ECI podcast ‘Building Successful Businesses’ with Paul Galligan, CEO of Bionic

We’re excited to launch the second episode of ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” in which we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

In Episode 2 we chat to Paul Galligan, CEO of Bionic, the smart platform for SMEs to sort their business essentials. We chat to Paul about the importance of integrity that he learned working on his Dad’s farm, the biggest lesson from scaling comparethemarket.com, and how becoming more disciplined allowed him to become a better leader.

Listen to Episode 2:

Also available on Apple Podcasts:

Listen to Episode 1:

Transcript:

Fiona: Welcome to the second episode of ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we speak to CEOs about their building blocks for success, and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. Today, I’m delighted to be chatting to Paul Galligan, CEO of Bionic, a platform that helps SMEs sort out their business essentials more easily. Welcome, Paul.

Paul: Hi.

Fiona: I saw you had an ad campaign at the start of lockdown about business owners battling headwinds? 

Paul: Yes, we set ourselves the ambition at the start of COVID that we were going to emerge stronger, with increased market share, and stronger relationships with our customers, partners, and suppliers. We captured some great insight that SME owners did feel like they were really facing into some headwinds and that gave rise to our first-ever TV campaign. So, actually, really exciting in what was a challenging time for every business across the UK.

Fiona: And it feels more important than ever to help SMEs at the moment, because it’s a really big market and the backbone of the economy in times which are looking a bit more difficult.

Paul: It’s a massive market and SME owners needed a lot of help. In fact Bionic was originally conceived because our founder could see that, actually, SMEs were typically poorly served when it came to help with their essential services. So, within the core Bionic business, we’ve seen a massive increase in demand. Our new business revenues are up significantly because, of course, a lot of SME owners have sought to save money. We’re in a market where SMEs need all these products – they are all essential services – and if we are in the business of saving them time, money, and making it easier to shop around, then frankly, it’s a great business model. And it’s served us really well.

Fiona: So, we have a few questions about your personal journey to Bionic. So, one of the first ones is going all the way back, actually. So, what was your first job and what lessons did it teach you?

Paul: So, my Dad had a small farm. I don’t know if I class that as my first job? It was my first exposure to hard work – not that he paid me! I think I learned that the agricultural industry is really based on some fundamentals around integrity and trust. Your word is your bond, you do a deal on a handshake, and you’d stand by that.

I think that gave rise to straight-talking integrity and hard work, of course. Really hard work, long hours and the value of just getting stuff done. I was, I suppose, really fortunate in working long hours. And it just stands you in good stead for being a CEO, right? 

Fiona: I understand that when you left Compare The Market, you actually thought you would go back and be a farmer, is that right?

Paul: Yeah, I did. So, I bought a farm actually a couple of years ago, and it had been derelict for a number of years, so I focused on that for a period of time. But I learned pretty quickly that farming is actually really lonely and fundamentally, I’m a people person. After about five or six months in, I was really missing working life and running a bigger business, so I started to look around and came across Bionic, of course, Make It Cheaper as it was back then.

Fiona: I suppose it’s always good if you have those things in the back of your brain, to just go and scratch that itch. To try it, and then you know you maybe didn’t want to do it.

Paul: Yeah, 100% right. It was a fantastic hobby, it’s a brilliant way to relax. But when it became what I was doing full time, you just got different challenges with it. It became actually less relaxing and by nature, I tend to be pretty dissatisfied with things, so I was always looking to continually move things on. And therefore the farm became less of an enjoyable hobby, and I was really dissatisfied with a number of elements with it. 

I remember getting back on it after my first week back in work, so to speak, back in London. And I got back that weekend and I saw it again with a fresh pair of eyes. All the things I was dissatisfied with when it was my entire focus, just became really unimportant, and it was back to just a great place to relax and you know what? The fact that the fences weren’t right was much less important.

Fiona: Yeah. You can actually start enjoying it again.

Paul: Exactly.

Fiona: You mentioned that you worked at Compare The Market, which is really interesting because it scaled so massively whilst you were there. Is there any advice you might give to CEOs or anyone who is going through that kind of massive scale up? What are the big lessons you took from that?


Paul: Gosh, I think probably first and foremost, actually really understand your customers, and your customer’s needs better than anybody else. And I think that was such a core part of our success, because we had the benefit of a fantastic marketing campaign, but you had to back that up with some business fundamentals. So, point one, I would always say, is really understand what problems it is you’re solving for customers, and how you’re going to do that better than anybody else. Then probably after that, it would be the team I think. You have got to have great people around you in order for I think for any business to fulfill its potential. Those would be the two main things, I think.  

Fiona: The people point is really interesting, actually, because we were speaking to Gurman Hundal, CEO of MiQ, another ECI portfolio company in the last podcast. He was saying that one of the hardest things to get right and the most important things is culture. At Bionic you’ve won awards on that and ranked as one of the Sunday Times Top 10 places to work. How have you done that? What’s the secret sauce?

Paul: First and foremost, when I came to Bionic it had a super-strong culture at the point I joined. And in fact, it was one of the reasons I joined. I think you have to be aligned at a values level, or else it’s not going to work. So, having joined the business, I think about the people that we bring in and I am always going to want to make sure that they are aligned with our values. So I inherited something I think that was super strong. Jonathan and Chris, who were the founders in the business, created a great start point.

I’ve got to make a really successful business. And I partly do that by making it a really great place to work. So, yeah, we were delighted when we were number 7 of The Sunday Times’ Top 100 companies to work for; it was just a great position to have it recognized by our team members like that.

Fiona: Yeah, exactly. And being able to create a great place of work for those people is, it’s important also on so many different levels.

Paul: I think so. And actually, we did a piece of work at the point I joined, to accurately capture what made it great here. And I think what’s been really interesting is having done that piece of work, when it came to COVID, we were able to lean back on that a little. So, at a macro level, we said, “Look, we’re one team, we make a difference, and we push for greatness.” And if you think about those just as core themes, when we have such a fundamental shift they really did stand us in good stead. I think people would talk about us being probably stronger now about our culture and our values than they would have done at the time that we got that recognition in the Sunday Times.

Fiona: I think that’s definitely something we’ve seen across the portfolio is that the values come to light more when they’re tested. 

Paul: Yeah, 100% right. They’re no use on a wall, or on a poster, or in a PowerPoint deck. Like, how do people show up day in day out?

And I think that’s why they were captured so powerfully. It wasn’t something where someone external came in and did a piece of work for us on our values. We did it internally, entirely in-house by talking to our team members about what made this a really special place to work. And it tied back closely to what we believed were the components of being a successful business as well. So, we talk about that, that we won’t settle for going through the motions, good enough, or okay. We set the highest standards.

I think the kind of people that are attracted and are successful at Bionic, they have to be able to look at that and say, “We’re up for it.” We actually state that this relentless drive for improvement is not for everybody. We’re not afraid to tell people, “Look, it is high demand. It is high performance. It’s high expectation.” And anyone who comes to Bionic will talk to you about the energy and the passion that comes from that. We’ve got no time for lethargy. We want people to come in and really make a difference.

Fiona: Talking about just thriving in challenges, what do you think the hardest lesson you’ve learned is on that journey to building successful businesses?

Paul: I’m an opportunities person and I can get really excited and passionate about starting new activities and tackling new opportunities – going for the big stuff. And I was less good at being really structured and disciplined. I remember having a real crunch point at Compare The Market, the business was expanding at a rate of knots, and I recall going on holiday and having a realization, gosh, you know what? If I don’t step forward in my ability to be very highly structured, very organized, super disciplined, get people around me that were very strong in that regard, then I was at risk of being a limiting factor.

I think that I probably had on my development plan for a few years before that, “Look, do you know what? Be much more structured and documented.” And I’m not sure I entirely bought into it until I got really tested through high, high growth. And actually, Fiona, I’ve come to love it. It’s such an important part of execution, success and delivery. All the ideas in the world are great, but if you can’t get that traction with real discipline and rigor, then you’ll never be as successful as you could be.

Fiona: It must be quite hard, that moment of realizing you might be a limiting factor? How do you move on from that? How do you progress once you have that realization?

Paul: Like anything else, right, just attack it. It’s no difference to seeing a business opportunity. It’s just that I could see it and I could feel it. I was very fortunate that I had a moment of reflection because a holiday arrived, so I had a week or two to really reflect on it. And then after the holiday you come back and think, actually, what am I going to do about this? What structures am I going to put around myself?

And again, a good chunk of that answer wasn’t just my own realization, it was then, “Okay, so who is going to help me with this? Who are the people I’m going to bring into to do this?” Now, I think if you spoke to the team, they’d say I’m super structured and I want everything documented. So, maybe I overcompensate for it because it’s part of my nature still. I’m still an ideas and enthusiasm kind of person.

Fiona: You talked about surrounding yourself with good people. Do you have anyone who stands out during your career? Or someone who’s given you really valuable advice? 

Paul: I’m fortunate throughout my career to have worked for some great individuals, and you take a little bit from all of them. You have to stay true to yourself and be authentic and know what’s at your core, but I could go back through all of my prior roles and think of the elements I’ve taken from different individuals. Equally, often you learn the things you would do differently, but whether it’s people you’ve worked for or people you work with you should think, “You know what, I really appreciate the way that they did that.” And you try and incorporate that into your own leadership or approach. So, be yourself but make sure you learn from the people, above, beside or beneath you. Everyone that you can encounter, I’m sure you can learn a lot from different people.

Fiona: So, ECI invested in Bionic, what must have been about three years ago? And is there anything that you think surprised you in terms of how our private equity partner has been able to help Bionic to scale?

Paul: That’s a great question. I think there are some negative connotations around private equity – you speak to some people and it would almost be described as something you need to be wary of. And you worry about if the investment is going to be there, or is it going to be about cost-cutting and EBITDA maximization? I suppose that might have been a misconception I had. I mean I’m conscious I work with ECI, is this where I plug ECI?

Fiona: Oh, yes. Absolutely! 

Paul: I’d say it to Richard – I’d say it to anyone who asked – I’ve just been super impressed. If I take a personal element, one area where I had really next to no experience, was of acquisitions, and its something ECI have stacks of experience in. And now we’ve done three acquisitions in my time here. I had a number of things that I was really passionate about doing at the point I joined: I knew we wanted to invest in our technology, wanted to invest in how we might use data, wanted to invest in the capability of the team.

And I remember pre my joining, I was asking Richard around investment. He said, “You know what, Paul? You put a good investment case in front of us. And we’re going to back it.” I suppose, in all honesty, I did join with a slight apprehension, as to will that be borne out in reality? And it has been in spades. What I’ve presented, the Board have backed, and ECI have backed. There’s been plenty of investment for those acquisitions, or how we move forward our platforms, our technology, our approach to distribution. So yeah, it’s been a terrific journey from my perspective.

Fiona: There are always certain connotations with getting involved in the private equity process, but I think maybe one of the things that people don’t always know is that actually there is that extra value add, the things that go on behind the scenes to help. 

Paul: I think that’s right. At the point I left Compare The Market, it was owned by BGL Group, and a number of people said to me, “If you thrived in BGL, then you’d do really well in a private equity environment because it is about growth. It’s about opportunity. It’s about really doing something meaningful at pace.” So it’s interesting a lot of people could see that was true of BGL and it’s true of the PE world. So, a number of people encouraged me in that direction, and those were some of the positive connotations that have borne out to be true.  

Fiona: So, one final question from me is, what advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are starting their business journey?

Paul: I would say, choose something you love. You’ve got to love it. It is going to take over your life, assuming it’s a success and it’s really going places. So, choose something you love. Put some great people around you to help you deliver it. Understand those customer names. It’s the themes we were talking about earlier. You know, understand your customers better than anyone else. Be clear what problem you’re solving for either them, or your partners, or suppliers? Look, be super clear as well. What is it that is going to make your customers choose your business? What is going to make you special? What are your priorities? And therefore, what are you going to really focus on? And perhaps lastly, what are the things that you’re going to not focus on. Be clear on what you’re not going to do as well?

But you have to make sure you enjoy it too, right? You can’t enjoy every day. But make sure overall you’re loving it. Those would be the components.

Fiona: Well, thanks so much for taking the time to chat to us. And fantastic to see how Bionic is helping SMEs in scaling, and a great place to work as well. And so, I’m glad you abandoned the farm! See you soon.

Paul: All right, thanks, Fiona. Cheers.
 

I think the kind of people that are attracted and are successful at Bionic, they have to be able to look at that and say, “We’re up for it.” We actually state that this relentless drive for improvement is not for everybody. We’re not afraid to tell people, “Look, it is high demand. It is high performance. It’s high expectation.” And anyone who comes to Bionic will talk to you about the energy and the passion that comes from that. We’ve got no time for lethargy. We want people to come in and really make a difference.

Fiona: Talking about just thriving in challenges, what do you think the hardest lesson you’ve learned is on that journey to building successful businesses?

Paul: I’m an opportunities person and I can get really excited and passionate about starting new activities and tackling new opportunities – going for the big stuff. And I was less good at being really structured and disciplined. I remember having a real crunch point at Compare The Market, the business was expanding at a rate of knots, and I recall going on holiday and having a realization, gosh, you know what? If I don’t step forward in my ability to be very highly structured, very organized, super disciplined, get people around me that were very strong in that regard, then I was at risk of being a limiting factor.

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I lead marketing activity across ECI and you may recognize me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses. I’ve worked in marketing since 2012, including a number of years working within private equity."

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