‘The existing technology of one-way sending can’t support the future world’

27 Mar 2019

David Shackleton. Image: OpenBack

From Ding to OpenBack, David Shackleton is committed to improving how people interact with the mobile phones in their pockets.

David Shackleton is CEO and co-founder of OpenBack, a software-as-a-service platform used by mobile apps to engage with their users.

Shackleton also co-founded Ding, an international top-up platform that launched in 2006, where he formerly served as CEO. Prior to Ding, he was a strategy consultant with the Monitor Group in the US.

He holds a degree in computer and electronic engineering from Trinity College Dublin.

Describe your role and what you do.

I’m 100pc focused on OpenBack these days, where over the past few years we have developed a totally new architecture and way for mobile apps that care about customer experience to communicate with their users, making use of machine learning at the edge.

Where I spend my time is much more varied now than when we were solving these problems for early customers at scale. Now that our software is out on tens of millions of phones for our customers, all my time can be divided between either ensuring our team is happy and have what they need for growth, and ensuring our customers and prospective customers are happy and we have what they need today, and for the future.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

While we are scaling up, there is a lot going on and much changing, so we try to be pretty streamlined across our teams and ensure everyone knows at a high level what’s going on week to week. For me personally, things are moving fast, so the days disappear quickly, often without getting that one thing I needed to get done today done.

I am a ferocious scribbler of notes on calls, in meetings and even alone in the car, filling endless notebooks. I find it helps me have a balanced recollection of a discussion, and take time every so often to type them up – this tricks me into really thinking through things properly, saying no to lots and focusing on what matters most. Between my notebook scribbles and inbox (Inbox Zero is my unattainable goal), that is my prioritisation.

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

The biggest trend I see in mobile is the pace of evolution and improvement.

This pace of evolution is a big challenge for every business that does anything in mobile, whether it be an airline, a bank, an e-commerce site, a news app or a platform like us at OpenBack. Given the pace of change, and that people all over the world – literally everywhere in every country – are driving that evolution forward, it is very hard for businesses to make the decisions on what change to embrace and what to skip, as there is no way to take up every opportunity.

For us, it is around balancing building out our long-term, game-changing vision of the app on your phone making your life better by being more engaging and useful, while keeping close to our existing and prospective customers to deliver what they need today and tomorrow.

‘The idea that in five or 10 years a business will blast out updates to you in an unpersonalised way with disregard for what you are doing right now makes no sense at all’

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

The core opportunity we are positioned for is the continued improvement of how we as people interact with our mobile phones in our pockets. The idea that in five or 10 years a business will blast out updates to you in an unpersonalised way with disregard for what you are doing right now makes no sense at all, yet the existing technology architecture of one-way sending – like email, SMS and push – can’t support that future world, and so we are building out the solution for that.

While the technology challenge has been very tough, that makes it all the harder for others to copy as the market needs evolve, as all businesses with apps will always desire the best experience for their customers. What business would ever say they don’t want the best for their customers?

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

I feel very lucky there was a very early computer at home as a child, which drove a deep and innate interest in computing and how things work. But then, rolling forward, I didn’t really enjoy my computer engineering undergraduate and found the idea of building a business much more appealing, which led to work in the US at a large strategy consulting firm, which really opened my eyes to global business and what was possible (I’ve always found it harder to imagine what’s possible without seeing some of it first).

That interest in how businesses are built, along with computing, which is so much mobile now, came back together again when we worked on various things – that ended up with us establishing and scaling Ding to operate around the world. Then, push notifications came along as a whole new way to talk to customers in a very personal way that email or SMS couldn’t. I had been tracking the space for a long time before having a clearer view of what we thought the future would look like and starting OpenBack with Christian Ryder.

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

I spend very little time worrying about mistakes of the past as they cannot be changed, but there is of course so much to be learned from past experiences. The biggest learnings for me boil back to intuition and being confident in your own sense of things based on past experiences, and also the importance of integrity, which almost always wins out over time.

blonde man in pale pink shirt holding phone in front of screen with the pink OpenBack logo on it.

David Shackleton. Image: OpenBack

How do you get the best out of your team?

I’ve always enjoyed working most in teams that have perspective on what is going on overall, and believe it’s a major key that lets each of us then get on with making better decisions quickly and executing fast. This also inspires ownership and then pride in individual and overall results, which is a key part of how we derive enjoyment in our careers and what we spend time working on.

I’m also a believer in real-time discussion when things aren’t going as hoped. If you and your team always know where you stand and how things are going, then there is no need to worry about all of that, and more time to get things done, make progress and enjoy life.

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 whats needed to be more inclusive?

This is a really tough challenge that unfortunately will take perhaps another generation or more to truly balance properly, and I don’t suppose there are many easy solutions. In the end, the best-performing teams I have ever been part of have always had a mix of gender as well as backgrounds. Without doubt, there is imbalance across our sector and roles within the sector.

Last year we ran a project to develop and write down our values as a business with the support of various experts and consultants. Diversity was something that really came to light as we thought and talked deeply about what motivates people, how do teams work best together and what people enjoy being part of our team the most. All of the leadership team learned a lot during that process and we had over 25 ethnicities in the company already.

One thing that I often think about is how different words and phrases in job specifications can have a dramatic effect on the diversity of candidates that will even apply to join your team. For me, this was a good example of where basic education and awareness created day-to-day change – the more awareness, the more change over time.

Who is your role model and why?

There are many people I look up to for insight, advice, guidance and inspiration across many parts of life. Without doubt, the people I am always most impressed by are those who have created and built things that have impacted many people around the world, and even more impressive are those who have done that across disciplines as well as industries.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The last three books I enjoyed a lot were:

  • Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike by Phil Knight, which felt like a very honest personal account of building one of the greatest companies of our time
  • Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, which was thought-provoking even if I’m not sure I agreed with much of it
  • Disrupted by Dan Lyons, which was a complete hit job on an amazing company, but a very entertaining view regardless
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

All you will find with me is a phone, laptop, notebook and black Bic biro (the greatest pen in the world) – my world happens with those physical tools.

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