Phonovation’s Gavin Carpenter: ‘Culture beats cash every time’

18 Jul 2018

Gavin Carpenter. Image: Phonovation

How does Gavin Carpenter run a tight ship at Phonovation? With a little help from Lean, Kanban and the methodology of chess.

Gavin Carpenter is the CEO of Phonovation and has been with the company since 2006.

Before this, he worked for Esat Telecom, Energis and Colt Telecom in senior management positions, providing him with a wealth of telecoms experience.

Carpenter holds a degree in business management and a master’s in management from the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School.

He has launched numerous successful new services for Phonovation, which was recently named one of Deloitte’s Best Managed Companies for 2018.

gavin carpenter outside on steps with houses and greenery in background

Gavin Carpenter. Image: Phonovation

Describe your role and what you do.

My role is to manage Phonovation’s people, strategy and growth. Our team has grown by six in the Dublin office over the last six months and we now have a UK office employing five people.

Phonovation is a technology company providing B2B and B2C services. That means we have two hats to wear for our customers. On one hand, we provide B2C engagement and support for InteractSMS, RTÉ and TV3, which puts us directly in touch with members of the public. On the other hand, we provide fintech and SaaS services for banks and global mobile operators. Both service offerings are in growth phase.

One of my roles is to ensure that all of our customers feel that they are looked after in the way that they need and expect to be.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Thankfully, that is the easy bit. We were introduced to Lean through Richard Keegan of Enterprise Ireland in 2015, and that has been transformative for us.

Lean offers a way of working that reduces waste, improves throughput, improves quality and reduces cost. One of the tools that Lean uses is a Kanban board. It is basically a workflow management tool that the business uses to ensure that we are only working on the most important things to the business right now. This way, we know what we can get through and can’t over-commit.

I have a number of roles in the company so I have a number of different types of work that I need to do. Each one of these jobs is marked on my own Kanban board in my office. I choose the two most important tasks from the list (financial plan/R&D/marketing budget etc) and only work on those until they are complete.

Many leaders struggle to identify which of their many tasks are the most important. They then choose to multitask on numerous different projects and find that they are not completing any of them to their satisfaction. By only focusing on two important tasks at a time, it is easy to see when tasks are complete and then the company feels the benefit from their completion.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The biggest challenge in our sector is coming from the misinformation surrounding the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May this year. The onus on companies to manage and protect the integrity of their data has grown significantly with the introduction of GDPR. This is no less true for the companies like Phonovation that provide an interface to deliver the messages on behalf on these companies.

With new standards of physical and digital security, many SMS providers are struggling to adhere to the new standards laid out under GDPR. The answer to this, in many cases, is to inform their customers that they are not allowed to send SMS messages after the introduction of GDPR. This is simply not true. The GDPR legislation emphasises transparency, security and accountability by data controllers and processors. It’s a good thing for business and customers alike. Any company using SMS, or indeed any other medium, to communicate with their customers responsibly now can continue to do so post-GDPR.

Phonovation has invested heavily in preparing for the new GDPR environment and we look forward to continued growth in this space.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

GDPR and Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2) have come along together and have created some very interesting opportunities for us. We believe that our approach to GDPR will attract some of the large messaging accounts such as insurance companies and banks that will not take any risks with their clients’ data by using one of the less-committed messaging suppliers. We expect our current 50pc market share in this space to grow in 2018 and beyond.

As a PCI-compliant provider for telephone and online payments, Phonovation already adheres to many of the conditions surrounding PSD2. The payments landscape is about to change for the better but many of the changes have yet to be fully understood by the market. Phonovation helps one of the leading Irish banks with its security around two-factor authentication but three-factor authentication is on the way.

There are still many gaps with providing authentic biometric checks via mobile phones and this is yet to be ironed out to everyone’s satisfaction. Being in this space is in itself an opportunity to learn and grow our services.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

My father ran a number of companies during my formative years. He would share stories over dinner about promotions and sales he had put together and I always wanted to work in a sales environment after that. I often travelled the country with him during summer holidays. When I started my professional working life, there was a clear path from retail sales to becoming a sales rep on the road, from sales rep to sales manager, and then sales director. That was my view when I was 20 and starting out and it is exactly how it happened. I wouldn’t change any part of it.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

During the early part of my career, I left a great company where I was valued and joined another company where I wasn’t valued. I was headhunted by the new company and they paid me significantly more than I was earning, which is what convinced me to join them. I followed the pay rise without knowing enough about their culture. I realised my mistake within a month and left. I was the proverbial frog who was dropped into the pot of boiling water and jumped straight back out. I learned that culture beats cash every time. Since then, I focus on the people I work with and building a strong culture. When the culture is right, success is never far behind.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Through empowering the experts in each department to get on with their job. It follows a model of leader-leader (as opposed to leader-follower) where each individual in the company is empowered to make changes to how they do their job in order to do it better. It’s partly from David Marquet’s Turn the Ship Around book and partly Lean management.

Each person in Phonovation knows the yearly goals, both financial and operational. We break down the annual goals to quarterly sub-goals and use objectives and key results (OKRs) to stay on top of them. OKRs are terrific measures that enable you to focus on the big picture, knowing that your team is delivering the parts to make it a reality.

The traditional school of management is like a chess game where the leader moves the different pieces (people) across the chessboard in order to achieve a result. Each piece has limitations and unique skills, and the chess player has to know all of them intimately in order to get the most out of them. In Phonovation, each person moves themselves across the board to achieve that same result. We have 24 minds and personalities working towards a common goal. It’s a very powerful thing.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

I have spoken on this subject a couple of times and the answer is not an industry one, it is a societal one. You may be surprised to know that 50pc of all video gamers are female. Because of how they are treated in this online world by men at this early age (unwanted flirting and messaging, discrimination, male-only groups), they often change their profiles to look like boys so that they are treated as equals.

Is it any wonder then that they see computer science as a male-dominated space? If we want to attract women into STEM sectors, we need to change how men see women at home first, and then that will flow into the rest of society.

Who is your role model and why?

My father taught me the value of hard work, preparation and reward. He showed me that I am in control of what happens to my career, and that empowerment has kept me focused over the years. I cannot say that I had a plan to get into the position I am in today, but I did work hard at everything I was ever asked to do. That has been enough to date, thankfully.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

I have read a lot of books over the years but here is my ‘these books will change your life’ list: Turn the Ship Around by David Marquet, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey and The Decision Maker by Dennis Bakke.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Well, I have a phenomenal team, so that helps. Other than that, I need the gym three days per week to keep my cortisol levels normal. I try to get to the driving range once each week in the hope that something finally clicks in my golf game. I also bring my (daughter’s) dog Emmett to work as often as I can. He is a two-year-old golden retriever and it’s impossible not to smile when he is in the office.

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