I mean, don't get me wrong, the profits are lovely, but, um, it's, it's not straightforward, uh, but doing it in, in a time when that was not automated, uh, I, I tip my hat to you, sir, and the team, well done, that, that, that sounds remarkable.
David: Well, the two things that the, the finance team at the time were excellent, and they were run by a guy called Chris Whitehead at the time. And he as, as a, um, an FD for a publishing firm said the only publishing, the only paper we published were the damage, the invoice. Um, and, um, he wasn't wrong. , there was a whole lot behind all of that.
And, uh, He had the systems to run it. Um, as a, you know, going back to the system that we had for marketing, it was a very, very much a direct mail, uh, and, uh, what they'd now call a data science driven marketing approach. Um, but in those days though, they'd only just 10, 15 years before I arrived, got the, the [00:29:00] marketing out of cards in, um, You know, long boxes.
And in theory, they used to do quarterly catalogs that they would send out to generate new sales. Every time they felt the top line was dipping, they'd go and say, right, pull off another 5, 000 names and off they go. But what they didn't realize that the finance guys pulling off those names were always using A to E.
By the time they got to the Fs and Gs, they'd got their 5, 000. So they gave up. Um, so one of the boosts we got was that actually marketing to people with surnames after J turned out to be three times more effective. Stupid little rules that make all the difference. Um, so never let your FD run your marketing selection. That's probably the rule.
Matt: That's your top tip right there, just get them to do the finances and let the marketing guys do the marketing. It's really interesting all these hacks, it's still the case today isn't it, I mean there's always hacks and ways around things. Um, they like to come up with [00:30:00] fancy names like guerrilla marketing now, where you, where you come up with concepts and ideas that your competitors aren't doing, like telesales, like calling people from surnames J onwards, like, um, you know, having these sort of little tweaks and nuances that no one's sort of really playing with.
Um, and those principles are still as true today, but I find, um, and David, maybe you've got some experience on this. I find for those to work, the foundations have to be right. Too many people are looking for the, the silver bullet, but the foundations aren't set. And so somehow it doesn't seem to work for me.
David: Yeah, no, absolutely. Um, after Kroner, I worked, um, for a good few years with a firm called Practical Law Company doing, in the legal field, um, very much the same subscription disciplines that, uh, I'd seen work so well in Kroner. Um, they were selling law to lawyers and they were beating, um, the really big legal brands, Butterworth and Maxwell head to head.
Um, their marketing, [00:31:00] you know, there's no problem getting access to the names in law firms of the people you need to contact. You can get, they all publicize their, their emails and telephone numbers. Um, but the marketing to them is hard because there's a lot of gatekeepers, there's a lot of decision makers.
It's even, partnership structures are notoriously hard to actually get a decision out of. So many ways they can bounce you down. Um, the trick we found there, as I say, preparing the ground, was that we, we used what I call pull through marketing. That, um, giving the service to the client of the client, if you follow me.
Um, so the law firms were working for companies. Who had a general counsel inside them who was specifying what the law firm work had to be. We gave the general counsel free examples and free templates of all the stuff that we were selling. And we got to the point reasonably quickly where the general counsel was stipulating to the law firms, use them.
David: And all of a sudden, the delays, the price [00:32:00] worries, the let me just check this, all the objection handling, um, not disappeared overnight, but it certainly got very manageable and again manageable by a telemarketing operation. Rather than the historical approach that the, uh, the opposition was still using Eminence Grise with big suitcases.
Matt: Yeah. That's really powerful. It's again, you can, what you're doing there very well is you're understanding who your end customer actually is and who the real decision makers are in a lot of ways. Um, and using some strategies to get through to them. It's a bit like, do you market to kids or to their parents kind of a thing, isn't it?
When you, when you've got that kind of thing. So what are you doing now? Um, I mean, fast forward, you know, just a couple of years to the present day. What, what, what, what are you up to now?
David: Largely what I did for the Practical Law Guys, I was a non executive director, albeit an active one, there for the best part of a decade and the two founders were, um, great entrepreneurial lawyers still, um, and they They appreciated the [00:33:00] fact that an independent voice, um, speaking truth to power, as they say, um, was valued by them.
Lawyers are always largely contrarian anyway, so they kind of get this quicker than most. But, um, having somebody who's not there to guard a bank's position, who's not there to try and ramp up their 5 percent to 15 35%, um, but somebody who's actually just market focused, saying that's what the... competition are doing the That's what the market is saying.
That's what the technology spend is. Um, that's, that's what I brought to the table and, uh, I've been trying to the SME market in particular, um, because they're the ones who don't have the resources of the big companies to do it. Um, so yeah, the, the NED legal concept is really putting a... An independent, um, voice, um, on available at a, at a reasonable price point, hopefully for, uh, for SMEs to, uh, to, to know even more than the bankers and the, the VCs and the private equity, [00:34:00] and certainly to keep them equipped that when they do get the free lunch and they do get the, uh, the approaches, they're gonna know at least as much as the guy is opposite them.
Matt: fantastic. So what does, if I rearrange my question order, what does growth look like for you? Where's, where's Ned Legal going to? What's the, what's the dream? What's the next few years?
David: Uh, the dream is to get, uh, an automated service. We're still very much at the, uh, the setup stage. We've got, uh, uh, a sort of brochure website. We're, we're playing with Python and developing, um, tricks and traps underneath all of that to see if we can... Um, particularly automating around the, the due diligence and the, uh, uh, the sort of annual disciplines of enterprise valuation.
Um, that's not hard, but it's, it's getting the marketing in, inside into there as well that, uh, we're, we're hopefully going to be bringing forward. Um, and in the meantime, yeah, we, we take the old, um, standard approach of we can give you the weekly intelligence of what's going on. Um, we're. on [00:35:00] call, um, for any queries or any issues around what's happening with particular market moves.
Um, and in particular, we help the smaller businesses not be afraid of the big guys, because, um, time and again, um, you need probably to have had some experience of the, uh, the corner offices and the mahogany playpens, as I call them, um, to realize that they're, they're not really that scary and they're not really that quick and, you know, how to play your, play your position.
Well, you can. Confidently ignore them. So we're, we're working on getting that together and, uh, to a degree, AI is, um, helping and hindering. Um, there's a lot more we can do. You can, for example, get shareholders agreements knocked up in a matter of minutes now, whereas even five, ten, well, even two years ago, um, you'd have been looking at, you know, spending a vast amount of money with a, with a solicitor.
Um, all of that, um, shrapnel is getting so much more accessible now. We're hopefully going to [00:36:00] use all of that to, uh, um. Yeah, help the SMEs in particular get ahead of the game.
Matt: Fantastic, fantastic. Well, I need a shareholder agreement, uh, David, so maybe let's have a conversation offline after that. Uh, but yeah, I, I, that sounds great. That sounds great. I mean, it sounds busy, um, and it sounds fun and it, I mean, in some ways technology now is obviously in a very different place to when you were running the subscription business, um, uh, a few years ago. How has that technology shift changed how you, how you do business or hasn't it? I'm curious.
David: Um, when I started off doing M& A, for example, back in Kroner, um, the competitors had literally a wing full of, um, management and cost accountants doing credit control and, um, tracking down all of the company information that they needed on various competitors and stuff. It was a paper horrible mechanism.
Um, I can track over 1, 200 firms from here. [00:37:00] Um, confidently, um, we've got our own protocols in flagging up which ones are doing what and why. Um, and that's two people. Um, it's, uh, it's an automated process. Um, that's going to get, hopefully, much more fun, much more, much quicker. It's already, um, a fraction of the cost it used to be.
Um, the difficult bits of that come in, in getting, we, we, We always insist on putting the intelligence at the front of the analysis, so we don't have a wing full of, we don't have a room full of MBAs crunching numbers. We have stringers, we have people like myself who have been directors in companies, typically not FDs, we like operational guys who know their account, and we'll take their steer on what to drill into and why that's an interesting number or an interesting move.
Um, and that... It actually refines how we tackle stuff much more accurately. To a [00:38:00] degree, that's what AI can help with if we can get those decision processes mapped even better. It'll take a couple of years, but that'll be a good stretch on the opposition. Most people are still using really companies house direct or the Dun Bradstreet data, which is pretty poor, frankly.
David: It's, it's always out of date. You, you don't really get any idea what a company or a competitor is doing, um, because you're looking at a three year snapshot. Um, the PLCs who do give you lots of data snow you with lots of irrelevant stuff. Um, so you've really got to know your way to fight through all that.
So, um, it's, uh, you know, the competitor intelligence side is great fun. It's probably the one that I enjoy most. Um, but it, the big lesson for me has been getting away from the MBAs and putting the, uh, the line director urgency on the front of it.
Matt: Mm, fantastic. Fantastic. So at the helm of this [00:39:00] ship then, uh, how do you keep your batteries recharged back
David: Back to Bach, I'm afraid. Um,
Matt: to Bach
David: that's pretty much it. I did a range of things. When I was through the heady days, I learned how to horse ride, for example, um, which is a... It's a, I recommend it, it's a great way for people, if you're ever up to your ears in management, stress and stuff, um, a horse doesn't care about that, but you, you do have to listen to what they want rather than tell the way.
Um, but no, I've, I've just launched a new choir up in Banbury and, uh, It's had a very good reception for its first run out. It's called 24, Venti Quattro, and launching that was every bit as hard as launching any of the products and whatever back in the old days. And it really is cathartic in getting 24 good singers together and pointing them at some really good music has been [00:40:00] fun.
We launched it actually on the day of the coronation as well. So that
Matt: Oh wow.
David: Um, there was a big worry of, um, is anybody going to turn up? Is everybody going to be, you know, waving their flags at some village? But no, we were sold out and it was, um, you know, cheered to the rafters. So, uh, we're doing something right there, I guess.
Matt: Oh, well done. That's good. That's fantastic. And I, uh, I, I wish I could be a member. Uh, but it's, um, it's funny when I had that recharges your batteries and it's like trying to herd cats, those two sort of sentences come together at the same, uh, same time. Um, but, uh, that sounds great. It's, um, I'm wondering, you know, in the, in the heyday, When you were growing up to sort of the 120 million and life's frantic and phonetic.
There's obviously a very different emphasis in those days on well being, mental health, etc. And having been [00:41:00] through it on both sides, David, I'm kind of, one of the questions I, I'm curious, I don't have an agenda in asking this question, by the way. Um, but do you think we're all in the modern day, just all a bit delicate?
David: No, um, there's a lot of good people doing a lot of good stuff. Um, but I do think management theory in particular. And certainly management practice in blue chips has gone off the rails badly
David: and there's still a very much, um, I call it C3I, the Command, Control, Communication, Intelligence thing, um, where the command and control is actually getting out of control.
Um, if you're growing a team, if you're leading a team, there's some very simple metrics you need to work on. The one that's always stuck with me is the one in eight. Put eight people together, there's always one idiot. And if you don't know It's you. Um, they, [00:42:00] yeah, the spans of control issue as you cascade it up or down, um, needs very, very careful management and measurement.
So, um, particularly after .Com, I saw the blue chips lose the plot badly. Um, it's about the same time as senior management salaries got disconnected and went loopy.
David: 08, um, really badly, um, particularly in the banking and finance sector. Private equity have been off the rails pretty much ever since then. Um, lockdowns have just rolled that into the public sector every bit as badly.
Um, so you've got a, you've got a lot of examples of big companies who are really not... They're paying a lot of lip service to it, but they're really not managing those spans of control. And if you don't have the spans of control managed, then you have, uh, what I, the, the easiest, exactly the easiest symptom of it is spiteful obedience, where people do precisely what they're told, uh, because they know it'll hurt you.
Um, that's what kills any [00:43:00] organization, um, sooner or later. And that's far too much of that. That's where they... That's where the strike calls are coming from. That's where the disobedience comes from. That's where the, the, uh, you know, the inability to really get. Teams switched on and it bleeds out in well being.
It bleeds out in working from home Fights. I was pioneering again in the Corona days and in every company I've been with Flexibility for working mothers in particular It was very selfish that if you if you treat them like adults and you give them the time off you get spades back And it never let me down.
I got no end of flack from HR departments for that Um, just because it makes, it made the systems at the time harder to manage, but, uh, well being has always been an issue, but it, it, the problems with it are, the, the top tier culture is just toxic, um, it's bleeding down, and it's, [00:44:00] the spans of control, particularly at the, uh, at the coalface, at the sort of, um, two to five million operating division level, um, that's where it's, it's, it's breaking.
I, I personally can't understand how the Amazon business model, for example, um, gets praise to high heavens when it's paying basically slave labour. Um, I really, don't like it. And, um, you know, you have to have a respect for the frontline, which is not always there.
Matt: Yeah you do, and it's interesting isn't it, there's a dilemma isn't there at the moment with Amazon, on one hand, one in two e commerce transactions go through it, and on the other hand, there is... There is a fundamental ethical issue or an ethical question you have to answer, I think, when you buy on Amazon, um, and for most people, convenience wins over the ethics of it most of the time, and [00:45:00] it's, it's a really interesting problem going into it.
You do wonder what the longevity of Amazon is going to be, given that That is their business model, um, because you, you see giants from the past who are similar in their approach, who aren't around anymore, um, and you, you, you, you are slightly curious, you know, um, I mean, obviously from a business point of view, Amazon is doing very well, uh, and, but it, it does raise some interesting questions, and you're right, I, I find the whole thing, the whole debate, especially because I'm involved in e commerce, I find the whole thing very fascinating to watch, you know, um, Really intrigued me.
David, listen, um, I am aware of time and it has been such a joy talking to you. Um, very refreshing and love the conversation. If people want to reach out, if they want to find out more about NED Legal, if they want to connect with you, have some questions, maybe what's the best way to do that?
David: Uh, through the [00:46:00] website, um, nedlegal. co. uk and, uh, yeah, send me an email or give me a chat. Not a problem.
Matt: Fantastic. Fantastic. We will of course link to that in the show notes as well, which you can get along for free on the website at PushToBeMore. com. David, listen, thanks for coming on the show, man. Genuinely loved it. Loved meeting you, loved hearing the stories. Slightly envious of the rapid growth that you sort of started.
You did in a period of, uh, let's just say not as, not as advanced technology as we experienced today. Um, and hats off to you and love what you're doing at NED Legal. So genuinely appreciate you coming on the show, man. It's, it's been an absolute joy.
David: Thanks, No, it's good to see you.
Matt: There you have it. What a great conversation. Huge thanks to David again for joining me today.
Also a big shout out of course to the show sponsor aurion Media. If you're wondering if podcasting is a good marketing strategy for your [00:47:00] business, it's a bit like David's telemarketing thing when no one else is doing it. You know, it kind of gets you through the door a little bit. Uh, try having a look at podcasting.
aurionmedia. com, that's A U R I O N M E D I A dot com. And of course they will also be linked on the website as well. Now be sure to follow Push To Be More wherever you get your podcasts from because we have more great conversations lined up and I don't want you to miss any of them. And in case no one has told you yet today, you are awesome.
Yes, you are. Created awesome. It's just a burden. You have to bear. David has to bear it, I have to bear it, and you've got to bear it as well. Now, Push to Be More is produced by aurion Media. You can find our entire archive of episodes on your favourite podcast app. The team that makes this show possible is Sadaf Beynon Estella Robin and Tanya Hutsuliak.
Our theme music was written by Josh Edmundson. And as I mentioned, if you would like to read the transcript or show notes, head over to [00:48:00] the website, Push to Be More. Where incidentally you can also sign up for the newsletter. So that's it from me. That's it from David. Thank you so much for joining us. Have a fantastic week wherever you are in the world.
I'll see you next time. Bye for now.