By Matt Ayres, Fresh Business Thinking
Interview with Tom Ball, Co-Founder and CEO of Neardesk
In 2002, Tom Ball lost it all. The web design firm he had built from scratch on a laptop in his bedroom, CD9, had grown into an enterprise with revenues of over £1.35 million. He had hired 25 employees and attracted household name clients including Philips, HSBC and Alliance & Leicester. But when the dot com collapse hit, it hit Tom and his business hard.
“I realised that I must have missed some tricks,” admits Tom, twelve years on from the failure of his first company. “I wanted to learn more so that I didn’t make the same mistake again.
“Going from ‘everything is wonderful’ to losing everything was quite a painful journey. I thought about doing an MBA, but I didn’t think an MBA was what an entrepreneur needed. I love starting with a question, so I began by asking myself: how do I earn and learn?”
The ‘earn and learn’ question ultimately led Tom to founding his next business: Cognac, a communications company that helped larger organisations to explain complex business messages to staff in a comprehensible way. This involved conducting interviews with key stakeholders in some of the UK’s biggest corporations. It was process that allowed Tom to become educated about the ins and outs of large scale company strategies while utilising his own background in technology to solve problems and make money for his own company.
“I ran Cognac for seven years and had a wonderful life,” says Tom. “It was really good, but it was a very small lifestyle business. I wasn’t really an entrepreneur as much as a self-employed person with a couple of colleagues. I decided that I wanted to do something a bit bigger, a bit more significant, so that I could feel I’d had a go at trying to make the world slightly better.
“It’s a cheesy thing to say, but I don’t want to wake up 30 years from now feeling that I sat around when I could have done something and tried to make a difference. I found myself thinking up new ideas for six months. All I could do was think of new ideas. That process became NearDesk.”
The premise for NearDesk is that flexible working should not mean being forced into choosing between a spare bedroom, a noisy café or a lengthy commute to the office – with ‘flexible working passports’, NearDesk users can tap in and out of a productive working space near their homes with the convenience and ease of an Oyster card.
Tom is passionate about flexible working, but believes that many businesses do not fully understand what the term encompasses. “Hundreds of years most of us worked in a factory,” he says. “You had to go to the factory to do the job. Then we moved to offices, we had typewriters and filing cabinets. You had to go to the office for the typewriter and the filing cabinet to do the job.
“Quite recently we’ve moved to cloud, we’ve got 4G, we’ve got good Wi Fi. Most of us can now do our jobs remotely. But on average, people in the UK spend eight and a half hours every week commuting. Effectively, the whole country spends all day Friday doing nothing but travelling. Then when we get there, we e-mail each other.
“A key part of the solution is co-working spaces. Working at home is part of it, but if we only do that and call it flexible working, we’re being sold a bit of a dud. If I can work anywhere, are home and the office really the only two places that I can choose? Why can’t you work near home? If you are choosing, you’re obviously going to want to choose the best, most productive space.”
Tom believes that NearDesk works because it was born with a purpose to help others and make the working world a better place. He also believes that making your business fun is one of the best ways to be successful. “Entrepreneurs should choose to enjoy what they do,” he says. “Fun is a smart thing. Enjoying life attracts people. I use the metaphor of the butterfly net and the butterfly garden. Rather than running around and trying to push people into things that they don’t want to do, you can just be attractive so that amazing people want to work for you and customers want to be around you. That’s a much nicer and more efficient way of doing things.”
While it would have been easy for Tom to turn his back on business after it all came crashing down in 2002, he concedes that being anything but an entrepreneur would have felt unnatural. “Getting back on the horse and having another go, I’m sure I could work in a corporate and do different things, but I just had this really strong sense that I’d look back and regret not having done what I thought I was here to do,” he says. “Having a business with a purpose, being something that gets other people excited, is what’s important to me.”