Singulier — (Fr) — Something unique or particular. A person who attracts attention by their surprising or curious character.
What makes us Singulier is our people.
To find out more about some of their most important experiences and how they apply them to their work, we spoke with Kitson Symes, Partner at Singulier.
Kitson is our only partner based in London, charged with growing the business in the UK and internationally. He’s also a board member of Holis, a software platform for automating Private Equity due diligences. He became Partner after a year and a half at Singulier, following his three years building the European business of the startup Soroco.
We asked him to tell us about his experiences with Soroco: why he left McKinsey to be the first European employee of a startup, what he learned in those three years and how he applies that to his work with Singulier.
What prompted you to join a startup after so long at McKinsey?
While I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of consulting at McKinsey, I had reached a point where I wanted to try something different and fully round out my business experience. I wanted an opportunity to really ‘get my hands dirty’ by leading a company from scratch and building my own team, in particular I was interested in doing so with a high growth, tech-focused company which I felt was doing something disruptive.
What problem was Soroco trying to solve?
Soroco was trying to solve a challenge that many management teams face, but to tackle that challenge with technology: how and where is work being carried out and could it be made more efficient? The means to do this was through process and tasking mining using machine learning and computer vision, followed by process automation..
Why was it called Soroco?
Originally the business was called the Software Robotics Company, which was later shortened to Soroco.
What did it do exactly?
Soroco’s flagship product was process mining software called Scout, which would be installed on people’s work computers to discreetly monitor their activity and try to identify patterns. Those patterns would then be mapped to suggest activities which could be automated. The second product was called the Intelligent Automation platform, where we used Python to code the automation that had been mapped by Scout. All data underwent a PII (Personallly Identifiable Information) scrubbing process where certain information was anonymised and users could also blacklist certain software to be ignored, such as personal emails.
It was most useful for large, data-driven and volume-based businesses such as Pharmaceuticals, Telecommunications and Finance.
Did the business try to raise funds while you were there? If so, from who?
No, it was fully self-funded.
You were the first European employee. Tell us about the process to launch the business in Europe.
The European office started with one client so my first task was to begin by understanding them and how we could grow their account. I then set about hiring a team including operations, local sales, marketing and engagement managers. At the same time I had to start prospecting myself and building up use cases and sales collateral. This prospecting involved identifying the best target industries (including Pharmaceuticals, Telecommunications and Finance as mentioned) and identifying the roles that would be interested in what we offered. These tended to be Head of Process Excellence or Process Transformation, Head of Digital or Innovation and Head of IT. The good thing about most of those job titles is that they’re very specialised and anyone who does that role will definitely be interested in what we did. I tended to reach them on LinkedIn and we also found the technology or process excellence conferences they attended and sponsored or attended them to speak directly.
One challenge we faced that was particular to Europe was localising the product: how we worked with European companies and employees was very different to elsewhere and we also needed to understand local regulations around data privacy, to focus on markets which could work well for our product.
What were the numbers like at their peak? Customer, Revenue, users… ?
The company is privately held so I can’t really discuss that too much. Plus it is a highly competitive industry built on proprietary intelligence so I’d rather not give too much away.
Was there a moment where you felt that you’d cracked it? Tell us about it. What happened and then what happened next?
When building something new, I’m not sure you ever feel like you’ve actually ‘cracked’ it. For me it was more of a journey. There are moments that you feel you’ve reached a goal or have good traction and momentum, but then you just move onto something else that needs to be built, fixed or improved.
That may be partially because of the nature of the product: each user, business or industry and use case is so different, so there are potentially an infinite number of variations that need to be considered.
Were there any moments—perhaps early—where you felt you may never crack it? Why and what did you do about it?
Yes and no. It was a very tough computer science problem like I said: we’re trying to organise infinite human noise into patterns that can be automated. For that reason, the challenge of that is part of the journey as much as business progress because you know that the better the product becomes, the easier sales can become and the more satisfied customers will be. But because it is infinite, it never really ends.
What were the biggest differences between working for a large corporation and starting something from scratch?
There is no rule book when starting from scratch. It is entirely up to you which can be liberating but also scary. At the same time it allows you to move a lot quicker. It encourages you to be creative. On the flip side, when you hire you have to manage the growth of hiring. Generally people have an expectation of what they need from their employer and in early-stage companies the situation is different to corporations, so you need to be aware of that when you hire and scale your hiring processes and onboarding as you go.
Why did you leave?
The primary reason was I felt like I’d achieved what I sought to learn and had the opportunity to take what I had learnt and apply it to an exciting new venture with Singulier. I was excited to join to take intellectual leadership within a new type of consulting business with the ambition to digitise and disrupt the consulting market, bringing together two areas I was excited about in technology and strategy consulting.
What was your greatest achievement?
When we managed to land a big Fortune 500 client. This came from our own prospecting: starting with a basic introduction we then built them into one of the biggest clients for the firm globally. The validation of the product’s output from a large company and their willingness to invest and scale it is such an important milestone for any small company.
What was the lowest point?
That’s easy: when deployments don’t work out. As I mentioned before, the infinite mess of data and work activity means the problem we’re solving is infinite. It also means you don’t know until a POC whether what you’ll see can be actioned, and when the tech doesn’t allow us to make it work it can be extremely disappointing.
If someone came to you and asked for your advice about joining a startup, what would you tell them?
Startup life is, naturally, completely different from corporate life. On a daily basis you will be expected to come up with ideas, implement them, make decisions with little information, take risks and work on tasks you’ve never done before. You have to want to do that (or at least be able to manage it) because you are really motivated by the start-up’s mission and purpose. So think hard about what you’re looking for before you start and try to find that in a product, team and founders.
Tell us three simple things you learned from this experience?
- Technology is messy — software products are always a work in progress
- Entrepreneurs need to be specialists in one area but generalist multi-taskers across everything else
- In a small company you need to be comfortable with ambiguity, you can’t rely on anyone else structuring your work for you
Who are your greatest mentors and/or inspirations when it comes to entrepreneurship?
I tend not to look up to anyone from a business perspective that I’ve never met or worked with directly myself. Instead, for inspiration I consider principles of leadership more valuable. These include:
- Letting people try for themselves (and allowing them to fail)
- Make sure, you’re always there for support for your team (even if they fail)
- Making sure what you and your team are doing is intellectually challenging
- Avoid micromanaging as much as possible.
- Begin with the structure and maintain feedback loops on its effectiveness
Would you work for a startup again?
Yes, definitely. Although much like the advice I’m offering to anyone else, I’d consider the industry, product and team before even considering it. For now we’re building something great with Singulier and therefore it is highly unlikely for some time to come.