Meet the Team: Dean Thorpe, Director of Decode Studios (Part 1)
Dean Thorpe is the Director and the first investor in Decode Studios. He has been with the company for more than 10 years already. He is the main person behind our business strategy as well as the one managing the whole team. Right before the Christmas holidays we sat down with him to learn more about Dean as a person and Dean as a businessman. This is the first part of our conversation in which he talks about his personal aspirations and goals as well as about the successes and the challenges Decode Studios has been through. Expect the second part in January 2019 in which you can read more about Dean’s expectations related to the future. Enjoy the reading and have a magical Christmas! :)
Decode Studios: Hi, Dean! You are a business owner, an investment adviser, a public speaker, a presenter and an author (“The 60-days success blog”), you are a pilot, a trustee of a number of charities, you play the guitar, you are a football coach as well as a business coach and last but definitely most important of all – you are a husband and a father of two boys. Am I missing anything?
Dean: I can make a mean omelette. :)
DS: Is there anything new coming up some time soon?
Dean: Yes, I am publishing my new book: “Growing your own money”
DS: What is on your diary for this week?
Dean: The highlights are: a number of review meetings with clients on the financial side, a bit of strategy time for Decode Studios (my software development business), I have a trustees meeting for a charity I am involved with and I have a little bit of time to take the aircraft out and fly around, weather-permitting.
DS: What is the one thing that gives meaning to all the rest of the small battles?
Dean: When you are attempting to do something and you are either striving towards one big main aim or you have a number of goals you are attempting to achieve, it is important to recognize early on that there will always be challenges, there will always be something that attempts to get in the way, I call it interference, other things also happen, which might just be life. First of all it is always good to be prepared for that to happen. So expect the unexpected, expect bad things to happen, because bad things happen to good people. The questions is then: How do you react to those small battles? You have to be prepared for those small battles. But it’s also a question of moving on from them as well.
DS: Is there a bigger goal that you are trying to accomplish?
Dean: I am not able to disclose it at this point. There is something that I am working on. If you do not have a primary goal or aim in life, then you should make it your primary aim to discover it. Find your big bold primary aim!
DS: I am sure that there have been many successful moments in your professional and personal life. Which one of them is the most special one, the one that makes you happy when you remember it?
Dean: There are a number of moments that come to mind. In recent history, passing the private pilot’s license and being able to fly an aircraft solo and being alone with the plane in the sky. Historically, creating a business, building a business and breaking through barriers and goals. When you set a business goal and when you smash through those goals, when you smash through the records that you’ve set and then reset everything and then realize that you are achieving them. Taking people with me on this journey as well makes me happy. You do not get rich on your own and you are not successful on your own. You should be able to get like-minded people with you and make sure you enjoy it along the way.
DS: How about the difficult moments you do not want to go back to?
Dean: One of the things I’ve learned is around trust and historically one of the lessons I’ve learned is trusting somebody with too much too soon in the sense “I thought that they were thinking the way I did…”. It turned out they were not, which created some significant issues with the branch of the business that basically turned into nothing. A lot of time, effort, energy and money was invested and there were no results to show. I was involved when launching this new project and then left an individual to get on with it and take it to the next level. Unfortunately their ethics and morals were not aligned with mine nor the rest of the team. Logically, the project they were in charge of was an unsuccessful one. No one wants to have any bitter experience, still, it teaches you lessons that help you avoid similar situations in the future. I am now checking the trust I am placing in people to make sure that they are actually doing what they are saying that they are doing. Sometimes things do not work, but we have to make sure that we give it the best possible chance.
DS: What is the most unpopular opinion that you have had or still have as an entrepreneur?
Dean: There are two examples of that in my career. The first one goes back to the 90s. We launched a new product in financial services and my approach to it was different to what everyone else was doing. It was more complicated and it took some more explaining so that people could understand how it worked, but there was no question in my mind and certainly in the team’s mind that this was the better way of setting things up. Now it is fair to say that everyone does it this way, 20 years later.
In terms of the software development business – there was a situation early on in the life of the business where we decided - since we were constrained by the rules of the internet at that particular time – to change them, to change the paradigm. That meant challenging the technical director of Decode Studios to break those rules, to stretch the limits and to essentially create a piece of software that did not have any rules and you could expand and take further. We can now see that adopted by other larger organisations.
DS: What were the biggest obstacles when building both of your businesses?
Dean: The two unknowns particularly for the regulated businesses are related to what the regulator will decide to do. The regulator can always decide to do something that puts the business at risk in some way. So again, expect the unexpected, expect there to be something, but prepare as much as you can, get as much information as you can. Another challenge is making sure that you have the cashflow, that you do not overspend too early, too soon, that you do not spend more than you have and that you bring the right people on board. Pretty much what you do in life. When you are looking to recruit people, it is not just about what salary you can pay that person, it’s what impact they can have on the business and how your business can impact their lives long-term, because it is going to be a long-term journey with them. If you get that right, you break the barriers down. You do not want them to be competing on price only; it is about the experience as well. It’s about delivering an experience that the person thinks is worth paying for. It is the same thing with clients.
DS: Which ones are the decisions you would not make if you could go back in time?
Dean: I just mentioned the decision to trust an individual with too many responsibilities too early. I had to go through that in order to learn from it. If I had to take the same decision again, I would not have trusted this person too soon. I would put some additional systems and controls in place to check what was being done and said. I do not have any regrets, though. It is important to accept that you make mistakes. I teach people not to mind making mistakes as long as they do not make the same mistake twice, to learn from the mistakes that they make.
DS: What kind of a character and personality does a man have to start cultivating in order to become an excellent manager and business leader?
Dean: One of the key points is to create a sense of openness and honesty. I always say “The door to my office is always open, unless it is closed!” You have to be approachable; you have to be able to lead people, not always managing them. Every big decision we make in the business we make together as a group. The key decisions related to how you decide to present yourself as a business and how you decide to operate as a business can be taken by the people involved in the business not by one person. Solo leaders have the potential to become dictators rather than real leaders. You shouldn’t be constantly telling people “this is how we are going to do things”, it should be more of a “how can we achieve this?”, “how can we do things better?”, “how can we achieve the same results faster or even how can we achieve better results faster”. It is crucial to get the ears of the people involved on the ground in order to then invite them to suggest ideas for improvement. This is how a real leader manages to take the whole business forward. The leader still needs to be a firm one. You should not try to surround yourself with ‘yes men’. There needs to be people who can challenge you, but you should ultimately be firm enough to make even the difficult decisions.
DS: How can you cultivate these skills in young people?
Dean: Young people can definitely attend one of my success workshops.
DS: When are you starting them?
Dean: Locally, the success workshops are being piloted on and off for the last 12 years. Alternatively, people can fly me to the Middle East or East Europe if they want to attend one there!
DS: Is there an online platform?
Dean: Nothing is online yet. Although you can buy my “60-day success blog” which will give you some tips in terms of how to develop yourself, the skills, how to attempt to complete any goals that you set for yourself for a 60-day period.
DS: There are a lot of great innovators who are also business owners, but fail to lead their teams to success. What advice would you give them?
Dean: I would suggest that they sit down, perhaps with the people that they’ve worked with and explore with them, ask these other people for advice rather than trying to work it all out on your own. This way you can understand a lot about what went wrong, you can also understand what other people would have done if they had had the mandate to control the situation. The other thing is seeking either some kind of a business coach or a mentor. Ideally a mentor, because the business coaches are normally paid, whereas a mentor should give advice for free. Besides this, they tend to be someone who has been there and done the same things, they have more credibility and also – accountability. A word of warning though. Just as I always suggest people to share their ideas or goals with the right people rather than broadcast them to everybody, it is also important to get the ear of the right person who has got that experience and knowledge to be able to help you understand what is going on rather than tell you what do to.
DS: What advice would you give to the successful business leaders so that they keep on flourishing?
Dean: Keep doing what you’ve been doing. One of the principles we apply is continuous improvement. Successful businesses and people whether they realize it or not are always using these principles. If you can focus on two or three areas and seek to improve them, just by 1%, that could have a double-digit percentage change in a successful, positive way on the business performance and can lead to continual improvement. Keep on doing the good things, keep an eye on your competitors and keep on thinking about innovation, in terms of new things that keep you ahead of the curve. Businesses and people do not stand still. You are either moving forward or backwards. If you think you’ve made it, you’d better sell the business and get out or you need to review where you are heading in order to move forward otherwise you start moving backwards again.
DS: There are a lot of smart young people who will be successful professionals one day, but right now they do not know which direction to choose. What is your vision for the future? Which way should these young people go?
Dean: They need to make their primary aim to discover their purpose in life. If they do not know what they want to be doing, they must make that their first priority and discover that. There is an element of good feeling as well determined by the experience that young people have today. If they are not sure what school to go, what are they already good at, etc. it might be good to ask family or friends “what is it that I am good at” so that they are able to find the right direction. Then using their internal feeling and what they have been told, they should start testing the waters, step out of the boat and start to think about not taking the easy option, but the thing that challenges them in order to see where they can get. It might take some extra effort to discover what your purpose in life is.
DS: When you are hiring someone, what makes you decide whether or not to extend a job offer to the person?
Dean: I guess it is ultimately whether they can make a difference to the business and whether we can make a difference for them as well. So it’s not just what the CV says. It’s how they come across as a person, how they present themselves and what they deliver in terms of their communication and their answers to the questions to convince me and the team that they can actually achieve something. Something that can have positive impact to both the business and the employee.
DS: You are the first investor and still the only one in Decode Studios. When have you felt proud of the achievements of Decode Studios?
Dean: Every year. Every year we’ve broken boundaries in terms of the software development we’ve achieved, new records in terms of financials, we’ve taken new people, we’ve developed new people to do bigger and better things, we have changed the way that the industry perhaps might look at the software development whether we realize that or not and we’ve also helped other businesses in terms of what we have delivered to them We’ve helped them become better in what they do and deliver to their customers as well. It’s not just an impact in one particular area, it’s in a sense we’ve become an incubator for success, almost like a tree, we’ve routed the software and then we’ve grown and developed and dropped our acorns in other businesses. We expect to see the acorns turn into a forest soon.
DS: Why did you choose Decode to help you with the software automation of Charles James?
Dean: First of all, it made sense because I was investing in that business, but also because I believe in what they deliver. I always work from the principle that if I was in a situation in need of a product then I would do what I would recommend people to do. Sometimes if I am recommending that a retired couple need to do something in a particular way to make their retirement better. The recommendations I am making are the recommendations I would make to myself if I were in their situation. I apply the same principles to the business as well. If there is something that the business needs and I would give myself that in that situation, that is what I would recommend. The difference with Decode is that we know we are breaking ground so I am also prepared to put my business on the line in the sense to test some of the theory to make sure it works. With the right systems and controls in place for accountability of course.
DS: When was Decode founded?
Dean: Daniel had already made a start when we got talking; he had developed a couple of websites and then I made that first investment in order to move things along a little bit. Daniel needed help with an internship and it was at that point that I stepped in to help turn it into a longer-term project. All this happened around 2008.
DS: What has changed in the company since then and how has the mission of Decode Studios evolved?
Dean: To begin with, the company was about web development, websites, creation and communication across what was then the ‘internet 3.0’. Now Decode is an incubator of ideas so software development is at it’s core, but it’s about making things happen usually with data to improve the way a business might operate, to improve the way a business might look after its data, use it’s data for either additional sales, new ways of working or a way to communicate with its customers and grow its customer base. There are a number of projects where we can genuinely see some dramatic changes and also prospect for either growth or purchase for larger business for that particular product. One of the things Daniel and I have been very clear about in Decode Studios is that Decode itself is and will remain an incubator for the new ideas. Probably the unique way that it’s made up – it’s not just a team of coders, it’s a team of non-tech people as well as tech people that bring those ideas together and then because of that formula, we then come up with something slightly different than what was expected, ultimately better when it comes to delivering the expected results.
DS: Let’s take a look at the future now. How do you see the company developing during the next 10 years?
Dean: I think it’s more about developing the team for the next 10 years. We’ve got the main platform for success, what needs to happen next is that we will create a larger team of coders to be able to deliver what we do a little bit faster than we currently do with the same efficiencies and systems in place, but if we come up with 2-3 new ideas than we should be able to implement those ideas a little bit earlier and sooner than we have been able to. We will also put aside some time for strategic thinking so that if something is happening at the moment, we might latch onto that, but we want to become the creators and innovators of new ideas, we do not want to latch onto the new ideas or we want to carry on, latching on, but we also want to break some of the new ideas as well so that we are not just ahead of the curve, but at its start.
***End of part 1. Expect part 2 in January 2019.***
More about Dean’s interests and the things he enjoys the most:
Favourite books: personal development; biographies of sports and business people; action/thriller fiction novels.
Favourite bands or singers: singers from the 60’s and anything around rock, rock’n’roll, pop.
Favourite football players and football clubs: Stuart Pearce when I was younger. I also support the Dronfield and Sheffield Football Clubs particularly Sheffield Wednesday.
Favourite movies: most of the James Bond movies and the “Back to the Future” franchise.
Hobbies: football, playing the guitar, flying.
Favourite colour: blue
Favourite drink/cocktail: red wine or malt whiskey
Favourite car model: Aston Martin
A favourite travel destination where you can fly to yourself: Menorca
The apps you use every day: an aircraft app, AirWeather, SkyDemon, TripAdvisor, Twitter.
Your favourite software products: Decode’s!
Favourite companies: Virgin (Richard Branson), Apple (not for what they are, but for who they are, what they’ve been historically and what they’ve done. I think they still have something to show).
Favourite quote(s): Carpe Diem (Seize the Day!)
Influencers or people who have inspired you in a way: my father (historically), Richard Branson, Steve Jobs.