It’s been a little over a year now since Seccl was acquired by Octopus – the £9 billion group of companies whose tentacles spread across energy and financial services.
And what a year it’s been. To reflect on the milestone, I caught up with our two co-heads – Dave Harvey and Sam Handfield-Jones – to gauge how far we’ve come, take stock of the inevitable challenges, and explore some of the lessons learned along the way…
It’s a well-established phenomenon that between 70% and 90% of mergers and acquisitions fail. And the reason is often cultural rather than strictly commercial – a mis-match of values, or an unwillingness to adapt to team dynamics.
It’s why Dave (who co-founded Seccl) and Sam (who led the acquisition from the Octopus side) opted to jointly run the business from the outset.
“We’re both co-heads, which I admit is an unusual structure, but it brings us massive benefits”, says Sam. “Dave and I have very different – almost opposite – skill-sets, which means that he makes up for my own weaknesses, and vice versa.
“It also requires you to put aside the ego that normally comes with senior executive roles. You don’t have carte blanche – you have to consider someone else – and that creates a more humble leadership, which ultimately feeds down to the business.”
But surely there’s a risk of misalignment? Sam’s open about the challenges. “Would it be easier at an individual level if you didn’t have to align with a co-leader? Absolutely. But I’m certain it wouldn’t benefit Seccl as a company. I really believe that our working together like this can give us a massive competitive advantage.
“Would it be easier at an individual level if you didn’t have to align with a co-leader? Absolutely. But I’m certain it wouldn’t benefit Seccl as a company.
“We don’t always get it right, but admitting when you’re wrong is half the battle. Like any relationship, it takes time – and there’s always room to improve. All friendships need constant TLC and rely on bags of humility.”
Dave agrees. “I’ve always thought that for any acquisition to be successful, it needs to be built on shared cultural values. It’s why we chose to partner with Octopus in the first place – and the progress that we’ve made over the last twelve months confirms we made the right decision.”
Speaking of progress – how has the last year gone, then? “We acquired Seccl because of its massive potential to transform a sector that’s ripe for disruption”, says Sam. “Fast forward a year and that potential has definitely begun to translate into real shoots of commercial success.”
“Our assets under administration (AUA) have grown by 1100%”, Dave adds. “Our team has tripled in size. And our technology now powers the portfolios of 12,000 investors – on behalf of a growing roster of clients.”
“It’s great to be working with some of the most innovative firms around today. In fact, one of the things that excites me most about our business is our opportunity to power a really vibrant ecosystem of companies at the forefront of tomorrow’s financial services.”
Firms like P1, Penfold, Intelligent Money and Wombat – all of whom have been making waves over the last year.
(We’ve got a host of new clients who we’re excited to announce over the next few weeks and months, too, so stay tuned).
Are the successes we’ve enjoyed to date made all the sweeter by the uncertain context in which they’ve been forged? After all, barely six months had passed since the acquisition before the rug was pulled from the world economy by Covid-19 and businesses of all types were forced to adapt…
“Yeah, I’m really proud of the way the company has dealt with it all”, says Dave. “We didn’t drop a thing.”
Of course, as a technology company, we’re fortunately placed; it makes no difference to our day-to-day service if we’re in the office or not. But that’s not to say it hasn’t been a challenge – particularly so soon into our scale-up journey.
“It’s been seven months since I saw any of the management team in person”, explains Sam. “And while that absence of contact hasn’t impacted us commercially, for the more extroverted in the business – like myself – it’s certainly taken a toll emotionally and personally.”
“I miss seeing people, chatting to the whole Seccl team, hitting up karaoke, that sort of thing. Those moments often made my week, so they’ve left a bit of a hole.”
Staying connected while apart has been made especially important by the pace at which we’ve been hiring. We’re more than three times larger than we were this time last year, with a pretty staggering 60% of that growth coming during lockdown – and so there are loads of Secclers who’ve never actually met in real life.
It’s why we all work hard to introduce ourselves. Dave even did his own intro film (complete with requisite Joy Division soundtrack and the odd visual reference to beloved Donny Rovers), which has become a fixture of the induction schedule.
Trying to carry on with ‘business as usual’ in today’s very unusual context has been something of a theme for 2020.
“Since week one of lockdown we’ve challenged the team to resist the urge to kick things into the long grass – and instead explore creative ways of meeting their same goals”, Dave tells me.
“Of course there have been things that simply aren’t possible to do remotely – move into our new office being a perfect example! – but we wanted to do all we can to beat the lethargy that could’ve otherwise set in.”
“Since week one of lockdown we’ve challenged the team to to resist the urge to kick things into the long grass…”
On the subject of the new office… six months after the anti-climax of nearly-but-never-quite moving into our brand new digs in the centre of Bath, we’re delighted to have finally opened our doors!
It’s purely on a voluntary basis, but is already proving a safe haven for those of us who’ve had enough of working from home. And it’s good news for the poor plants who haven’t been watered for a while, too…
It hasn’t just been a busy year for us, but for the Octopus Group, as well – and particularly our energy business, Octopus Energy.
The rapidly growing firm has gone from strength to strength, recently achieving that most rarefied £1 billion ‘unicorn’ status on the back of a large investment from Australian company, Origin Energy.
It’s now expanded beyond supplying gas and electricity to UK households – though it’s still the best in the market at that, having been declared the only Which? recommended energy supplier for a third successive year.
This year the company made a bold move into the software space, by licensing its core technology infrastructure to power other firms in the sector.
Sound familiar? Well, that’s no accident. “We’re really proud to be part of a group that thinks beyond next quarter’s results, dreams of transforming industries for the better and for good – and, yes, has the financial capacity to achieve it”, says Dave.
While we’re a little earlier in our journey than Octopus Energy, the parallel is clear. “As with energy, the investments industry desperately needs fundamental change – and there’s a massive opportunity for us to deliver it. This is only the start…”
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