Ronan Harris, Google MD, on why SMEs are close to his heart

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Ronan Harris

In his first interview since taking over as Google’s managing director for the UK and Ireland, Ronan Harris discusses the company’s new £1bn investment in Britain and why offering five hours of free digital training to every small business owner is both significant to the tech giant’s ambitions and close to his own heart

As the Director team was waiting to be checked in for our meeting with Ronan Harris, we decided to google the word ‘google’ one last time. Standing in the Union Jack-emblazoned reception area at the company’s current UK headquarters on London’s Tottenham Court Road, we wanted to be certain the headline-grabbing tech giant hadn’t broken more news while we’d been making the short journey over from the IoD. Sure enough, news feeds were filling with reaction to the morning’s release of Google’s Year in Search report for 2016 – revealing the nation’s most googled terms of the past 12 months. While “Pokémon Go” occupied the top spot, the next three places went to “Brexit”, “the single market” and “the EU”.

For Harris, who in late October was announced as the company’s new managing director for the UK and Ireland – moving across from Dublin to replace Eileen Naughton, who became Google’s vice president of people operations in California – the link between technology and the current uncertainty surrounding the UK is profound. “We saw this to some extent when the big downturn happened in 2007–08,” he says, as we take a seat in the boardroom. “When people go through tough times, when it gets economically difficult or uncertain, they tend to do a lot more research. In particular, they are a lot more thoughtful about what they purchase, when they purchase and how they purchase, and digital becomes a great resource for that.”

The current uncertainty around Brexit, says Harris, presents an opportunity for SMEs in the UK: “For small businesses what you’ve got to do is figure out where you can get the insights into what your customers are doing, and then create an almost real-time feedback loop into your business so that you can make changes and respond to that. Whether that’s changes in your product, in your marketing message, or even changes in your pricing, you’ve got to be connected to what’s actually going on. Obviously, coming from a digital world, I think digital is the place – using the web to great effect is something that can help people speed up during a difficult time. Business owners who achieve this are the folks who set themselves up to accelerate beyond their competition as the market turns and comes back to more positive territory. Never waste a good crisis!”

Though Harris speaks now as the UK and Ireland leader of a global brand valued at $133bn (£109bn), he has first-hand experience of the challenges facing small business owners, having worked in several start-ups earlier in his career. With a background as an electronic engineer (“figuring out how to take a complex problem, break it down and navigate through it is probably the biggest benefit that grounding has given me over the years,” he says), Harris worked for Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation in Japan – where he later met his wife Victoria – before returning home to work for private equity investors who would place him with start-ups they had invested in.

“I would go and work with companies for anything from three to 12 months, sometimes longer, and I loved the cut and thrust of small business. The thing that really stood out for me was the passion, focus and commitment folks have in those small business teams,” he says. The biggest challenges he faced? “Invariably in start-ups you go through some tough times and have to reinvent yourself – and if you don’t have the right people with the right attitude it can be the death blow. There are always the big orders that fall at the last hurdle and leave you with a big gap in your books… In some of those companies I went through months where I forwent my salary to make the wage bill for everybody else, in the hope that in a couple of months’ time I’d be able to make it back.”

Difficult though those formative experiences were, Harris says he was genuinely in two minds when Google approached him in 2005 to become its senior director of large customer sales for EMEA. “When Google tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘We’re getting ready to expand our business, we’d like you to join the team,’ I really hesitated because I worried about joining what I perceived as a big global company,” he says. “But, as I went through the interview process, I got that same sense of passion, commitment and excitement about doing new things and driving for change as I experienced in small businesses. That’s what led me to make the leap.”

Harris went on to join the board of directors of Google Ireland in 2009, before becoming the company’s vice president of large customer sales for EMEA in 2012, a role he held until London came calling. His arrival in the UK late last year coincided with Google’s confirmation of a £1bn investment in Britain, announced by its chief executive Sundar Pichai in November and including plans for a new HQ at London’s King’s Cross and the creation of 3,000 new jobs by 2020.

“We’re invested in the UK for the long term; we always have been and this just underlines it,” says Harris. “It’s very important at this moment of uncertainty to signal that the UK will continue to be a very important market for us despite any uncertainty that happens over the next few years. The reasons for that are manifold – obviously it’s a large market, it’s a massive population, one of the most digitally advanced markets in the world today, in many ways our most advanced market globally. It’s also a huge source of innovation and if you look at some of the great engineering talent and skills that are available in this market, that’s another key reason for us being around.”

Google HQ, Ronan Harris

Step inside Google HQ

Digital skills

A crucial element, says Harris, is a focus on the nation’s small businesses. In November, Pichai announced that the company would offer five hours of free digital skills training to all UK residents – to be rolled out this year, both online and in 100 locations around the country. It’s an expansion of the company’s Digital Garage initiative, which, Google estimates, has already trained 250,000 people via the web and at events from Port Talbot to Glasgow. The need for such projects and their potential benefit to small enterprise is clear, with last June’s report by parliament’s Science and Technology committee calculating that 12.6 million adults in the UK lack basic digital skills and that the skills gap is costing the country £63bn in GDP every year.

“If you’re running a small business, you’re time poor and don’t have huge amounts of investment cash sloshing around,” says Harris. “The world of digital is therefore often daunting because, if you don’t come from that space, where do you start? We’re trying to break down those barriers and show that it’s not going to cost much to set up a website and find ways to connect with your customers, that the skills required to do that are easily accessible – you can learn for yourself quite quickly – and that the ongoing maintenance and running of that can
be quite manageable. We want people to be able to walk away from five hours of training with us and very quickly be able to make a material impact on their sales and, in a perfect world, create some jobs for people as well”.

As to which areas of digital he recommends SME owners should focus on, Harris says: “In the UK we have some of the most advanced searchers online of any audience globally and increasingly they’re turning to their mobiles to do those searches. Whether you’re a small local business or have international aspirations, you’ve got to know that your customers, the first moment they think of a product or service that you might be able to supply, are typically turning to their mobiles to find it. So having a web presence that works on mobile is the first step; then it’s about building on that and the message you want to put out.”

Highlighting that YouTube, owned by Google, is the world’s second-largest search engine, he continues: “It’s now very easy to pick up your mobile phone and take a high-definition video of you as a business owner telling the story of what you do, making it personal and creating a connection with your audience. Thinking of how you could do small, simple videos, perhaps explaining to your customers how to do something or what the benefits of your products and services are, it can have a huge benefit.”

Harris cites the example of Jonathon Blackburn, who started his handyman business The HouseMan in 2011 with just £150 and found growth stilted by an inability to find new customers efficiently. “With Google AdWords, we were getting lots of clicks, but most were irrelevant,” recalls Blackburn on his company’s website. “Digital Garage changed that… I started implementing what I’d learnt the same night. Within 24 hours, the clicks started coming in – quality clicks that created leads and actual business.” Since then, the company has moved from a bedsit to a fully furbished office with eight staff. “We’re now turning over in one month what we turned over in our whole first year,” he explains.

Small business owners clearly approve of the free help, then, but what’s in it for Google? Harris confirms that this is a far from altruistic mission: “Over the last 10 years, the vast majority of employment creation has come from businesses that are five years old or younger. We want to be able to fuel that, giving people the expertise to take advantage of the web and giving them a greater chance of success in those early stages. When you consider the significance of digital to the GDP of the UK – and that’s not just digital in digital industries, but digital in traditional industries as well – it’s a huge impact. We want to be part of that ecosystem, helping young businesses succeed and create jobs. It has a knock-on impact for the overall GDP of the UK, and that’s good for everybody.”

A conference table and chairs in Google HQ

Creative interiors are one of the most talked-about aspects of Google HQ

Building a brilliant team

He may have only just arrived at Google in the UK (“I’m living out of a suitcase in a hotel around the corner,” he laughs, adding that he and Victoria are currently house-hunting and researching schools for their two children), but with over a decade’s experience at Google in his native Ireland what does he now know about finding the crucial aforementioned “right people with the right attitude” that he can share with today’s small business owners? “At Google we talk about having ‘smart creatives’, about people who are curious, like the concept of change, like tinkering with things and understanding how they work and trying to change them – and knowing very often that those experiments will fail, sometimes spectacularly, but it doesn’t deter them.

“It’s about building teams that have those qualities – so I talk to my teams and tell them that if, in the last six months, you don’t feel like you’ve changed your job in some fundamental way, you need to ask yourself the question of why not, because you’re probably getting left behind. And I think that’s true for business owners as well – what’s a fundamental change that you’ve made in your business over the last six months in how you run it, how you connect with your customers or the types of products and services you have? If that’s not evolving, then you will need to ask yourself the question why. Having that relentless curiosity, almost being childlike in how we approach stuff – that, I think, is a core essence of any team. When you’ve got people like that it often doesn’t matter what their background and skillset is because, if they’re curious and they’re learners, they’ll be able to pick stuff up as they go.”

And how does Harris ensure that he, too, is constantly challenging himself as a leader? “I’m always asking people for feedback,” he says. “Whether I go to a customer meeting or do a presentation onstage, one of the first things I do when I come out is ask the people around me: ‘How did that go, what could I have done better, what shall we do differently the next time?’ As the leader of an organisation, people can make the mistake of believing that they have to have the answers all the time. My style is different, I’ve always accepted that there are things I don’t know and that there are things that I need to do differently. I’m always learning from the people around me – some of the best ideas I’ve seen have come from people who’ve been in the office six months, not six years. Ensuring you spend time listening to the diverse opinions around the table is really important.”

Of the leadership challenge ahead for himself and Google in the UK and Ireland, he says: “I think the exciting thing about the web is it’s still very early in its journey. We often say here that it’s still early morning on the web, we’re just starting to get a vision of what the day looks like and it’s exciting. We’ve got a lot of work to do to help businesses and consumers understand the benefits of the web.

“One of the things we are extremely excited about is that there are about three billion people online around the world – there’s another four billion to go. They’re all going to come online over the next three or four years. It’s a massive opportunity for UK businesses to go out and connect with those new populations coming online. Today we don’t know who they are, we don’t know how they think, we don’t know what products and services they want – or indeed what products and services they might be able to give to us. That’s an exciting opportunity and we want to help to bring it to the UK.”

With Harris as infused with entrepreneurial spirit now as he was when he worked in start-ups, would he ever rule out leaving corporate life to return to that? “Absolutely not,” he says. “It’s the most important job out there, having the bravery to go out, take on an idea and turn it into a business that creates jobs for other people – what’s more important than that?”

Ronan Harris CV

Education Degree in electronic engineering at University College Dublin

Early career Worked as an engineer at Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation in Japan for three years before moving into consultancy and then returning home to work for a private equity venture investing in start-ups.

Google career Senior director of large customer sales EMEA 2005–2012 based in Dublin (joined the board of Google Ireland in 2009); vice president of large customer sales EMEA 2012–2016; managing director, UK and Ireland 2016–present

Best business advice “Shut up and listen! My dad used to say to me: ‘You’ve got two ears and one mouth for a reason, use them in that proportion.’ That’s something that’s always stayed with me. Ask lots of questions, hear what they’ve got to say and try not to be the highest-paid opinion in the room.”

For more information on Digital Garage

To learn more about Google’s mission to give SME owners digital skills training visit digitalgarage.withgoogle.com

To view a case study from Digital Garage visit the-houseman.co.uk

@GoogleUK

About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s Deputy Editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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