Leaders’ Insights: John Mitchell, Strata3

18 Feb 2016

John Mitchell is the managing director of Strata3.

Headquartered in Dublin, Strata3 is one of Ireland’s leading digital and web consultancies, serving clients in Ireland, the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands. The company works with big brands in telecommunications, banking, transport and utility, including KBC, Capgemini, Viridian and An Post.

It also worked with Eir on the company’s major rebrand last year.

Future Human

Founded in 1999, Strata3 has a strong focus on the growing area of analytics and it was recently listed in the Deloitte Fast 50 fastest-growing tech companies in Ireland.

Prior to taking up his role at Strata3, John Mitchell trained and worked as a financial analyst in Wall Street with JP Morgan, specialising in telecoms and emerging technologies.

Describe your role and what you do.

My day-to-day role involves building and retaining key client relationships across each of our core verticals, as well as a range of strategy, budgetary and HR tasks. In truth, I really enjoy the face-to-face people and client interactions, both with our own team and client-side – it is in many ways the secret of our growth and success.

Another critical dimension to my role is the planning, resourcing, positioning and, as we grow, pivot and transition from being a local provider to a larger European web agency.

I firmly believe that a client-service model will fail unless your team are motivated, valued and best-in-class. From a career development perspective, it is critical that the team feels that Strata3 is a good place for professional development and that the company is growing and dynamic.

It’s my job to create an environment with that momentum.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

My dual priority is the client and our team. To prioritise and organise the working day, I write down my daily tasks in an old-fashioned moleskin notebook, and I frequently pre-write my lists the day before. A good tip I learned from a mentor in the US is to start with the least attractive task so the day gets progressively better.

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

Our biggest challenges relate to talent acquisition and building the associated leadership required for European scale. Fortunately, at the moment, our portfolio of case-work and commercial opportunities is robust, so the building of a bigger team is the only limiter to growth.

Like other technology companies, we operate in a sector with real skills shortages, which impacts heavily on the ability to expand and retain service standards. There is no one silver bullet to resolving this constraint, rather a combination of many elements, such as culture, benefits packages, and balanced working hours, among many other elements. We are based adjacent to Silicon Docks, so the competition with the large international tech brands for talent is ferocious, but as a progressive Irish company we can offer a unique combination of formalised career development without any of the heavy corporate culture. This suits many of our team who have worked with bigger consulting and internet brands and have sought us out as a better place to work.

‘A good tip I learned from a mentor in the US is to start with the least attractive task so the day gets progressively better’

What are the key industry opportunities youre capitalising on?

Often there are too many opportunities in our industry and there is danger in being overly diversified. Our sweet-spot is at the enterprise level, servicing clients in specific industry verticals who need help supporting, analysing and maintaining busy, high-volume, business-critical online sales channels.

With that focus, there are opportunities to help our clients with advanced analytics that help produce digestible insights to what is happening ‘under the hood’. Analytics can sometimes create a morass of data too vast to allow our clients to build real insights and actionable tasks. We are really good at consulting on how to build clear reporting metrics that help make business decisions.

Another key opportunity for Strata3 is building on our success as strategic web partners to our key clients. We provide long-term onsite consulting, system, people and technology support solutions that build deep partnerships. Our clients gain a mix of skillsets and service-level standards without the need to commit to internal resources and the associated costs.

The other key opportunity relates to our focus on specific channel partnerships with technology platforms such as Kentico, Magento, BigCommerce and Temenos, which serve different verticals, including banking.

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

I trained as an economist and as a financial analyst in JP Morgan on Wall Street in the late ‘90s. Most of my peers in the bank followed the glamour of M&A and high-yield investments but I was attracted to the telecoms and emerging technologies division.

This was a clunky title for the nascent dot-com internet industry. From there, I spent a period working in the online payments industry for an Irish company in New York. Returning home, I set up a small agency, sold it and got a call from our present-day chairman to get involved in a company called Strata3 that needed some restructuring. That was 2002, and I’m still here.

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

Probably less a mistake, more a lack of experience, but for the earlier part of my career in Strata3 my focus was purely commercial: sales growth, profit margin and revenue on an annual cycle. While this is still a core aspect of how we run our business, the danger of a solely commercially-led tactical focus is the inability to pivot and change and capitalise on new and better opportunities. The mistake was not realising this earlier and building a strategic view on where the business needed to go to differentiate and prosper. The other hard lesson learned is to increase the rate of change and implement it quickly, yet methodically.

Another mistake was trying to start a multi-million euro data centre business in the late 2000s. But that’s a story for a different interview.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Three simple rules:

1. Do the hard yards yourself.

2. Give people their own heads.

3. Give positive affirmation when it’s deserved.

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

At a macro level, Strata3 has an almost 45:55, female-to-male gender balance, across the client service, consulting, analytics and user experience teams. However, there is a discernible male bias on the development team. This is probably the strong correlation with maths and science preferences at secondary playing out again. The answer is at the post-primary school level. Possibly integrating coding as a secondary syllabus option both in creative arts and technology could break down the profile considerably. Culturally, we are European, with colleagues principally from Ireland but also Spain, Portugal and Croatia.

‘Another mistake was trying to start a multi-million euro data centre business in the late 2000s. But that’s a story for a different interview’

Who is your business hero and why?

Chuck Feeney.

He grew a global multi-billion-dollar success story and has decided to give it all away before he dies. His legacy of Atlantic Philanthropies ranks among the grandest of any living American, with a total foundation grant totalling €7.5bn since 1982. His ‘giving pledge’ has inspired the Gates Foundation, among many others and, until 1997, he did this anonymously.

If heard it said that you are only remembered if you do something really good or something really bad. Chuck Feeney will be remembered for the former.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The Island at the Centre of the World; Russell Shorto: An interesting story charting the birth of the Dutch Colony, New Amsterdam, against the background of the early multinational companies.

Collapse & Guns, Germs, and Steel; Jared Diamond: A readable civilisation / industrial revolution history

Hunger; Sean Kelly: A reminder of how good and tough he was.

Katies fourth autobiography, Katie Price: A tour de force. Better than one, two and three by some stretch. 🙂

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

Moleskin notebook: See above.

Business lunches: Old-school, but very effective for spending quality time with a client.

Email: Less and less.

Laptop: I haven’t felt like discarding the PC for a tablet yet but the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 looks promising.

Bike: I cycle a lot, especially in the hills. It’s distinct from home and work and all my big decisions are made on my bike.