My Biggest Mistake: Steve Shirley

MY big mistake was being too innovative. That might sound odd, but what I mean is that you can be so intrigued by technology that it becomes all-consuming - especially if you are from a science background. What you might miss is that customers are not so interested in it as they are in their own problems.

FI Group started as part of the emancipation of women that was going on in the Sixties. The 'distributed office' techniques we were pioneering then were aimed at women who wanted to be able to pursue active careers at the same time as bringing up children. We were trying to take work to where the people were - particularly women.

From that start we became a company with a particular style. In the 1970s and '80s we established trusts on behalf of our staff, and in November 1991 we sold a controlling interest to the employees. Because the shares held by the workforce carry double the voting power of others, we have a truly empowered organisation.

The company, which now employs 1,000 and has annual turnover of pounds 30m, was also innovative in its organisational structure. For example, we were a pioneer of what is now known as outsourcing - the idea that a company needs only a core of managers, and that the workforce does not have to be directly employed. This meant that labour could be a variable cost; we could have indirect labour and attract skills in order to add value in ways other organisations could not. And there were innovations in computer science, administration, design, sales and marketing.

Because I did not have any training (I left school at 18), nobody told me that there were things you could not do. Sometimes I think ignorance can be quite a management strength. I built up the company after starting out with just pounds 6 in capital, and it has been very successful.

But it would have been easier if we were not ahead of our time. That was a mistake. The idea of the distributed office, based on telecommunications, is only really coming of age today. Thirty years after we started, it is still considered newsworthy that computers and telecommunications are as important to Britain's future as were the resources of the past, such as iron, steel and coal.

I have just spent the past year as master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists, the 100th City livery company, and believe IT is key to the future of London. In an effort to deliver a clear message that telecentres are part of modern working, there will be one on our float in the Lord Mayor's Show on 13 November.

Innovation is going to be vital, and it is not just something for universities. But to innovate too far ahead of the market is difficult - and it can be expensive to try to change market attitudes.

FI Group was viewed as a social phenomenon. Its unique culture delivers exceptional value and long-term commitment, which gave us visibility. People knew us for the way in which we operated, rather than what we did.

The lesson is that sometimes you have to make a leap, but most of the time you have to move steadily and steadfastly to serve your customers. It is a balance between the excitement that the scientific discipline gives you, and the pragmatic approach of business.

(Photograph omitted)

News
people And here is why...
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
Voices
voicesBy the man who has
Sport
Arsene Wenger tried to sign Eden Hazard
footballAfter 18 years with Arsenal, here are 18 things he has still never done as the Gunners' manager
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson star in The Twilight Saga but will not be starring in the new Facebook mini-movies
tvKristen Stewart and Stephenie Meyer will choose female directrs
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
William Hague
people... when he called Hague the county's greatest
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Twerking girls: Miley Cyrus's video for 'Wrecking Ball'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Graduate Recruitment Consultant - 2013/14 Grads - No Exp Needed

£18000 - £20000 per annum + OTE £30000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Law Costs

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - Law Costs Draftsperson - NICHE...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?