Leaders’ Insights: John Colgan, Solgari

14 Apr 2016

John Colgan is the CEO and co-founder of Solgari.

John Colgan co-founded Solgari in 2012.

The company has developed a disruptive cloud business communications platform.

Colgan has more than 30 years’ experience in the IT industry in roles ranging from being an engineer, to a developer, marketer, founder and CEO.

Alongside his current roles with Solgari, he is also an IMI/Cambridge University Business Growth Mentor to several high-potential companies in the Enterprise Ireland Accelerated Growth Programme.

Describe your role and what you do.

I founded Solgari alongside our CTO Vance Harris, and, as CEO, I lead the creation of company culture and business strategy. I’m also responsible for process efficiency and driving a diligent execution of our plans to ensure success for all Solgari stakeholders.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

It’s my job to look at the bigger picture and make sure the company is heading in the right direction, overseeing and trusting others to handle the minute details that actually help us get there. This means prioritising tasks based on the key performance indicators (KPIs) that underpin our business plan and managing them in terms of our employees, partners and clients to ensure we realise the targets in our growth strategy.

I take the same approach to everything work related, emails, calls etc are all slotted into my KPI-based framework, so every day begins with a refresh of this based on new contacts etc.

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

People don’t like change and invariably trust what they already know, finding holes in new solutions even where there are none to be found. Helping businesses to break out of the traditional, slow, technology-based view of business communications can therefore be incredibly difficult.

For us, it’s getting people to trust in the cloud rather than physical infrastructure, silicon chips rather than copper wires. Solgari provides complete business communications via the cloud, doing so across multiple locations in a matter of days and with no capital expenditure. In contrast, traditional telecoms companies can take months, or even years, and invariably charge a fortune. Still, people persist with the latter because it’s what they’ve always known – although I believe that has already started to change.

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

A combination of acceptance of cloud services and a realisation that current solutions are too expensive and inflexible. Along with that, some of the traditional players have become aware that the move to integrated cloud software services will be the real core of business communications going forward and are partnering with us to bring comprehensive and cost-effective communications to their existing clients.

It’s interesting that this year is the 140-year anniversary of Alexander Graham Bell creating the first two-way audio over the telephone with the words to his assistance “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you”. The pace of change over the next five years compared to the last 140 years is going to be tremendous, with the movement from traditional telephony to cloud software, and it will completely change the way companies approach communications. All the big names in telecommunications are going to face massive pressure from Apple, Google and Microsoft, and other really innovative software vendors.

‘Helping businesses to break out of the traditional, slow, technology-based view of business communications can therefore be incredibly difficult’

What set you on the road to where you are in the technology industry?

I was a programmer who became frustrated with not being able to provide the speed and flexibility of delivery to match successful business building. IT and telecoms, as it was then, was viewed as a place where good initiatives were diluted, delayed and cost too much.

I was lucky to have been involved in a number of major design projects where I got to understand the meta models underpinning flexibility of data and process design and when I met our Solgari CTO we were both disciples of good design and it has paid dividends.

My aim has always been to create technology that affords rapid progression in line with successful business initiatives and development. I’m delighted with how well Solgari delivers on this in spades for all business communications.

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

With the previous technology companies that I built, while the service and products were delivered to customers in many countries, we took on too many routes to market and had to refocus on core sales strategies. While it didn’t ultimately prevent them being successful, it did cost us a lot of time and money. It was a big lesson to me to think very carefully about how we reach the type of customer that needs Solgari services. As a result, we have developed three specific partner routes to market, which includes integration with other cloud technology vendors where the integrated solution is delivering a crucial service to customers that is simply not available to them elsewhere, for example, Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Allow people to take charge and they’ll rise to the challenge.

Then listen to them acutely, as that is where the good ideas come from. In an environment where people have a sense of ownership, those ideas and initiatives are plentiful.

You can’t just hand out tasks and let people get on with it, you still need to encourage people to take a lead and assure them of everyone’s support from the team.

Good employers always recognise people’s efforts and acknowledge any good that comes from successes and misfired efforts, so that people stay positive and don’t dwell on errors. Don’t create a judgement culture, it’s much better to have one of respect, trust and growing self-esteem.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity. What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to effect change?

In our case, and this is the same for all cloud software service companies, the key to success lies in the efficient delivery of our services to customers. To build this capability, we have a diverse global staff and a healthy mix of male and female employees. It definitely wouldn’t be possible to build our company the way we are without a staff that has multiple skills and perspectives.

In terms of addressing gender diversity in technology, it goes back to primary and secondary school education. While technology is a business like any other, it is, of course, absolutely everywhere and provides great opportunities. All children should be taught to learn and embrace technology from an early age, which is happening more and more.

Encouraging everyone to improve their technology skills via training helps demystify technology and leads to more diversity. It also helps create better technical solutions and a better understanding of the technology creation processes for those who work with technologists. The good news is that the barriers to entry that existed when I started out in tech are long gone and increased encouragement and support will lead to far great diversity in STEM-related sectors.

‘Don’t create a judgement culture, it’s much better to have one of respect, trust and growing self-esteem’

Who is your business hero and why?

Richard Branson, as I like the way he empowers his people and how he listens to them. He has generated great power through truly releasing people’s individual capabilities.

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner is a close second though, as he endorsed the notion of a CEO not always working in their business but preserving time to work on their business. This allows for more strategic thinking time rather than always being involved in the operational here and now.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Two old books that helped me move from being a technical person into a broader role were Marketing Warfare by Al Ries and Jack Trout, and You Can Negotiate Anything by Herb Cohen.

I also did a wonderful corporate psychology course, which threw up many mind-broadening books and perspectives. For example, The Essential Enneagram by David Daniels and Virginia Price, The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey, Flourishing by Maureen Gaffney and More Time to Think by Nancy Kline.

On the basis that everyone brings their own self to work, I recommend the latter self-development books as much as any pure business book.

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

People are the best tool for any job, whether that’s my collaborators within Solgari or our partners and clients. Just as they help me, I strive to offer the same positive support, encouragement and insights for them.

Once you have the right people on board, one of the most important resources is clearly-defined KPIs, which allow everyone to see the impact of their focus and efforts, and means teams can easily prioritise and cooperate on activities.