Michael Wells is Founder and Managing Director of Third Light, which provides digital asset management (DAM) software and services.
The company’s media library technology allows clients such as NATO, BAFTA, The Met Office and AS Roma to manage, store, share and distribute digital files more effectively.
We caught up with Wells to learn more about his average day…
Please describe your job: What do you do?
We’re a software house, but also an internet hosting specialist providing storage and web infrastructure and training services. Customers subscribe on a monthly or annual plan, making us a Software as a Service (SaaS) company.
My job is to coordinate the business. I work across each of the functions and help us plan for and maintain growth. Some of this is purely operational as you would expect, but my role also includes meeting our customers, hearing their needs and helping push the state of the art forward with the team.
A lot of what our product is designed to do is related to people who work in teams, so it’s a central theme in my role, too. I try to keep Third Light focused on the best ideas that will make a difference to teamwork in marketing and digital teams.
What kind of skills do you need to be effective in your role?
As many founders experience, there are no greater assets than your people, and having them on the journey with you is vitally important. Working with your team and supporting them is a great way to keep promoting your original purpose and recruiting for the right attitude. For me that, purpose has always been about solving problems correctly and honestly: not just ticking boxes, but really doing the best you can – and keeping more than your own point of view in mind.
To give an example, we have to see the world through our customers’ eyes when we design and plan our software. That is not as easy as it sounds. Listening to customers speak about their hopes and aspirations for managing digital media is motivating and energising, but we can’t hide from the reality that software is hard to design, hard to write and hard to finesse. The skill is to not be cofounded by this disconnect, but allow it to be part of the process.
I am fortunate to come from a very technical background, and have always found it helpful to stay engaged with the raw mechanics of how software and web applications really work.
Tell us about a typical working day…
Very few days are typical, but conjuring one into existence, I’d certainly be involved in technical review and planning around our development roadmap. We are working on a lot of new product ideas at the moment, and I chair our Product Group. This group sits right in the middle of everything we’re doing or thinking about doing, and generally connects into other conversations that happen in sales or marketing. I’ll spend as much time as it takes on this, as it has the biggest impact on our work as a company and our future product.
There are of course many other jobs in the day, so it’s good to get a chance each day to take the dog around the lake in our business park. You’d be surprised how many other professionals you get talking to when you’re out in all weather, and it’s a great opportunity to think away from my desk, too.
This year, we took on a lot of new developers, so recruitment and interviewing candidates was a big part of each week for many months. A key moment for both a potential employee and us is getting to understand the potential and the fit; it can take a whole afternoon to do well. That is time well spent.
What do you love about your job? What sucks?
It is great to go to work each day to spend time on worthy problems, with talented people. We have become more purposeful and focused as we’ve grown, which I think perhaps many larger organisations have to work really hard to match. It’s to do with how we interact with customers. Hand on heart, I know that everyone who works here is ready to be honest with our customers – no matter whether they’re promoting our product to a prospect and realise it does not have the feature they need, helping a customer with a technical query that looks like it’s a bug in our code or, even, helping a client move away from Third Light to a competitor. We just have it in our company DNA to be upstanding, good and supportive with the people we meet on our journey. This culture makes it easy to do the right thing, and unthinkable to let a customer down. I’d like to think we are making a big difference by behaving like this. I certainly love it.
What sucks, quite simply, is that honesty and openness are notable in the first place! We sometimes find that would-be customers who have been let down in the past have often been nudged into adopting more process and more legal work when they choose a new supplier, for example. It is a complex dynamic to earn and retain trust. We all pay the price if it’s squandered.
What kind of goals do you have? What are the most useful metrics and KPIs for measuring success?
My goals are around customer satisfaction. It’s actually a proxy to all of the other kinds of success you want in your business. For example, we’re a SaaS company so in a traditional financial model we want to grow recurring revenue, reduce churn and increase lifetime value. But what will you do that affects all three of these aims? Keep innovating, building enduring functionality and looking after your customers – not just when they’re buying, but constantly.
Like any other company in our position, we have KPIs around our business model, but what price you can put on a 5-star customer review that says you’ve cracked it, and they love you as a supplier? I recently did some formal business training with Goldman Sachs, and it was fantastic to meet many other ambitious business owners who have put these kind of “quality metrics” in the heart of their growth plans, too. I earnestly believe this is a trend to watch, not just growth.
What are your favourite tools to help you to get the job done?
We have a beautiful working space; somewhere you can get down to work, enjoy the seasons through giant glass windows, and make a strong coffee or catch up with people without intruding on their focus. The office environment is made just a bit more special by our Chief Morale Officer, my beagle, Ella. Going to work with your pet is quite a perk – and a welcome distraction will appear at any desk where food has been dropped! I consider being at work is one of my favourite “tools” to getting into the right mindset.
There are quite a number of other tools that help me get the job done, but one I cherish this year has been 1Password as it has allowed me to remain secure with single-use and complex passwords when I use the web, but it hasn’t taken convenience from me. There was a time when all IT professionals would have said that you cannot have security and convenience at the same time, but it turns out you can.
How did you end up founding Third Light, and where might you go from here?
I founded Third Light back in 2002, not long after completing a degree in Engineering at Cambridge. I learned a lot about the internet, fast storage and other internet technologies, as I worked as a consultant in a company which was building large scale web server and internet provider infrastructure. I was also a member of the Royal Photographic Society and got very interested in digital photography (my first digital SLR was a big catalyst for taking a lot more photos – many others went through the same revelation around the same time). I needed to manage and store the images I’d started to accumulate. That was, happily, exactly the right moment in history to be interested in that problem. The benefits of digital asset management (or DAM) emerged very rapidly, and Third Light flourished.
Fast forward to today, and we’re building something remarkable with a lot of experience behind us. Now, it’s about taking this product and opportunity up to the next level. This has taken a lot of R&D and patience, and we’re reaping the rewards and getting into new markets; reaching the people who need to know about it and use it, embedding and partnering with other tools that complement ours.
Going further is about having a legitimate claim to being the best solution! We’re doing that through many of the normal commercial routes, but once again, the foundation is people, so it’s pivotal to maintain usability and connect together features for them. If I were to pick one thing, for digital and marketing professionals, it’s their experiences around sharing and collaborating media content. That needs to be effortless.
I’d also say that there are some places I don’t want Third Light to go. We don’t need to build something that is all things to all people, is freemium or low cost, and nor do we need to grow aggressively at the expense of our people or the environment. We’re very conscious of the energy footprint of what we do, for example. Every company has some choices to make on behalf of its customers and a responsibility to operate sustainably.
Which campaigns/organisations have impressed you lately?
PipeDrive is a beacon of good quality product, fair pricing and innovation. Not many SaaS tools out there really hit the spot like they have. What I think stands out most of all is that they have mastered the art of designing for a purpose, and made a tool that is simultaneously obvious enough to use, but also configurable enough to survive ambitious users (the ones who need to push the edges). As a result of putting product and engineering excellence into their product, they’ve succeeding in disrupting a big market for CRM software, and their greatest advocates are their customers. I’m impressed by any product strategy that puts the future of the brand in the hands of existing clients so confidently. We love it!
What advice would you give a marketer/digital professional just starting out?
Firstly, welcome to a vibrant and exciting career. You’ll experience constant change, which will be exhilarating – once you get used to everything you know changing every few years!
Digital professionals are expected to use a lot of different software tools, and those change a lot too – it can be overwhelming. We just want to get things done, but, sadly, as a result we often compromise on the time we spend learning. Our skills can slip to quite low standards, and the tools we expect to use for a particular task start to seem frustrating as we get worn down.
That’s what I’d like to give some advice about. Here’s my formula: be realistic about what you already know, reasonable about what you can learn on the job, and willing to accept there are things you will need to be taught. Companies supplying software have Customer Success teams to help lift fresh users up with new, amazing software that is unlike something we’re familiar with. Lean on them, to get the skills at an early stage. It’s all part of being comfortable with the ever-changing reality of working in digital. Don’t just muddle through.