The CEO of top-end home technology installer Cornflake talks of profitable start-ups and exit strategies
“I had a client call me up and say he was having a pool party. OK, we thought. But it was a karaoke-pool party. And he needed us to facilitate it for him the next day. We sent the team down and sorted it out – no problem,” recalls Robin Shephard.
He wouldn’t tell me who the opulent customer was but, at a cost of £35,000, the outlandish request must have been music to his ears.
Yet Shepherd is more than just the co-owner and chief executive of Cornflake, a company that programs, installs and supports the best bespoke home technology systems that money can buy. He is also – appropriately enough given the moniker of his latest venture – a serial CEO.
“The days of people having careers are long gone,” he says. “Everything is about projects. Whether that project lasts for six months, or a year, three years or ten years, you finish up and you move on to the next project.”
Shephard has every right to be confident. He has been at the helm of a string of successful businesses. He generated a portfolio of successful companies at MDs Holding, an investment firm focused on early stage technology firms, and masterminding the floatation of touchpad maker Eleksen Group in 2006.
“The financial gain is very important – it’s the benchmark for success in this world – but there is far more than that”
He aims to continue his winning streak at Cornflake, a company he has co-owned for the past nine months. But he hasn’t always been the captain of his own ship.
“My business career is split in two,” he explains. “I did all my grounding in the corporate world – in big telecoms companies – and I managed to inveigle my way up to a senior level.
“I realised I hated it. I woke up one morning and thought this is sh*t. It’s not the way you should be living your life. I was travelling all the time, home just two days in every three months including weekends.”
When a friend of his handed him the business plan for a start-up in north London, he jumped at the chance to be his own boss and hasn’t looked back since.
Now he’s settled into a profitable pattern of choosing a start-up, helping it to grow for three to five years, then passing it on to someone else and seeking his next project.
“It’s a complete buzz,” he enthuses. “The financial gain is very important – it’s the benchmark for success in this world – but there is far more than that.
“Every day you have the challenges and the rush of sorting problems and issues out, and making clients happy. That is what ultimately drives me – I used to think it was money, but it’s not.”
Walking through the door of the right company is a big part of Shephard’s success, but he’s also keen to stress the importance of walking out again:
“There should always be an end date. I have learnt that as soon as you start or take on a business you should start your exit strategy.
“Look at the market and understand who the movers and players are. Talk to them early and understand what they’re doing, where you fit in and make your plans accordingly.”
So how does he decide which companies to go for? Does he choose them by industry? By location? Or does he just pick companies that sound like they’ve been sponsored by Kellogg’s?
“I do love Cornflake,” he laughs. “And the name played a big part as it’s so memorable. But there are key metrics by which I judge the suitability of a company:
1. Is the market you’re looking at growing, expanding and exciting?
2. Can you protect the business from the competition by finding a differentiator?
3. Is the company run by good people?
“If all of these elements are in place, you’re in a good position.”
It was the mixture of these golden components that led Shephard to buy Cornflake in August 2010.
The company was still under the direction of its founder, a tech-whizz with a penchant for audio perfection but lacking in corporate command. With no marketing or communication strategies Cornflake had a lot of room to grow.
“The world is becoming more, not less complex”
Having seen the peerless client list of London’s elite (I’ve heard the impressive names off the record and they don’t disappoint), Shephard was convinced that he could not only help, but really enjoy developing the company.
“Every day is different here. I love it and I believe the employees love it too,” he says. “All we do is go and put really exciting technology solutions into the houses of the rich and famous – some of the houses we see are just startling. We give them the toys and show them how to play with them.”
It may sound like child’s play – but Shephard has a keen eye for trends and a serious vision for the future of the company – developing it from a supplier of goods to a service provider.
“If you look at the bigger picture and think about the challenges people are facing at home, you see that most people don’t have an inkling about their technology. If something breaks, they’re knackered,” he says.
“The world is becoming more, not less complex and this is creating a new market. People need support for their technology requirements immediately when something goes wrong. They might have all their mates round about to watch The Champions League final or something.”
So Shephard has developed Cornflake Concierge – a complete technology support service for clients. And with most (if not all), customers owning properties in London, looking after their needs is not the geographical nightmare you might imagine.
We’ve been chatting in the home-cinema demo room at Cornflake’s HQ in Fitzrovia. My senses are tingling having just tested out the speakers and I’m suitably wowed. According to Shepherd around 55 per cent of his clients have a home cinema.
Miles Davis piped into the shower while BBC 4 is streamed into the study? A home cinema that unfurls from concealed fittings with better surround sound than your local Odeon?
It’s a dream for many of us. But London’s rich and famous just go to Cornflake. And Robin Shepherd just goes to work…