William Reeve is a serial entrepreneur and investor involved in some of the UK’s best known tech start-ups, from Lovefilm, an online movie streaming pioneer, to Zoopla, a real estate portal.
He started his first tech venture, Fletcher Research, an IT industry analytics agency, in 1997 following a brief spell at McKinsey, the management consultancy, as a business analyst. Two years later, he sold it to Boston-based Forrester Research. “I made a life-changing amount of money because I owned most of the shares,” he says. And what the money gave him “was the freedom to pick what I did and who I did it with”.
We meet at the east London base of Goodlord, an online property management platform for renters and landlords, where Reeve is chief executive. He was invited to take over in 2018 by the company’s first investor, LocalGlobe.
The entrepreneur from the dawn of dotcoms was given a monumental turnround task, as the young tech venture was haemorrhaging cash. Two of Goodlord’s co-founders had just stepped down, leaving only a third, Tom Mundy, still with the company. The group had made almost 40 of its 134 staff redundant.
Robin Klein, general partner of LocalGlobe who offered Reeve the job, believed — and still believes — that Goodlord’s core proposition is sound, especially when rental numbers, particularly in cities such as London, are increasing. What was needed, he adds, was someone who understood the specific problems of managing start-up teams.
“I’ve worked with William in a few different scenarios and knew that he had the right analytical skills to figure out clearly what needed to be done, that he is not afraid of a challenge and [had] the experience to manage difficult situations,” Klein says.
Reeve, 49, initially agreed to be an adviser and visit the team to assess the situation and offer some guidance before taking a trip to visit his wife’s family in Australia. “I deliberately tried to give these guys some pointers that would give them something to think about for the month that I was away,” he says.
“I was trying to be impactful, although some may have thought: ‘Who is this dickhead?’ Thankfully, when I returned it seemed that they had taken on board what I had said and had got cracking on making changes.
“That made me warm to them because you could see these guys were very hungry for change,” says Reeve, who then accepted the chief executive role. “They had a lot of talent but they did not have any experience. So I thought if I could give them a bit of experience, we can figure the rest of this out pretty autonomously.”
Reeve’s leadership style focuses on setting performance targets: there is an element of the headmaster, his childhood dream job, in the role, he says. Reeve positions himself as a tutor to Goodlord’s young entrepreneurial workforce, where rather than homework and gold stars he issues performance targets linked to pay. “Most of the people here are generation Z. Compared to them, I have had lots of previous lives,” he says.
On Reeve’s slightly battered laptop is a spreadsheet with three columns containing performance targets for each Goodlord employee, what each has to do to achieve a bonus for overperformance, and outcomes that would warrant a significant overperformance and earn a higher sum.
“For a typical employee on £30,000, they will earn 10 per cent more on the percentage linked to these goals by beating all of their performance targets in a quarter,” Reeve says.
Three questions for William Reeve
Who is your leadership hero?
It is JPMorgan Chase’s chair and chief executive Jamie Dimon. JPMorgan is in an industry [banking] that nobody likes, but Jamie’s reputation is stellar — for combining strategic thinking, operational skill and charisma. When JPMorgan bought Nutmeg earlier this year I saw how his people will walk over hot coals for him.
What would you be doing if you had not become a tech founder?
I had always wanted to be a headmaster because of the inspirational headmaster, Dr Martin Stephen, I had at my school [The Perse School] in Cambridge. The thing that stopped me was the thought of having to become a school teacher first, as well as realising that heading up a business might be an even better fit for me. What I do in start-ups scratches a lot of the same itch as I might have done had I followed that first career idea.
What was your first leadership lesson?
I learnt a lot from Jonathan Heathcote, one of my first bosses when I was a business analyst at McKinsey. His background was in the UK military, including leading a platoon in the Falklands conflict. He taught me what a high-performing team is all about. I worked with him on a six-month project in Grimsby at ICI [the former British chemicals company]; there were only four of us, but Jonathan set very clear objectives, ensured we all knew what our roles were, and built a culture of trust and accountability. He was the first manager to show me vulnerability, saying: “I am not smart enough to do this, can you do it?”
Individuals are kept abreast of their personal progress, but the entire workforce is given monthly and quarterly updates on the whole company at town hall meetings, led by Reeve.
“I remember one of my first hires [at Fletcher] saying he really liked this [the performance updates] because it made him feel like he was part of a really big company even though we were at the time three of us in a cupboard. I remember being quite proud of the fact that he joined a business because it took things like setting objectives seriously.”
Crucially, employees cannot lose pay if targets are not hit, although it would trigger meetings with human resources to find out what had happened, Reeve adds.
One way the system creates innovative solutions to problems, according to Reeve, is a leadership style which dictates what employees should achieve — not how they should work. “I have never been very good at micromanaging or remembering what tasks people are dealing with, so I just want everybody to know what their four or five big objectives are and then let them worry about how they hit them,” he says.
Among those reporting to Reeve is Goodlord’s co-founder and chief operating officer, Tom Mundy. The two meet every Monday morning for a one-to-one breakfast meeting to keep aligned on business goals, but how does Reeve feel about managing a founder of the business?
“We complement each other,” he says. “There is a loneliness to being a CEO and I have always tried to treat Tom as my business partner rather than my employee or number two.”
Mundy agrees. “William is definitely a lot like a mentor, but we are also able to work quite autonomously,” he says. “I am very good at starting a product from scratch. William is a strategic thinker, which is helpful because I often want to move fast and he is quite good at making sure I look up and see the broader horizon of what we are trying to achieve.”
Reeve is hoping that he can take Goodlord to the kind of success he and his co-founders achieved at Lovefilm, which was acquired by Amazon for £200m in 2011.
Until September of this year, Reeve balanced his chief executive role at Goodlord with being the part-time chair of Nutmeg, a London-based digital financial adviser, which he led to an acquisition by JPMorgan Chase in a deal that valued Nutmeg at £700m.
Reeve has also tasted failure. He put £100,000 into the London-based online grocery delivery service Hubbub, but the venture collapsed in 2017. “As it happened Hubbub turned cash profitable in the last week of its trading, but at the end of the day investors would have needed to see exits and the exit story was not there,” Reeve says.
His experience in the property market is more positive, having been both an investor and non-executive director of Zoopla, which floated in 2014 and sold to Silver Lake, a technology investment firm, for £2.2bn in 2018.
Since Reeve joined, Goodlord has shifted from losing more money than it received from each new customer to one where each of its services — from rent collection for landlords to managing broadband connections for the tenants — is profitable, according to Reeve.
It now employs 300 people, and raised £10m in a series B funding in March 2020 to build the engineering, customer service and product teams. However, the Goodlord group made a loss of £5.4m last financial year, up from £4.3m in 2019.
Reeve refuses to say when Goodlord could reach profitability. Success would be a result of the combined work of Mundy and others, not just his leadership, he adds. “I have never been a sole founder,” Reeve says. “I have always seen the value of acting as a team.”