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Focus on your people’s talent, and it’s impossible for competitors to copy you

Faced with a personnel predicament after Optimity secured a funding injection, Anthony Impey decided to train up his existing workers rather than hiring externally 

When technology company Optimity secured private equity funding in 2016, it bankrolled a strategy which allowed it to grow very quickly. From a staff of 60 in 2016, it is set to have more than 100 employees by the end of June 2018.

Faced with the choice of recruiting new people that had the skills required for a larger company, or training up the existing team, chief executive Anthony Impey plumped for the latter. “This was partly because it’s a much lower risk way of building a business. Hiring in talent is relatively high-risk because they don’t know the business, they don’t know the challenges that the business faces. You’re much better off training and developing the team you’ve got.”

Investment in people is so important to Impey that it serves as what he thinks is the chief advantage one company can have over another.

“If you just focus on your product-led competitive advantage then there is a danger someone comes along, does exactly what you do, and they are probably better funded and have more resources. Whereas if you focus on people, it’s an almost impossible thing for your competitors to copy, if you do it well.”

Based in East London, Optimity sells a wireless alternative to fibre optic cable, to provide super-fast broadband. Despite having what he believes is a superior product, Impey also thinks his staff are the reason for the company’s success. “We might have a unique technology that people want to buy, but people will only buy it if the team that supports it, provides it, and installs it are very, very high quality.”

Recruiting to succeed

As a medium-sized company, with around 100 employees, Impey said it is difficult to attract the best candidates, particularly with the labour market throwing up so many job vacancies. “Big brands always attract lots of applications,” he commented. “If you look at apprenticeships, someone like Microsoft might get 1,000 applications for ten apprenticeships. When you’re a small business, because you don’t have the same brand recognition, it’s much more difficult to get that level of take-up. You have to work much harder to find the right calibre of candidates.”

Optimity uses social media, online networks and traditional advertising to attract candidates. It has brought in the help of external recruitment consultants, and has two members of staff in-house who focus exclusively on recruitment.

In terms of apprenticeship hiring, it works with local community groups to find suitable candidates. Impey said: “It’s pitched as a way to help kick-start the careers of local young people in the tech sector. We’re based in East London, so we have a proliferation of tech businesses, but also relatively high levels of youth unemployment.”

The company also remains particular about who it hires. “No matter how desperate, we never rush to recruit someone. It costs so much more to hire badly than it does to wait for someone that can fill a particular role.”

Optimity’s funding-led growth brought challenges in terms of developing skills, even at the very top of the business. For his part, Impey received help from a Goldman Sachs programme called 10,000 Small Businesses, which enabled him to think about the business much more strategically.

Determining what talent is needed

Developing a tailor-made training and development plan gave Impey some valuable insights. “Essentially, you’ve got to create a training plan that meets not just the requirements of the organisation but also every individual, at different levels of their career.” Optimity’s solution was to create a so-called “skills metric” for every job. It then scores the team against that skills metric, so it can train them in the skills they require.”

Impey said the company looked for external help in developing those skills metrics but found no useful resources and so “made it up as we went along”. “Building those tools from scratch has meant we’ve got a really good process now, but we could have done it much faster and we could have learned a lot more, if we could have plugged into existing resources.”

As well as internal skill development, Optimity has bought in training from external providers of apprenticeships, focused on general management skills and project management skills.

He said the process has generally been well received. “Sometimes people don’t want to invest any of their own time in developing their skills. There is a bit of resistance there, but generally everyone recognises that if they can develop skills they can progress their careers.”

The chief executive expects results to feed through into business performance over the next 12-18 months. “The key areas we’ve had is this need for real management skills within our business. By focusing on that, we should start seeing results, through improved sales and profitability in the business.”

If you’re interested in improving the way you set nurture talent within business then utilise our benchmarking tool. We’ve also got some helpful quick tips below.

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