Peter Williams is a new age contradiction. He is an online expert but he’s not Gen Y. He is an accountant but he looks like an escapee from a skateboard park.
But more than anything he is connected and any entrepreneur who wants to make money out of the internet should hang on every word, well, maybe not every word.
As a keynote speaker at the Queensland Government ICT conference in 2008, which I had the pleasure to host, Williams knocked out the expert IT and communications players in the audience with his knowledge and his oratory style.
“I should warn you that I can get excited and drop the odd expletive,” he confessed. “So let me give you the SBS warning before I start.”
The only ‘f-words’ that stuck with the audience were the ones that showed the vision of our digital future.
At the time he was proudly explaining about the business he once led, Eclipse, but he is now on the board of directors. The company had created a new credit card, which would foil crooks who try to embezzle cardholders using hi-tech methods. Visa International liked the innovation and had bought into the product.
“Don’t try and explain your ideas to potential customers, build a prototype,” he advised. “It’s the best way to explain a new product.”
So, what is the Peter Williams story?
“I started as an accountant in a steel foundry when I was 17,” he recalled. “I later moved into the profession and was an insolvency practitioner for 14 years and then in 1993 I went onto the internet for the first time.
“I thought this was going to be the biggest thing in my lifetime, so I started working on the web and in 1996 I set up e-business consulting for Deloitte.”
He then became CEO of Eclipse between 2002 to 2007 and now is CEO of Deloitte Digital.
Some history is required to understand Williams’ unusual entrepreneurial story.
Deloitte acquired 20 per cent of Eclipse in 2000 and picked up the balance in 2002 and he took over the reins of the operation. In a sense it is ironic that someone who has been in numerous start-ups on the Net is in fact a virtual entrepreneur.
“Some people call me an ‘intrapreneur’,” he said. “It’s someone that takes new businesses and gets them growing.”
This is like the Macquarie Bank approach to encouraging enterprise. Alan Moss, the former CEO, once told me that they have “freedom within boundaries”. It meant his employees could be entrepreneurial to come up with a great idea, but unlike most entrepreneurs they would be supported by capital and expertise from the organisation.
“I call it the corporate dial tone,” Williams said. “You make a call and HR works, IT works and you have a platform so you can start a new business and not have to worry about finding a finance guy or an HR guy, it’s all there.
“You leverage the infrastructure of the firm and you can have a clear run with new initiatives.”
He says the approach means his new businesses can sail through the growing pains of getting to 15-20 employees and needing a finance person.
“It’s all there and you can focus on the market,” he explained. “It just works.”
Williams believes his accounting business background has helped his cause and recommends other online business owners to always remember what clients need.
“I started working with clients explaining how they could use the web across their businesses,” he said.
But the Eclipse business was where he got down and dirty as an entrepreneur. The company builds websites – big websites – and if you have gone to the AFL, the NRL, Freedom Furniture or Holden websites you know its work.
“When I took over Eclipse it had a turnover of $4.5 million and when I left it was doing $18 million,” he revealed. “It went from about 40 people to more than 140 people in the four years.”
All up he has started or run four operations and before that learnt a lot as an insolvency practitioner.
“It gave me a company doctor or undertaker role with companies in crisis, where we would take over businesses, try and keep them alive, flog them or trade them out,” he explained. “It held me in good stead for the dotcom boom and the crash and all that stuff.”
Williams thinks it is the best kind of accounting because it is one of the rare cases where an accountant holds the reins and it means you have to make decisions, often without all of the information you would want.
It possibly explains why he is an entrepreneurial accountant but he is more than that – he is an IT guy.
“The dumbest thing you can do in business is to make a decision, realise it is wrong and not change it,” he counselled. “Never embed errors in a business.”
Eclipse is his feather in his web hat and is regarded as one of Australia’s leading web development companies.
“Where we really differentiated ourselves was that we combined strategy with creativity and execution,” he said. “In the web world some companies are technical but not good at the creative or the strategic.”
Securing a vision
On the lessons he has picked up after 15 years at the cutting edge of the online business world he says the vision thing has to come first.
“You’ve got to have a vision of where you want to go and then you have to know where you are now and what do we have to do to get there,” he advised. “The people you work with are important too but you have to get them to understand the vision too and empower them to make it happen.”
Williams puts a lot of importance on his people.
“I believe people’s growth precedes business growth,” he said. “This gives you more irons in the fire to initiate growth than under a model where the entrepreneur is in control by himself.”
One lesson that shocked me at first was that he generally doesn’t care what the customer wants.
“We would never ask a customer or website user what they want because they don’t know what they can have,” he insisted. “However, we would ask what kind of things makes you life really hard?
“Or what is it you want to achieve and who with?”
He says it gets down to: what are your objectives on the web? Who do you want to do them with? Let’s understand them and then build stuff for the mind-flow of the end-user.
He thinks you have to go after the real or “the core question or questions” people want answered that will take them to a website. It gets down to what the customer wants to achieve, and often this is forgotten by those designing websites.
“It’s called user-centred design,” he said. “This is where we have seen a lot of money wasted on websites where people think they have to be online and they throw everything they have got at a website.”
He believes some companies over-invest in the back end but not in the usability of the website and that’s poor use of funds.
“You get your return on investment in the front end,” he advised. “And back end simply has to work.”
He also said the smart websites create a community and that gives ongoing support but these have to be two-way traffic where the customers can interact.
Right now is he working on his Deloitte Digital project where the goal is to deliver what used to come via face-to-face contact over the web.
“This means we can create e-learning products instead of training face-to-face or instead of consulting we provide self-assessment tools online,” he said. “We taking traditional professional services and turning it into online delivery.”
This is certainly a new age and the main point for business is if you don’t get it right on the web, in a matter of time your business could be dead.