Guy White is the founder of Catalyx, a successful and very innovative agency based in Geneva helping brands connect with their ideal consumers. Originally from the UK, Guy quit the safety of corporate life to start his 1st business before he turned 30. In this episode with Guy we discuss his view of risk, entrepreneurship and leading a start up organisation.
00:57 – Who does Catalyx help and how
05:36 – A different approach from other market research agencies
13:27 – Challenges and difficulties of setting up the business
19:22 – Practical support and inspiration from others
23:50 – Business and clients achievements
22:06 – What are the future goals for the business?
23:50 – Who would you like to mentor ?
Click to Read Full Transcript...
My next guest is Guy White, founder of Catalyx which is a business based here in Geneva, Switzerland. Guy comes from the UK originally, he’s been running this business for about 6½ years after a very successful jump from his very safe and secure corporate job and his goal was to do that before the age of 30, which he did. Let’s have a listen to Guy, because he’s going to tell us all about how they use technology and other innovative techniques to help brands connect with their consumers and dig-out the research and the insights, which the brands can use to create amazing new innovations. Let’s listen to Guy.
Alex: Hi there Guy, great to have you on the show.
Guy: Hi there, thank you very much for having me.
Alex: So, Guy, before we talk a bit about how you got here, I’d just love to have you introduce yourself. Yes, a bit about your business, tells us a bit about your business and who you help and how?
Who does Catalyx help and how?
Guy: Sure, so I run a company called ‘Catalyx’. Catalyx is a technology enabled marketing consultancy that helps big companies, generally FMCG, but other consumer-facing companies uncover insight, kind of create innovation and improve ideas to help consumers and help build their brands. Our tagline is, ‘Help build your brand to beat the consumer expectations’.
Alex: So what does that mean, ‘to beat the consumer expectation?’ Are you really helping people to create things they couldn’t create before without your insights?
Guy: We’d like to think so and I think the way we work is, well what we’re trying to do is get the consumer into the company in better ways, faster so that they can engage with the consumer either one-to-one or one-to-a hundred, or one-to-a thousand over a day, a week, a month even a year. To bounce ideas off, to see how they live and what they do and how they interact with existing products so they can build better stuff for consumers. So, yes, we’d like to think we help companies really see through the eyes of the consumer.
Alex: You talked about technology before, so how is technology helping your business or letting you do things that perhaps you couldn’t have done 10-15 years ago?
Guy: Well We wouldn’t have been able to exist 10-15 years ago, I don’t think. We’re fully online, we’re completely virtual, so we connect companies to consumers anywhere in the world in any language, without travelling anywhere. So, the whole idea of being able to talk to 100 people you know a syncroncasly for a week, 15 years ago I just don’t think it was a you know it wasn’t even a concept really. Anything beyond a survey was kind of pretty new and interesting, or you know or a physical focus group. So I think what we do is you know we’re in that group of companies that no-one would have really, completely didn’t exist before the internet.
Alex: Tell me, just bring it to life a little bit, give me an example of a typical kind of project that a company will come to you with and say, ‘listen, help us please we’ve got this problem?’
Guy: Yes, sure. So there’s lots of ways jumping on and jumping off places, but let’s imagine a company is trying to create a new product. The competition are doing lots of things and they’re really interested and they’re doing well, the company wants to obviously do something that’s a bit new and a bit different.
So, what they might do is come to us and ask us to then embed that consumer into their process. We’d recruit into our online platform, typically probably about 100 consumers of their target audience whoever they wanted to talk to. Work with them over the course of anything from a matter of days to about a month to, first of all uncover insights. So, what is it that the consumers, who are they, how do they live, what are their kind of the needs that aren’t being satisfied in that particular space? You know, just try and learn about them, their daily lives in the context of the category that we’re talking about, so we can start to understand what they like and dislike about the products or services that exist out there. Just really kind of unpack everything out there.
Then we look to kind of converge back towards you know, let’s play that to the consumer what we think we’ve heard to see what resonates with them and what doesn’t. So, what can be a compelling way of introducing this product? What could the packaging look like, what could the name be? What could the advertising and communication around that product look like and sound like and feel like?
We then go and pro-create with the company or the creativity agency what might look like and then play that back to the consumer again, for them to say if they think we’re in the right direction or the wrong direction and kind of to validate and improve further. Then we go on and on like this in this kind of innovative journey. Ultimately, at the end of it will come a you know a concept or a product idea or a communication idea that’s being kind of rubber stamped by the consumer. Typically, towards the end we’ll then recruit in more maybe 300 or so people, so we can get those kind of rubber stamp quantitative metrics as well.
So that kind of process takes about a month. But you can do bits and pieces of that, so you might just want to check-in on one particular element of a creative journey with the consumer group as well.
So yes, hopefully that gives you a brief idea of kind of what we do.
A different approach from other market research agencies
Alex: Yes, I mean so how is that different then to perhaps agencies or market research agencies were doing this kind of work before?
Guy: So, before it took ages and costs a lot is the starting point and everything else sort of paused while you went into work with the consumer. If you’re working with a creative agency to create a piece of communication, you’d go and do that and then you would sort of stop and then the market researchers would grab hold of it and go and check with the consumer if this was in the right direction or not.
Now, that took a month or so, and then you know if there wasn’t a big green light and a big tick in the box, we kind of start again and off you again. So it could take ages.
Our approach is meant to be fully integrated into that creative journey, so it’s far quicker. It’s much more transparent, that every stakeholder can see what’s going on at the same, it’s much more iterative. So, if it’s not quite right then it’s not about throwing the baby out of the bath water, it’s about iterating with the consumers say, ‘oh well you liked the idea but you didn’t like the red packaging, what happens if we made it green?’ Or you know like having that kind of discussion.
So it’s not about…I think research traditionally was all about the ticking in the box and now it’s all about just getting the consumer in the room. Ultimately they’re the people that can be using your products or your service so you know having that right to reply is we believe quite useful.
Alex: You mentioned babies beforehand, and you said you’ve just had a baby very recently, so congratulations.
Guy: Yes, yes.
Alex: You know and she’s not keeping you awake too much at night, but one of the things that can keep a business owner awake at night as you mentioned before, is having a team of more than one, because you’ve obviously got quite a team now. You’ve got I think over 10, 12 people perhaps and a bigger network beyond that. What’s that been like for you as a business owner, running that kind of operation obviously a lot of moving pieces there?
Guy: I mean it’s been going from you know starting off literally for the first year you know working out of my bedroom in Geneva to getting to where we are now. It’s been hell of a journey really, to see the company grow and to try and grow the company. We’ve made so many mistakes along the way and learnt so much along the way, you know on the one hand it makes me incredibly proud to see this group of really exciting, motivated people that kind of you know share what I’m trying to do and want to be part of that.
On the other hand, it’s petrifying because I’ve got to pay their salaries every month! So yes, I mean but that’s what you’ve got to do to grow the business, I guess. You know, I guess when you’re a group of people that’s around this size, it’s so interesting because every…I mean I used to work in a big company, so you know I’ve done that side of things.
So, to see the small company, everything is magnified; if someone does something great, it’s magnified and you can see it instantly and that’s fantastic because you can celebrate. Vice versa is also true of course, if I make a decision that’s horrible, or someone else does something that’s not quite right, it you know you can see it really quickly, really instantly and your clients are going to tell you. Or, not tell you and keep completely silent and the business stops coming in.
So, that’s been really interesting and you know you have to be really honest, because you can see exactly what works and what doesn’t and building the culture is so important so that people work together. Because again, if people stop working well together that gets magnified and has big ripple effects across the business. When the machine starts working and hums along really nicely, then you can also everyone can feel that and gets really excited by that. It’s a pretty emotional journey I have to say in many ways.
Alex: So, how did you end up in Switzerland? So, you’re from the UK, I mean just to be clear you’re from the UK, just your accent gives it away just a little bit. How did you end up in Geneva then and why did you start the business, what was the trigger?
Guy: So I’m an ex-Procter and Gamble person and P&G obviously has a big Headquarters in Geneva. I started in the UK straight out of Uni and after about just shy of two years a job came up in Geneva that was really interesting for me. They asked if I wanted to come across and I came across back in 2006.
So, yes, so I moved with P&G and it’s such a weird question like that, how I started and why I wanted to start. Like I didn’t have a light-bulb moment, it wasn’t like ‘ah hah’ this is the thing that needs to be done and I’m the right person to do it, not at all.
I just had this want and sort of desire to run my own business, forever. Like I don’t know when or why it started. I sort of dabbled little bits and pieces around a sports tour business just after leaving University on the side. I’ve done a few things, I’ve written tons of like business plans which just, or half business plans that gather dust on the shelf. I just, I said to myself, this is going to sound a bit weird, but I said to myself, ‘I need to be out of big company life to try, just give this a go before I’m 30’. At 29 years and 11 months I finally plucked up the courage and quit cold turkey. Didn’t have an idea really, didn’t know what I wanted to do, but thought you know I’ve got to do this, or it’s going to just eat me and so I did. Spent about the year trying to work out what on earth I wanted to do and what on earth you know could work.
I mean we’ve gone from there, but it’s been really organic, it’s sort of grown and evolved and you know we tried stuff that hadn’t worked, we’ve tried stuff that has worked. We’ve kind of grabbed hold of the stuff that has worked and cut the stuff that hasn’t and we continue to do so.
Alex: Some people say that’s a you know a huge risk, you know you had it pretty good, great corporate career, blue chip company, jumping out into the abyss. Any regrets?
Guy: Not at all, it’s a crazy risk financially. I heard someone once say this, they said, ‘Entrepreneurs see risk in the same way that everyone else sees risk, but the definition of risk is different’. So, for most people, you know I believe, for most people the risk of kind of security, safety and financial is really, really important. That’s what, you know if you, as I said P&G is a great employer and very well respected, so to kind of throw that all away some people would say I was completely mad.
But then, on the flip side to have not thrown that away and not had the freedom and the exploration and the passion to do something that I really believed in, I think that you know that’s a risk, right? By staying in a big company that doesn’t quite align to who you want to be, that’s a huge risk. So I think that’s why, I think that’s a risk that people that start businesses perhaps feel a bit more acutely than the numbers going into their bank account.
Now, I have to say at the time I was single and didn’t really have any commitments, so kind of had a bit more freedom to you know to make that decision as well.
Alex: And to make the mistakes early on?
Guy: To make the mistakes exactly, and to work all hours and all of that kind of stuff.
Challenges and difficulties of setting up the business
Alex: So talking of mistakes or perhaps challenges or difficulties, what sort of difficulties did you face on the way as you were setting up the business?
Guy: Oh so many. I guess first of all, because I didn’t have like a big ‘ah hah’ light bulb you know this is what I’m going to do and this is how. I couldn’t articulate what I wanted to do for ages.
So, I used to go into client meetings and explain what we did and everyone, myself included, didn’t really know what I was talking about. So, I think we just got very lucky that a few people kind of just accepted that this sounded like something that could work and took a risk with us and those were our first few clients that got us off the ground. So yes, being able to actually articulate that elevator pitch, I didn’t have an elevator pitch for a long time, I probably still don’t.
So that was one. I’m quite good at chasing after the new shiny thing and that’s really dangerous. My team, now I have a team are very good at telling me to stop it and to focus on the core thing. So we’ve tried stuff and commercialised stuff, like really quickly just because it’s exciting and then you know then had to kind of back peddle and retract. I guess you know find the balance between trying the new innovative exciting thing and just sticking and doing what we’re good at really, really well.
So yes, I think that was another thing that’s maybe cost us is running after too many things in too many directions.
Hiring, God I’ve made some hiring mistakes as well. Not, I hasten to add with the current team who are absolutely fantastic. But along the way we’ve brought onboard a few people that probably weren’t the right people and maybe held onto them for a little bit too long as well. Because I’d never had to deal with that beforehand as well, so that was all a big learning curve as well. Yes, they’re probably the biggest three that come to mind.
Alex: You mentioned also to me before that obviously selling was a big new experience for you, I mean –
Guy: Yes, true.
Alex: – the idea of selling yourself, you know selling services. How did you find that?
Guy: Horrible actually, I’m not a natural salesman thing and just the idea of pitching, especially when I wasn’t fully confident in what I was pitching about was brutal. But I guess you just stuck it up, like, if you’re not going to do it, if you’re not going to pick the phone, if you’re not going to face rejection then you’re not going to have a business.
Ultimately, you know there’s going to be a part of any business that you’re uncomfortable with, probably multiple parts and for me at the start it was selling. It was picking up the phone and reaching out to people. Knowing what to do as well when no-one responded. You know if someone had responded to an email, was it because they didn’t want to talk to you? Was it because they were busy, or was it because they have no idea what you’re talking about and you know what was the right etiquette? Should you call them, call them once a day, what should you do, I had no idea what I was doing.
So that was really tough and I’ve never had any kind of sales training, I think you just sort of do it I guess and you kind of learn some stuff works and some stuff doesn’t and you pull the stuff that works and you refine it up to like what you expect.
I think the other thing that really helped me was I think especially, I don’t know if it’s just a British thing but I think this idea of selling is seen as bad, you know you shouldn’t sell to people. You know the kind of door-to-door –
Alex: Hoover salesman.
Guy: – yes exactly, the hoover salesman. I think what got me over it was you know, if people are going to buy what I have got they need really well and they really like what they’ve been given, then I’m not actually selling. I’m not selling double glazing or hoovers, I’m solving the needs that they’ve got.
I think that helped me and I think when you’re selling services that’s ultimately what you’re doing and as long as you deliver and then they say, ‘yes, what you’ve guys have done we really like and thank you.’ Then hopefully you know want to buy us again then it’s not an evil things is it? It’s the way of the world, you know and I think that’s what we try and do right? Like, so yes I think that’s how I got over that. When I made that realisation, and frankly also, people say no if they don’t want it, so if they’re not saying no it might be they’re just busy and if they really don’t want you, they’ll just say, ‘sorry not for us’ and you move on.
Alex: Yes, as someone once said to me, ‘you’re being selfish if you’re not getting your value out there’. So you know looking at it the other way round, it’s your duty to go out and evangelise and tell the world, because otherwise you’re keeping it in and that’s not fair, so well done. [Laugh]
Guy: I’ll steal that if I may?
Alex: Yes, absolutely.
Alex: The other being stop being so selfish need to get it out there. So tell me, I mean doing this it hasn’t been easy, obviously a lot of challenges along the way, learn a lot. What kind of support did you get along the way, either inspiration or practical support from others?
Practical support and inspiration from others
Guy: So, I think the first thing I learnt leaving a big company was just how amazingly generous and helpful kind of everyone is. I think, there’s very few people out there that won’t give you a small amount of their time, if you ask for it or, even if you don’t.
So actually through the 6½ years or so that we’ve doing this now, there’s just too many people who have offered advice or support or an introduction or leant forward and said, ‘well look, let’s do something small together’. It feels like most people, they want you to succeed, they want to see you succeed and that’s just, that’s really I mean it’s overwhelming in many respects to see that. So actually there’s support all over the place from everyone, from very small to much bigger.
In terms of broader inspiration, I think there’s a lot of books out there that can support entrepreneurs, there’s book like ‘The Hard Things about Hard Things’. There is ‘From Zero to One’ the pizze deal books, there’s every things like the four-hour workbook where you have practical guides, which are you know dubious in some of their recommendations. But I think if you can pick and choose from all sorts of practical guides and support can help.
I went to, when I was first starting out the EPFL venture lab as well, which is a completely free thing run by EPFL for entrepreneurs –
Alex: In Lausanne yes?
Guy: – you have to apply and they…in Lausanne yes, exactly. It is classroom based and it’s principally for EPFL students who maybe have created a great product as part of their studies and looking to commercialise it, but they do you know anyone can apply.
So there’s courses like that that are out there; that’s a fantastic thing because at the end of it you have to pitch in front of your class, that was the first time I really stood up in front of 40 people and said, ‘this is what we do’. So you know a safe space for people to tell you what they think about you and what you’re saying and give you feedback and advice. So I would definitely advise anyone that’s kind of exploring starting up to look at things like that as well.
I forget what they’re called, but there’s the blue box, there’s an incubator up in Clannelly Watt, which I forget the name of that’s also Geneva’s equivalent that’s kind of a start-up space as well.
Alex: I mean would you have done anything differently regarding the help that you got over the years or how you dealt with certain problems do you think? Or, are you happy with the route you took?
Guy: It’s a good question. I think there’s always so many things you could have done differently. I probably would have reached out to more people sooner, I think. I think I’d have probably been a bit more honest. So, I think at the start you’re a bit nervous that everyone’s going to tell you you’re an idiot, so you sort of fight…well I certainly do, I hid behind that was like, ‘tad ah’ this is what we were doing. I think I would have taken more of a different approach you know a, ‘this is what we’re thinking about doing and can you help, in what works and what doesn’t’. I’ve done some consumer research of my own frankly. I kind of did that through you know pitching and watching how people responded and pretending that I had the final sort of product as it were, when it was probably still quite a work-in-progress.
So, I think maybe you know sitting down and saying to people, ‘this is what we’re thinking about doing, is it interesting for you?’ What is and what isn’t interesting helped to approve. So I think would have probably been a big thing I would have done earlier and now we do that much more and actually our clients and prospects are really forthcoming with that. There’s a lot of people that say, ‘well we want to try the new thing and we’re very happy if it’s a bit rough around the edges, because it wouldn’t be you if it wasn’t’ kind of thing. So, actually now we’re taking that approach we find a lot of traction there.
Business and clients achievements
Alex: I mean does anything jump out at you as that you’re really proud of, that you know in this 6½ years that you’ve achieved either personally for yourself, or for the business or for your clients, anything that jumps out?
Guy: So, for the business we won the Market Research Society ‘New Agency of the Year’ in 2014, that was huge, that was amazing. Then, in 2016, we got their Market Research Society Insight Manager Award for a big piece of work we had done with the Red Cross. Again, hugely proud on behalf of the team for those. So, I think those awards were fabulous and just a really nice kind of proof that what we were doing was being picked up and listened to and recognised by an industry.
So that was really compelling; a lot of it whenever you hear from a client that says, ‘oh that piece work has really helped us do X, or launch Y’. Or you know, add this making our advert really successful. We’ve got a few stories like that that I really like.
We were in an off-site last week, in England and just actually sat there at the off-site and looking at the team and being like ‘wow’. There’s quite a few of us now and everyone’s getting on really well and you know these people are delivering really great work, that makes me feel enormously proud I have to say as well, from a business perspective I have to say, yes.
Alex: So, you hit the target of starting the business before your 30, you made it by one month!
Guy: One month, yes.
Alex: Looking ahead to other bigger goals then for the business or for yourself, what do you think the future holds in store for you?
What are the future goals for the business?
Guy: So, I think for the business, I mean we’re looking to scale right now. You know we’re moving from kind of being project focused or product focused, so that we can scale. Which is an enormous challenge because what we don’t want to lose is that client connection, we don’t just want to be an off-the-shelf product. So working out how to deal with that and then being able to scale appropriately will be, is in the near time over the next kind of 6, 12-18 months what we really, really focusing on.
At the same time, I’m now married and as you said I’ve just last month had my first daughter, so I’d love to find a way of spending some more time with my family, from a personal point of view as well. So, trying to find that balance a little bit more than I’ve had for over the last 6 or so years is probably another really big point for me on a personal subject.
Alex: Good luck with that as an entrepreneur.
Guy: Thank you very much.
Alex: It’s tricky I know, but good luck with that. So, just to close up, I mean I ask this question to a lot of people at the end of these interviews. It’s around mentorship and if you had to choose someone or a group of people to mentor, to help, who would that be and why?
Guy: What for me to be the mentor or for someone to –
Who would you like to mentor?
Guy: I mean anyone that’s trying to set something up on their own, whatever that might be, I’m always very happy to support in any way I can, if it’s just doing explaining what I did, maybe hearing their questions and hearing you know a bit of their business idea and their pitch being a safe space for them to try things out. Have a chat and all of that kind of stuff, I find that very rewarding and would be very happy to do that. I have been there at the start, so I know what it feels like. So yes, anyone that’s looking to take the leap, anyone that’s been or is still that a you know in a big safe corporate job and wants to take that jump. Or anyone that already has and is just looking for someone to talk to, I’m very, very happy to do that.
Alex: Fantastic. Okay, well listen Guy, I was going to finish-up by just saying how people can get in touch with you, so you gave me your website address, which is www.thecatalyx.com and I’ll put it on the show notes afterwards so everyone can see that and they can reach out to you from that. But listen, Guy, I just want to say thank you so much for coming on, a real pleasure. Thank you so much for what you do.
Guy: The pleasure is all mine, thank you so much.
Alex: Appreciate it, thanks on behalf of all your clients that you help and keep us up to date with what happens, maybe we’ll talk again in the future.
Guy: Fabulous, thank you so much.
Alex: Great stuff.
Guy: Cheers Alex.