Neil Harris - Founder of Intently.co

Go live as soon as you possibly can, then… keep on checking the user experience, keep on analyzing, and keep on trying new things.

Neil Harris is the Founder of Intently.co, a global consumer marketplace where buyers can request any service anywhere, and get responses within the hour. He has a BSc Honours degree in Mathematical Sciences from Bath University and a background in software development and Agile. Neil has worked for corporations and startups, as well as writing a sports psychology book and climbing the occasional mountain for charity. When not working, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two children, and is also an avid golfer and runner.

Where did the idea for Intently.co come from?

I wanted an opticians appointment at short notice and didn’t want the hassle of contacting multiple specialists to one-by-one to find out who was available. Would it take me 5 minutes to sort this out, or an hour?

I wished I could just shout “I need to see an optician, who wants to see me?”

I wondered if there was a technology that could approach this ideal. I imagined a widget on my phone where I could notify it about something I wanted to happen (“phone, please broadcast that I need to see an optician at 09:00 tomorrow”), and somehow that need would find its way to people who could help.

I did some research and found that there wasn’t a technology quite like this, so I decided to build it myself.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

There are two essential things that simply must happen every day:

Firstly, I must have clarity on what has happened on our marketplace over the last 24 hours, and what is happening right now. We have a lot of monitoring in place to surface trends and real-time activity, so we check all of this.

Secondly, we must maintain excellent customer service at all times. We try to deal with all enquiries within minutes, not hours or days.

After these essentials, we select our activities from a very long list of potential items for delivery. Potential items broadly fall into the following categories:

  • Growth. Activities that may help us to grow, e.g. better user experience, better SEO, PR, relationships.
  • Quality. Activities that will help our buyers and sellers to get the outcomes they want.
  • Revenue. Activities that protect and or increase our revenue.

In the spirit of the “Agile”, we try to keep our deliverables prioritized, short and achievable, so that every day we have a chance to see the business make real progress.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Having an idea is easy, making it come to life can be extraordinarily difficult. I like the phase “fail fast” – I think it sums up the life of an entrepreneur. When I tell somebody about my business, they often say “oh, you just need to do such and such, that’s the answer”. People think the next step is obvious, but most don’t stick around long enough to find out. The reality is that there are always hundreds of possible next steps to choose from (all of which are aligned with your company’s vision), and it’s extremely difficult to predict which of those will bring about an improvement. Therefore, we try everything, and we measure everything. It’s a bit like the whole venture is an endless sequence of A/B testing.

I think people who can bring ideas to life are tenacious but paradoxically are also extremely flexible and open-minded as to how to their idea might be experienced by others. It is your customers who bring your idea to life, and they do it from their perspective – you just have to show them that your idea is a possibility, see how they respond, and then adapt.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

It would have to be the movement which my website, Intently.co, is part of – the emergence and improvement of customer-centric experiences on the Internet. There are many buzzwords for this: VRM (Vendor Relationship Management), the Intention Economy, Intentcasting, PIMS (Personal Information Management Systems), Virtual Assistants.

For so long, the Internet has supported the “old model” where vendors desperately try to reach customers via ads. It is such a waste of time and money for advertisers, when the very nature of Internet technology – a world wide web – means that we can start to connect people in new and more effective ways. And with the rise of ad-blocking software, if vendors can no longer reach customers through ads then it starts to make sense that customers will use new technologies to signal their purchasing intent to vendors.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I go back to the Agile model to answer this. Agile has taught me the value of continually re-prioritizing what needs to be done and trying to be customer-driven as far as possible. This has stopped us from going too far down a particular road if that road turns out to be a dead end. In addition, I tend to “keep going” at a fairly fast pace for long periods!

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The worst job I ever had was as a Director in a large corporation. While there were a number of positives and I learned a lot, I didn’t enjoy all the politics and it felt like the company was too big and set in its ways – I felt like there was no appetite to try something new or radical. For example, “innovation” involved submitting ideas which were logged on a spreadsheet for periodic review by an Innovation Board. I feel like if you have to do this, then you aren’t really in an innovative environment. Innovation should be unstoppable.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Be careful who you choose to work with. There are a lot of people out there who are attracted to the idea of working in a startup because they think it’s glamorous and a quick way to get rich. There is nothing glamorous about restoring a database on Christmas Day. If I were to start again, I’d probably be a bit quicker at figuring out who can really deliver in a startup environment.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Go live as soon as you possibly can, then… keep on checking the user experience, keep on analyzing, and keep on trying new things.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Learning and hard work.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I worked for a startup involved in GPS-triggered media (primarily to be used at tourist attractions, but also for urban media experiences). It was a brilliant idea on paper, but it didn’t grip our users. When we finally started listening to our users, the investment funds had started to dry up.

So the lesson learned was: get your idea in front of your users straight way, and let them lead you.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I’d like to invent a café called something like “The Glass Door Café”. When you go in, your profile comes up on a big screen so people can see who you are and what you do. It’s a real-world place where people can connect for any reason. Unusual connections might be made!

I’ve wondered just how transparent this could become. For example, what would happen if the café’s real-time financial position for the day was shown to everyone? If we were visibly making a loss, would people go and buy another coffee? If we were visibly making a profit, would people expect a discount? What would happen if our customers chose to be more transparent while they were in this place? More questions than answers at this point, but it’s something I’d like to experiment with!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

A ticket to see The Stone Roses live in Manchester!

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

We use quite a few technologies:
– MySQL. Fast and free.
– Ruby on Rails. A very straightforward language with lots of help online (e.g. StackExchange).
LiquidWed hosting. We switched to them last year because our previous hosting provider’s customer services became slow and ineffective. LiquidWeb’s support is, frankly, miraculous. They can solve absolutely anything and they do it quickly.
Chargify for subscription payments. It really feels like we’ve outsourced part of our business to a company who can do it better than we can.
Braintree for payment processing. No charges for the first £30,000 taken – very nice.
Bing Search API. Simple and accurate.
OpenCage Geocoder. For getting latitude / longitude for any location. Works great!

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I liked Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. It explains a lot about how some highly successful people got to the top – the right place, the right time, and a small matter of doing 10,000 hours of their chosen profession before anyone else could!

Connect:

http://intently.co/
Intently.co on Twitter: @intently_co
Neil Harris on Branded: https://branded.me/neil-harris

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