As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Maximilian McNally, founder and CEO of Desert Dx., a medical company, which now tests thousands of patients for COVID-19, including many celebrities. Prior to founding Desert Dx., he worked at the management consultancy Gardiner and Theobald looking after their Facebook contract.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Thank you so much for having me!
I grew up on a Polo club and ranch 4 miles west of London. I was one of 5 kids so that was pretty hectic to say the least! I think growing up in a hectic environment certainly has helped me to manage a business through COVID. Another pivotal point of character development for me was moving from the UK to the US. People do things differently in the UK compared to the US. Therefore, I have been able to choose the best characteristics of each way of living and create my own path.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
Throughout my childhood my friends and family were always trying to start their own businesses. Being able to peak into their lives and see what their next venture was a huge inspiration. It also helped a lot with creativity. As you can see what is working in one room, and then see what is working in another room, and then try and combine it to create something better.
Some of my first businesses were a disaster. The funniest one was whilst I was still at college, it was a Boat party company on the river Thames in London. The marketing was not done correctly, so we hardly sold any tickets, haha. I remember us asking a random amateur DJ called James Hype we had met once to come and play at one of our events. We did not think he was particularly good, he just had one funny song we liked. Then the week of our event, he launched a new song that sent him straight to number one on the charts. As you can guess he stopped returning our calls immediately. So we had no DJ and no customers.
I remember one of the ideas I had during high school was bulk buying Christmas wrapping paper after Christmas. I would then re-sell it the following year. Big stores would just give it away to you if you went in and asked for it. However, by the time Christmas came around the following year I had forgotten about it or had lost interest. So I was the butt of jokes for a few years as we had a barn just full of wrapping paper for a long time, hahaha. Eventually my brother Oliver took on the torch as and started selling it himself. He did eventually end up selling a large proportion of it. But we still had a ridiculous amount of wrapping paper sitting around for years.
Moving to the states played a big part on my entrepreneur journey. What pulled me over from the UK was the good weather, strong economy, and a thirst for adventure. When I arrived, I noticed the significant focus here on trying to start companies. This definitely pushed me towards starting my own business.
Like everyone, having to stay at home due to COVID was certainly a negative. Then one day I was on the phone with an old friend who owns a laboratory and he offered to help me setup this testing center business if we used his services. I feel lucky that this opportunity came up as it allowed me to get out of the house and help.
Strangely, one of the positives to come out of COVID is the fact that people have been forced to stay in their houses. This has forced individuals to pursue their passions, many of them turning into businesses.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I actually have a story that answers both at the same time!
When Desert Dx was first starting out, I was helping set the locations up. A lot of it was outdoors to reduce the risk of COVID, so we had these large tents. One of the tents broke and it sliced my finger open. Needless to say, I pretty much passed out and blood was squirting everywhere from my finger. Whether it was pain, blood loss, or the sight of seeing blood everywhere I’ll never know. Luckily, we had a medical team on site, who fixed me up straight away and within half an hour, I was back putting up tents. It gave me a funny feeling of invincibility. It also made me think about the incredible medical professionals that we have. They could fix me up right there and then and I could continue working. And now, thanks to all of our hardworking medical professionals, we now have COVID vaccines on the way from the hard work of individuals.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I was very lucky having come from an entrepreneurial family and having the guidance and counsel that game me my own entrepreneurial drive. For example, one of my uncles had an idea for a new shaving product for teens. So, back in high school, he got me to perform a market survey across all my friends in high school. This gave me my first taste of product development, It also gave me a mentality of just go for it. Ask 100 people and see what they say. If you do not try you fail anyway.
Reading has also been a big source of inspiration for me. Books written by authors such as: Richard Branson, Alan Sugar, and Robert Kiyosaki are great at giving you that drive to go out there and take risks. If you are ever feeling burnt out, pick one of these up and it will get you motivated again.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The toughest moment for me was when my ex co-founder dropped out last minute before the start date. Suddenly I lost half my funding and I actually decided in my head to close the business before we had even opened. Then just by chance, I received a call about winning a contract that would fund the full launch. So I found a new co-founder and launched. It sounds simple, but mentally it was draining and concerning. However, it is in those moments you have to keep moving forward.
The other option I had to having a co-founder was trying to raise money from angel investors (my family and friends). This was just hard to do. Especially as it was the height of the pandemic and everyone was losing their jobs, going bankrupt, or some other issues.
I always recommend to people to have a co-founder or co-founders. It is a great way to halve the downside of any deal. Whereas the upside might double as they will have ideas, time, and a network. Also having a business partner is great for sounding tough company issues off. Especially with issues that other people will not understand unless they are at the coal face of your company with you.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Caffeine, Caffeine, Caffeine! I micro dose caffeine throughout the day. It just stops all self-doubt and allows you to take bigger risks. That is what it does for me anyway. Without it, I probably would not have put a significant portion of my life savings into a very speculative business venture.
In short, everyone needs to find their drive because things will get hard. I have never spoken to any successful business owner that has said everything about their business has gone smoothly. At one point or another difficulties will comes and they can come in any form. Perhaps it’s the inability to scale or not having the resources, maybe it is not having enough sales, or some other difficulty.
It is vital that, as business owners, we find that one thing that allows us to keep a level head, have clarity, and simply keeps the drive going. For myself it was caffeine (as odd as that may sound). For others it may be a spouse, a motivational speech, the success they envision in their mind, or honestly whatever it may be. My point being, difficulties will come and you have to keep going to truly be successful. Even if you quit, difficulties will come in any other route you choose.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
After all the trial and errors, difficulties and stresses, we now have a large medical team and an order book full of repeat clients. I have really experienced the American dream first hand. I moved here with nothing and now I have a successful company. All I need now is that white picket fence!
But it was not easy. Many days I woke up thinking is this going to work? Should I quit now? It is all a balance against holding your composure vs quitting when it is the right time to quit. My advice here is to wait. If you wake up one day and want to quit everything it is probably just the chemicals in your head. Cut costs or make some changes but at least give it some time. This could be weeks or months depending on what industry you are in.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Every business does everything they can to stand out in their own unique way. Sometimes it is capitalizing on your competitions weakness, other times it can be something as simple as providing a clean business location that clients can feel comfortable in. However, one of the best ways to make your company stand out is by making each individual that steps through your doors feel like they are the only one, no matter how difficult or crowded you may be that day,
I remember this one time a client came down and needed really fast COVID test results to catch a flight so he could attend a family members funeral. At this point we were just offering regular speed COVID tests. Depending on your business, it is important to hear your clients concerns and needs so you know how to better help them. My team and I decided to go out of our way and stay up all night to ensure he got his results on time. It is important to remember though, by helping one client, other will expect the same treatment. You may not be able to provide that type of service quite yet. I love that story because we are now able to provide that type of quality service to everyone that walks through our doors.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
One of the most vital tips I can give is exercising daily. Exercise not only keeps your body in shape and will make it easier to handle the difficulties of day-to-day tasks, but helps produce hormones that will keep you happy and feeling good.
Next, reduce your screen time as much as possible. By reducing your screen time, you become more productive, focusing on the tasks you need to accomplish, and helping you get home at a more reasonable hour rather than late into the night. It may be hard, and for some people it is how they relax for a minute or two, but if the stress of getting home late, or feeling like there is endless paperwork to go through causes anxiety, then I know reducing your daily screen time will help!
As a business owner, it may be hard to trust your colleagues to get the job done. Often times we feel like we are the only ones who can do a certain job. Remember, we are only capable of so much, and that’s why we hire people, to help us with everything we need to do. If you interviewed and hired the right person, trust yourself and trust your colleagues and employees to get the job done! Even if you want to do everything, it’s impossible do that forever.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our main product of providing quick, convenient, and reliable COVID testing at the heart of the community is an awesome resource for the local residents. By making it as easy as possible to get tested we are doing our bit to beat this pandemic.
Also, I love to give people without the perfect resume the opportunity to prove themselves. The ones without a masters degree or a fancy LinkedIn. My brightest, most loyal and hardworking employees I have now are the ones I took risks with. Life isn’t easy, sometimes, no matter how hard you work, it doesn’t give back like you hope. So sometimes, it is the opportunity given to you rather than making it yourself, and any chance I get to provide that opportunity to those who are looking for a way to improve their lives, I want to give it!
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Look at the big picture. For example take time to step back and figure out where the company is going or the direction it is heading in based on your management, marketing, etc. Another factor is evaluating the five most important things to you, this can be family, friends, health, work, and so on. How have you done with these five things over the last week? Where do you want to be with them? What do you have to do with your business right now in order to achieve them? Personal life plays a huge part in how you manage your business, so it is important to know both your business and personal goals
- Certain things cannot be done via text or email, it is as simple as that. People can easily misinterpret you through email or text and you may leave someone confused on what to do but they don’t want to bug you by continuous asking. This can lead to the job not being done correctly which can also turn into a long-term issues. If it is important to you, or the individual, take the time to call or discuss it in person so there is no miscommunication. Many arguments have happened over this which can lead to discord in the workplace leading to lower productivity. Make sure you make it known that questions are a good thing, that you are open and available and that no one is going to be punished by asking a question.
- You need to create an open platform where people can discuss ideas they thing will improve the company or even things that might not work. Have a speculative brainstorming session on how you can save $1 million and just see what people come up with. This not only creates opportunity for discussion, but gives colleagues the opportunity to feel heard and cared for. Like their voice matters. Employee turnover has increased dramatically over the last few years because often times employees feel like they are disposable and not cared for. It is vital for your business to make sure everyone who works with you is cared for and what they say matters.
- As you grow a business and begin hiring employees, managers, and other executives, your business will change because each individual will train and run things in their own unique way while you are leading (or should be) from the top. It is important that every now and then you head to the frontlines to learn the process and see the struggles and difficulties employees go through. This will allow you to empathize with them and even offer counsel. It also allows them to see that you are leading them from all angles and aren’t leaving them to figure out how to handle everything by themselves. Employees (especially new ones) are concerned about failing, and when they do not have the support they need, risk potential failure and leave them concerned for their future. When an employees are concerned about their every action, it leaves the opportunity to make mistakes because they are not fully focused or relaxed. Be sure to remove that feeling!
- Your competitors are not your enemies. Go and talk to them and create a strong relationship with them. Give them advice about how to better market their product and be more successful. They will in return, give you equally good advice and counsel. It is best to find someone in the same niche but not directly competing against you. Maybe someone from the city next door or even networking through LinkedIn. I am not saying you need to go to the person directly across the street, but if you are a small to medium size business, it is good to bounce ideas off of others in the same industry as you. We all want to be successful, it helps provide jobs to others, boosts the economy, and makes great friendships. Who knows, you could eventually team up to provide a service that wasn’t possible before that connection.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Oh Definitely! No one stays the same for long. Experiences change people. For example, when you start a job as an employee at a new company, you learn new skills, a new management style, and new individuals that will teach you new ideas. However, when you go from being an employee to managing your own business and becoming an entrepreneur you see the stress, difficulties, and challenges that your boss goes through and your mindset of “they have it good” quickly goes away, but you never forget where you came from. With that said there are three things I focus on with my leadership style:
First, giving people responsibility is a big one and trusting them to do it right. Micromanaging never helps. In fact, it may make them less productive and creative because they feel a pressure to do things exactly how you want them to without knowing what that is. If you are going to give someone responsibility, trust them to do it and make yourself available to help them, guide them, and feel it is okay to ask questions.
Second, encourage brainstorming sessions for employees. As I mentioned earlier, providing an open platform where employees can have an open discussion about the company is essential. It allows them to have a voice, feel heard, and even allow you to hear good ideas and see potential leaders of the company.
Lastly, I go out of my way to create relationships. Everyone wants to feel important and care for. As I said earlier, people spend the majority of their week and life at work and if they are miserable or feel like they are just another number or don’t enjoy themselves it can create productivity and creative issues. Know your employees, their names, their likes and dislikes, and make sure they know you care about them and their life, not just what they are giving you and the business, you already figured that out in the interview process.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
There are two parts to this question. First, you need to step back and figure out what you can learn and what you need to know just from your own observations. This goes back to my idea of looking at the big picture. Then second, even if you do figure it out, are you brave enough to step out of your comfort zone and start the swim upstream to find the solution and then fix it? If the task seems daunting, or you simple can’t do it by yourself, don’t be scared to bring someone on to help. Many people believe that the Founder or CEO of the company can do everything, however, it isn’t until someone is hired that a company truly takes off because of their knowledge and support they bring to the company. Remember, you are just one person, and sometimes the smartest thing you can do, is reach out for help when you can’t do everything yourself.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I think it would be about helping people truly be creative. To me, math is the epitome of creativity. You have to come up with a solution to a problem for something that people actually want (your math answer). For example, creativity is not simply painting a picture. Unless somebody buys your painting, it has no value and is essentially just paint on a page. It is about the goal you are trying to get to. So teaching people how to get research grants, how to code, how to assess businesses ideas, this is true creativity and I would like more people to be able to experience this. That’s not to say people can’t paint because they enjoy it or is a way to clear their mind, that is necessary as well! What I refer to is, if you have an end goal, what are you doing to achieve that end goal or make it more achievable? Unless your end goal is to open an art shop, painting is not going to help you achieve your end goal.
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