How Best Founders Work ‘on’ Their Business Not ‘in’ It [Podcast #94]
Tune in to this week’s SOL Podcast for our incredibly insightful chat with Alexis Kingsbury, Co-Founder of AirManual. We asked, and he answered: the thinking process of an entrepreneur, how to say no or pivot, creating/adjusting the tools and technology for gaps in the market, startups’ impact on society and the importance of having a greater purpose, and hardships whilst hiring, when to do or when to delegate as a founder, skillsets to acquire to reduce dependence and overall how Alexis and his co-founder Paddy founded AirManual to help businesses destress through clear onboarding and documentation processes.
Founded in 2021, AirManual aims to streamline the routine and time-consuming processes businesses have by clearing them. With their guided checklists AirManual provides a practical and scalable way to create and upkeep documentation as well as accelerate onboarding and other processes.
You can listen to our podcast below or read the transcript if you want to learn more about and get inspired by another London startup’s journey.
Hello, and welcome to the Startups of London Podcast. I’m your host Ozan and the founder of Startups of London. Today I’m joined by Alexis Kingsbury, co-founder of AirManuel. The value proposition is to move faster with clear processes, enrollment, and onboarding. I’m fascinated to find out more about the business, and also about Alexis himself because he has been working with entrepreneurs for a while. And I think we have a lot in common. Welcome to our chat.
Thanks very much. It’s great to be here.
Amazing. So like, can you perhaps do a helicopter view of your experience so people get an understanding of all your past, your background, as well as what AirManual does today?
Sure. So last 25 years, in a nutshell, got it.
Under 30 seconds.
Yeah. So I was always an entrepreneurial kid starting up various little businesses but was never able to scale them. Even while learning management science at university, I became a management consultant working with really large companies like AstraZeneca, Honda, BP, and so on. I learned that the way to do it is through people and processes. And so then I left and started my own businesses.
My first software business was Spidergap. I’ve now grown that over the years to a team that now has team members in nine countries across five continents, working with over 550 organizations around the world, including well-known brands like PWC, 3M and Swarovski. And then, because of our experience of building our own businesses, and realising that building people, setting up your people and processes is actually really hard. And particularly in the process component, it’s really common to end up with processes that are out of date or just hard to delegate. We created AirManual– started creating AirManual at the end of 2020 to solve that problem. And now we’ve been working with around 50 organisations to help them to document their processes and onboarding, simple interactive checklists. And as a result, faster as a business with less stress.
Can you walk us through your thinking process? When you’re about to start a new business? Or perhaps as a shadow of that question, how do you shoot down ideas? How do you say no? And saying no to yourself, perhaps, with some ideas- is a big part of it as well, I believe. So how? What’s your experience with that?
Yeah, so I completely agree. And throughout our journey, there’s been various ideas at either a really high-level business idea, like in the nearly days before we created Spidergap, there were probably 12 to 15 other businesses, that we considered, in some cases, bought domain names for and then decided not to do. And then, of course, you’ve kind of got the decisions within the product and the business. So for example, Spidergap started out as a broad survey tool for – at the time we wanted to use it for gap analysis, basically, you know. If your businesses are at A and you want to get to B, identify where the gaps are and how you get there. But when things weren’t going as we were hoping we spoke to customers and got loads of input. And identified, actually, that most people that were using it for the intended purpose, didn’t value it that much whereas the people who are using it for 360-degree feedback to support employees with their development going from where they are now to where they want to be were getting loads of value. In fact, they felt that we weren’t charging enough. And so as a result, we pivoted and Spidergap became basically the world’s best-rated 360 feedback store. And, you know, we wrote it in that way, based on that customer feedback and that iteration. So, you are absolutely right, that you need to be saying no to lots of different things. And in fact, I’d say a lot of my entrepreneurial journey has been learning that message over and over and over. There’s because there’s always a temptation to go wider with your target audience or wider with your product offering or wider with your marketing channels and lead magnets and all these sorts of things. And often the reverse is what gets you the really good results.
Do you think it’s possible to move the world, nudge things, and nudge society in a positive direction through startups?
100%. I think that entrepreneurs and startup businesses and great businesses have the capacity to have an incredible impact on the world. It’s one of the reasons why I love working in this industry of helping entrepreneurs and businesses to grow is because people rarely go into business thinking “I just want to make some money. I don’t care what it is.” And frankly Those people rarely succeed. The businesses that truly do well have some passion at the heart of them a bigger why that, as a result, attracts people both in form of customers and employees and so on. And so I think, you know, when you are tapping into that greater purpose, you’re helping achieve some amazing things in the world. Like many of our customers work in things like solar construction and installation or energy analysis. And those are businesses that are relatively new in the scheme of things. And of course as a result of climate change and the need for the world to change its approach. And so I love the fact that you know, we get to work with people that are doing that. But I suppose in my small way, I’m doing the same even though Spidergap were helping businesses fundamentally change their approach to developing employees, which I’m really passionate about, I think that personal development is a big part of personal happiness and growth. And so I think that’s important to support that greater organisation. With AirManual, we’re passionate about reducing the stress in the business and freeing up time for business owners, because, you know, they say that running a business is a marathon, not a sprint. I think in reality, it’s a series of back-to-back ultra-marathons or almost Spartan challenges. And the temptation as an entrepreneur is to think “Oh, success is just around the corner.” And that’s not true. You never reach one major success and your job is done. And so as a result, I love the fact that we’re helping people to achieve amazingly, I often describe it as we’re helping businesses or business leaders to free up their time and reduce the stress to create space so that they can have a greater impact. Because ultimately, that’s what we want, we want them to achieve amazing things as you say, but to do so you can’t be always chasing the next thing and just thinking, “Oh, success will be a success around the corner, it’s fine to work seven days a week, it’s it’s fine to feel completely overwhelmed and nearly at burnout because if I can just get to this next milestone, I’ll get there.” And so yeah, that’s kind of my passion is helping people to be able to have those great impacts whilst still having a really happy fulfilling life, so yeah, 100%.
Balance, I think is incredibly important. And it’s a difficult balance to get right especially if you’re not tenured or perhaps whether there’s an entrepreneur, or going back to the sport– the marathon. We were just having a chat (for our listeners out there) before our podcast started about my affinity and fondness for ancient Greek and Roman times. And I think they got some of the things right. Especially I really liked the idea –this will sound like totally out of the scope of this conversation but bear with me because it is not. These ancient gods, right, they were actually more representations of the difficulties of life, and perhaps aspirational figures, rather than mythical creatures. If we go back to history and do a bit of research, it turns out that people, if we were living at that time, would not take it so literally: Okay, there’s a god of something, there’s another god of something, and they are living in a mountain up there. But they are more representations and almost analogies of the challenges that we face in life. And with that idea, I think if entrepreneurship appeared in the way it does today, back in those times, or if people who lived in those times were perhaps thinking about the world today, I think we will definitely have a God of the Market. What do you think about that Alexis, does that hold water? The God of the Market as an entrepreneur, you find out a lot of your success or failure comes down to what the demand in the market is. And I think perhaps this question is like a counter-thesis to the previous question I asked, which is, do you think startups can create a certain amount of value? I say yes to that question, with all my heart as well. But at the same time, now, as a more weathered entrepreneur, I see if there is no market demand, even if you are trying to create a force for good and like nudge society in a positive way. It is incredibly difficult to get things off the ground. So the God of the Markets kind of rules us all in a way. But I cannot reconcile those two things. So I would love to hear your thoughts on that.
Yeah, so I think that the market is absolutely key in the way that you described, I think is excellent. I think so many entrepreneurs have tried and failed to create businesses that essentially produce something that the market isn’t seeking, isn’t wanting, isn’t needing, isn’t valuing and yet, in that entrepreneur’s head and heart are “But this is what I want to do.” And I think the solution for that comes back to that why and that purpose. It’s if your entrepreneurial purpose and passion are, “Oh, I want to go and sell, let’s say, it’s micro weathervanes in people’s gardens that harness the wind and turn it into electricity for your home.” It’s like, well, a better passion or purpose would focus on the outcome rather than the specific product idea that you’ve got. Because the problem is that when you take if your passion, if your whole purpose and raison d’etre in life, is to fill everyone’s front gardens with micro weathervanes that power their house, if you find that the market really, really, really doesn’t want that, then you’re going to have a really hard time. Whereas if you set your purpose and your why as being, I” want to help individual homes become self-sufficient in energy terms, and produce, essentially, sort of net zero in terms of their use of energy,” that becomes something that’s A) there is a desire for both globally, but individual households would put would be passionate about that. And that then opens up room for creativity, it allows the entrepreneur to then say, “Okay, what’s the best way in which I think I can help offer that.” And if they initially come up with micro weathervanes, and they get pushed back? They don’t stop. It’s not like, “Oh, well, no one wants that. Therefore, I can do nothing.” Instead, they can say, “Well, why is that? Oh, it’s because people don’t want their front gardens to have a load of stuff on them. Therefore, what if I could mount it to the house? What if I could put it on the roof? What if I could, you know, what don’t they care about? What if it weren’t on the fence? What if actually, it is in the front garden, but it looks good, and therefore that it might like.” It then gives you freedom for that creativity to then as you might describe, like, satiate the demand of the God of the Market, whilst still providing that…
Yeah. But to some extent, you do need to be willing to sacrifice your product ideas to the God of the Market, because if you hold on to them too tightly, like if we had held on to our initial plan for Spidergap too tightly, we’d never have been able to grow it to seven figures. There wasn’t enough demand, people didn’t value it enough, we wouldn’t have had the retention, the ability to charge enough and so on. It would have been just really, really painful. We had to be willing to let go of the big idea. And when you do and when you then use customer input and that kind of greater need to drive what you develop it, then that’s the key to success.
I think that’s pretty accurate. It almost reminds me of this cliche, but again, perhaps correct saying “Love the problem, not the solution” as an entrepreneur, because if you love the solution, you obsess over it, and then you kind of become myopic, in terms of whether it’s the best solution out there, you don’t know that. If you love the problem itself, then you are solution agnostic, right, you can basically shift your way around the market in a way where you can find play with different solutions until it satisfies the God of the Market in that sense. But I would like to understand your perspective. From AirManual, being a co-founder has been going on for almost two years now. Correct me if I’m wrong. What was the core problem that you were trying to solve that you thought was not already addressed in the market? Given there is some competition in this space and bear in mind, I don’t know it as well as you do. But I know things like Notion, Airtable, for example, or like a slew of other solutions that have become a part of this co-working, remote working behaviour is accelerated by this. So especially thinking of the competitive landscape as well. What was the problem that you thought went unaddressed? And what is AirManual trying to do to solve that?
Fantastic! Well, I think to use what you were describing before around “Love the problem, not the product or the solution,” but then we probably then add to that and then enjoy the process or enjoy the journey. That’s always been a core value for us. One of our core values is to enjoy the journey because I fundamentally believe like as mentioned before, there isn’t some magical success moment around the corner that solves all of your problems forever. Business is a continual game of adjusting and adapting and new, more interesting, bigger, higher value problems that you have to solve. It’s still a little bit like initially in the business, you have a problem called haven’t got any customers, you start generating some demand and you generate some customers, but now you’ve got delivered. So your new problem is: Right, I’ve got to serve these customers. And so you start doing that. And then you say, “I’ve got a new problem called, I need more customers.” And to some extent business is just going in between those things. Now, over the course of our growing our businesses, one thing that we found really tough is being able to, on a consistent basis, free up your time as a business leader, delegate effectively reduce the risk and the stress in the business resulting from drop balls and mistakes, and constantly aim to answer the same questions and so on.
We’ve also found that when you’re bringing in team members, it can derail you and the whole business for months at a time, which means that you then hold back from hiring. And I’ve been through these experiences, I’ve made these mistakes. And I remember the first time I hired someone, I hired someone who had done a million pounds in revenue in a similar software product the year before, I brought them into Spidergap thinking this will you know, drive a huge amount of demand, this will be fantastic. I didn’t give them the guidance, the processes, the training, the onboarding that now I would, and I can’t because I partly thought “Well, they’re the expert, I’m not going to be the best salesperson, they are. So I’ll let them define what they need.” And you know, you wait a few weeks, and then you wait a few months, and then you start going “Well, not only is he not on track to deliver a million, he’s not even getting the results I was getting. And I had a small amount of time compared to the salesperson.” And so what I realised through that and many other mistakes that I’ve made, is that this stuff isn’t easy or obvious or immediately successful. And that it’s incredibly painful. When it goes wrong, it costs many 10s, even hundreds of 1000s of pounds, each time you’ve got failed hires. Another example is it nearly broke me and my co-founder multiple times as we were growing the business both mentally like “Okay, yeah, well, you know, get to the point where basically done with the business, it’s just too hard.” But also financially, you get to a point when you nearly have to pull the plug on the whole thing, we have to make stuff redundancies, including friends, which is really painful. But also with our relationships with our significant others. You know, we’re working so many hours, that at one point, my partner who, you know, at the time was my girlfriend was planning on checking me out, you know, like you can no longer live here now only found out through a friend that was the case. And as a result made major changes in the way that we’re working, which, fortunately, is a happy ending when you know, happily married for 10 years, and got two wonderful children. But I see those problems in so many businesses. The majority of business owners are stuck working in their business rather than on it. The majority of business owners struggle to hire and onboard people without it taking up significant amounts of time and taking really long time to get people up to speed.
Stop there for a second. Because you said something really insightful when you say working in the business rather than on the business. Can you expand on that for us?
Yeah, so most business owners like the vast majority of their time, sometimes all of their time is doing the doing. It’s you know, having the sales conversations doing the follow-up, sending the invoices, chasing the payments, submitting the annual accounts, during the recruitment, training, the new employees like the long list of stuff that you have to do in a business. That’s why they spend their time working in the business doing. Whereas as the business leader, you need to be putting a significant amount of time into working on the business, which is the strategic and critical thinking where you’re looking at it as more a business owner or investor rather than an operator within the business. And that might be looking for new strategic partnerships. It might be looking for new marketing channels that can work for you it might be looking at the financials and working out that there are particular segments of your customer base that are not profitable and as a result, you’d be better off dropping. But strategic thinking fundamentally can change the results in the business whether it’s increasing your profit, significantly scaling your revenue, or you know, or some other massive benefits there to the business to allow you to achieve your results. like You need to know but most people can’t.
I love how this is so simple, but it makes a lot of sense. But it’s difficult in reality, at the same time, you’re like a jack of all trades as a founder, especially when you’re getting started, so it is difficult to delegate. And I’ve spoken with some other consultants. And I’ve definitely heard this bit of wisdom myself: set yourself an aspirational, hourly rate. And I think that believes that you delegate. And that’s kind of Have you work on it, but it first Lee, it’s difficult to delegate, that, in itself is a skill, to onboard the people, right? And I think that’s where AirManual comes in, to a large extent, correct me if I’m wrong. And at the other end, you also need to have enough funds and enough time to be able to do that, because it’s also costly to be able to grow the business. And momentum is everything in that sense, what do you think about that aspect of it? Especially, sometimes you have six months to get things done. And if you don’t move fast enough in that period of time, then it gets increasingly difficult. It’s like going up a hill with a certain momentum, certain speed, certain velocity that you have to bring into things. But that is also very difficult when you have to delegate everything. That’s like a particularly special challenge, I think.
Yeah, I love that. There’s so much so many gems in what you’ve just said. I’m excited to operate all of them. So if I go back to the very start of that, that point in that question, which is around delegation is hard. And particularly if I pick up on your point around in the early stages as an entrepreneur, when it is just you or you and a founder, you do need to be a jack of all trades. And I think this is where the problem starts because as a business leader, even when you’re working on the business, what you’re trying to do is identify a new thing that works- a marketing channel, a strategic partnership, a new product, whatever it is- right? Or you know, right at the start the beginning, what’s the target market? Who’s the audience you’re working with? What’s the product? And so you have to do stuff that doesn’t scale, you have to try different things and iterate really quickly. And that is not the time to dedicate, that is the time to be trying different things.
The problem is that when it starts to work, and it’s a sliding scale, it’s not like one day it’s not and one day it is. It’s like you don’t know quite when it is. Let’s say that you’re having sales conversations. Over time, as you iterate, you start to find that some of them seem to be going slightly better, and then better still. And then maybe one of them from two weeks ago converts and you’re like, “Oh, that worked well.” And so, it’s not a sudden moment. And so, as you work out what works, you need to get to a point where you go, “Right, I now have worked out that this is how I sell this product,” for example, “I now need to delegate, I now need to systemise that and hand that over.” And doing that is not necessarily an easy thing.
It was one of my biggest weaknesses was that I was an absolute control freak. When I did try and document stuff, I put in way too much detail. When I then handed it over, I expected the person just to be able to follow the guidelines and get the results. I didn’t set up any management of the people and the processes. So then they would go out of date. And it would go stale. And you end up with a mix of various documents all over the place, which is what most businesses have, most businesses are got Word documents, PowerPoint stuff, you know, Notion, Asana, all this kind of stuff. And it’s a patchwork, it doesn’t meet the needs of being able to make the business easy to run.
And so I think that’s the fundamental problem is that as an entrepreneur, you do need to be able to switch from working out what works, then systemise it and pass it over, which frees up time so that you can then spend more time on the business, finding out what works so that you can then systemise that on its own and repeat that cycle. But it isn’t necessarily simple. And it’s why I essentially run a weekly webinar on this topic: How to free up 15 hours a week and remove the constant stress of running the business. And that entire session is basically a masterclass in “How do you do this?” because it isn’t something we’re all born with. It isn’t something that’s easy. And even myself as a management consultant who was helping large businesses to document their processes and so on the skills I built up there, which were awesome skills, I found insufficient to then help me in my business to truly reduce the dependence on me. But the good news is that I was able to make those shifts and as a result, this year, I took a six-week road trip with my family where I didn’t need to work during that period because I’ve been able to extract myself from the business. So possible, but it’s not easy.
Well done for that discipline as well, because it’s just like a notification that wants to be checked when you go on a trip for that amount of time when you have a running business. And I definitely cannot say I am as good as you in that regard. Because when I go on holidays, as I became an entrepreneur, what the holiday meant the meaning and the feeling of a holiday has thoroughly changed for me, because when I was an employee, and this was like seven years ago, I used to like, take my leave, and then shut everything down. And I would enjoy the moment, it was just, it was a holiday from my daily life as well in a way. But now as an entrepreneur over the last six, or seven years, perhaps this is something that I need to personally grow and learn better skills, but it’s really difficult to shut things down because things are going on in the background. And it’s just it takes incredible self-discipline as well to be able to not focus on them. How do you how do you do that?
Yeah, so I think the good news is that it is a skill set that anyone can develop. I think that, like time management or things of that nature, we’re not all born instantly able to do all this stuff brilliantly and be masters at it, but we can all learn it. And so the way that we’ve done it is arguably the slow way, which is reading lots and lots and lots of books, iterating, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and so on, and so forth, myself and my co-founder, I’d say that that journey has probably cost us about a quarter of a million pounds and about five years. Whereas the nice thing is that we’re essentially distilling that kind of learning, and I’ve been sharing it through, you know, interviews, like the one that you’re doing right now, we also do, we also do some LinkedIn Lives and have created a podcast, destressyourbusiness.com, which basically covers the sorts of things that you need to do.
So whether it for example, what level of detail should you document things at, how do you break down the tasks that you’ve got into individual roles that are much easier to delegate? When you pass over a task to someone else how do you do that in a way that means that they’re likely to be successful and not make questions and keep coming back to you with mistakes and things? Or how do you make sure that content doesn’t go out of date, once you’ve documented stuff? All of those things are challenges that at some point we faced in the office this and had to solve. And, you know, we’re basically now helping businesses to do it, as you mentioned before, through AirManual. It is a software application which is kind of designed to take all the friction out of it. But fundamentally, you know, sometimes I talk to our customers about like, this is what AirManual and you can do and this is how you use it. And often the reaction that you kind of get back is “Ah, I get it.” It’s like it’s not even just about implementing tools, what you’re really implementing is a change in your culture like a process culture or continuous improvement culture. And the tool is just there to remove the friction that gets in the way of doing that.
Yeah, and I think that’s the key, it’s about changing your business into one that doesn’t stress it doesn’t have an overwhelming lack of clarity on what needs to be done and when and by who is and instead you have a business that’s really well structured and systemised and as a result can run with without you day to day, because otherwise, it’s a really painful journey. And it doesn’t need to be.
I’m afraid we’ve run out of time. This was an insightful chat. I have one final question for you: What is the next big milestone for the company now?
The next big milestone for AirManuel specifically, is for us to get to a point where we’ve helped 1000 business owners to free up their time, reduce mistakes get onboarding, self-service faster and so on. Right? I am so passionate about helping entrepreneurs that are in so much pain. To do this, I would love to increase the scale at which we operate at the moment. And so that would represent a 10-20x increase in what we’ve done at the moment. But we’ve got to a point now where we know the model through which we can deliver the value. We know that three hours spent with us can translate into 15 hours a week freed up ongoing for a business leader. And we’ve kind of got various other ways to do it. So that’s the big stage for us. So we’re doing a lot to get out there and share the messages and share some of the stories because I think one of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs is even believing this is possible. Like it’s you know, you when you’re stuck in the business, it’s very difficult to even see how might I get out of this? How do I avoid working seven days a week? Or, how do I avoid being constantly required in the business? It’s very hard to see a way out and yet, we’ve got loads of examples where we’ve been doing exactly that.
Thank you for your insightful comments. I thoroughly enjoyed our chat. Thanks, Alexis.
Me, too. It’s been an absolute pleasure, thank you.