One of the biggest business myths is that you’ve got to be a genius to run a company, says Mark Livingstone, CEO of online prescription delivery business Pharmacy2U. For him the trick is just to keep it simple.
It’s a lesson hard-learned from a career specialising in fast-growth subscription businesses, where an ability to ruthlessly prioritise tasks is essential for treating the hiccups that can come with high customer churn and logistically intensive companies.
In 2004 Livingstone left a directorship at LEGO to co-found what would become DVD-by-mail firm LOVEFiLM. After two years of intensive growth the company was sold to Amazon and in 2008 Livingstone became a founding investor in Graham Bosher’s food subscription startup Graze, which was sold to Unilever for a reported £150 million in 2019.
Following a top seat post at business directory Scoot and an NED role at Parcel2Go.com, he became CEO at ChemistDirect in 2015 before it merged with Leeds-based Pharmacy2U in July 2016. Now he is contractually obliged to ensure that nearly 300,000 NHS patients receive their repeat prescriptions each month.
Here he shares three other tips that he thinks all leaders should remember.
Track your gems
"I worked with some very talented people at LOVEFiLM, and eventually one of them wanted to go and raise money for what at the time seemed like a really wacky idea of fresh fruit delivery through the post.
"He was having difficulty raising funds to back the business, so he came to me and other friends for help. There were 40 of us in total and together we put in around £1.3m.
"We believed in the person much more than the idea, but we knew that he was capable of delivering something really outstanding. He went on and did it, that idea merged into a subscription snacks business called Graze and the rest is history.
"He then created another business called Tails which was dog food through the post. I was involved as an investor and that business was also sold to Nestle last year.
"My lesson here is when you have the privilege of working with people that you genuinely think are brilliant, just make damn sure you keep tabs on them, whatever they end up doing next."
Know your sweet spot
"I fundamentally believe that it is right for a company to have a change of leader as it progresses. Ultimately different skill sets and attitudes are suited to the different challenges that come as a business grows.
"For example I know that I’m better at motivating a team of very aligned individuals, usually smaller teams with a real focus on achieving fewer goals in a relatively short space of time. That’s what I get off on, but it’s not the skill set you necessarily require to run a more mature business.
"I ran LOVEFiLM, then we completed a merger and Simon Calver came in to replace me as chief executive. His skill set was very different to mine.
"I’m not afraid to accept that whatever business I run may well have a best-by date for my skill set. Companies are like running a relay: you've got to have people who are good at the sprint, some that are good at the middle stage and people that are good at finishing. I'm not bad at the sprint.
"I’d love to say that it was clear to me all along and I picked the opportunity based on where my skills were - but that would be total bullshit. I worked it out through doing what I’ve done better."
"Unbelievably one of the things that has really helped me is just being polite.
"The words ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ are some of the most valuable and influential in business. It’s amazing how many people don’t figure this out, to their detriment, because there’s really no substitute for politeness, decency and good manners.
"I find it incredible how many people phone me and never ask whether or not it’s convenient to talk. I could be on the toilet, getting on the tube, just doing anything really. But that simple qualification that I have got someone’s attention and that they are in the right space for a call saves a lot of time and energy.
"It’s simplistic, but all I can say is that saying please, saying thank you and if it’s convenient to talk before I rabbit on has actually served me incredibly well."
Image credits: Pharmacy2U