A watercooler moment with Paul Lees, founder and CEO of Powwownow, the conference call provider
In a nutshell, what does Powwownow do?
Powwownow is an audio conference call service enabling many people to talk on the telephone at the same time.
Where did the idea for Powwownow come from?
I had worked for large companies for a long time and I lived on conference calls. When I came out of these organisations I suddenly discovered that conference calls were very expensive to organise, as when you work inside a big company you never see a bill. I thought that we should provide what is a relatively simple process for less than what providers were charging at the time.
When did you start up?
How has it gone so far?
Pretty well. We are now the fourth biggest conference call company in the UK. We provide one in every 15 to 20 conference calls in the UK and our turnover this year is around £16m.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
The biggest thing we did was become a telephone company. We started off using other telephone companies’ services but then decided to become a telco in our own right. That’s a very expensive and long process; it took about a year and cost £1m but it means we have complete control over every part of a call. It also means the call quality is very high and if there are ever any problems, we can fix it instead of waiting for somebody else to do it.
How would you say you differentiate yourself from the competition?
The main thing that’s different about us is that we don’t give the caller a bill. We’re paid via the telephone bill that they receive. That makes most people’s lives much easier as they don’t have to worry about getting permission to make a call or worry about accounting for the calls.
What has been the best decision you have made to-date?
When you’re small, effectively all you ever do is sell your service on its features and benefits. But in 2006/07, we decided to stop just telling people how good we were and start being a bit more quirky in the way we do things. We use B2C tactics in a B2B world. For example we had an anti-heroes ad campaign – a sleazy banker – during the banking crisis. That kind of tactic has got us where we are today. I think if we had carried on the message of ‘we make conference calls and we are quite good at it’, we probably wouldn’t be as successful as we are now.
Where do you see the business in 12 months’ time?
We’re moving into video conferencing and screen sharing for presentations on computers, tablets and smartphones. We are trying to move into a more modern way of doing collaboration, which is different from just the audio that makes up the majority of our business today.
If you had one piece of advice for entrepreneurs, what would it be?
Don’t ever start a business unless you can see it making at least £1,000 a day. But probably the overarching bit of advice is to trust your gut instinct. Lots of people will tell you what you can’t do but it’s down to the entrepreneur to work out what they are actually going to do. That will help you more than listening to too much advice.