As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Martyn Cuthbert.
Martyn is Founder and Managing Director of rail software company, OnTrac. He has worked within the rail industry for the past 25 years and has been digitizing their processes for the past 12.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Over the past 25 years, I’ve been involved in a wide variety of small, medium and large privately-owned businesses mostly as a founder or co-founder, and occasionally as an investor. I started out in engineering and from this I gained invaluable insight into the industry’s common pain points. This sparked my business ideas, created from the overarching aim to solve the problems I saw every day.
I worked in many industries before settling in the rail and technology sector I work within today; from general engineering, construction, nuclear, rail and oil and gas, to manufacturing, education, and recruitment.
Having done all of that, I now have a solid understanding of what it takes to survive the early start-up years, build a strong business and, most importantly, have some fun along the way.
In my opinion, there is no greater thrill in business than setting yourself a challenge to create something that has never existed; something that can positively affect the direction (and fortunes) of a company or entire industry… or even better, a person’s life.
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 have made lots of mistakes over the past 27 years in business; one recurring mistake that I never seem to learn from is sponsoring ‘up and coming’ sportsmen/women. Boxers that spent more time on the canvas than their feet (they should have had my logo on the soles of their boots!), racehorses that lost interest after 10 furlongs and even a greyhound that was diagnosed as schizophrenic! But the funniest by far was when we sponsored a privateer motorbike racing team.
I’m no expert in motorbike racing and I wasn’t expecting to discover the next Valentino Rossi, but I don’t think bouncing along the tarmac horizontally without the bike is the best way to win races. Nevertheless, we persevered and our flexible, accident prone rider somehow managed to qualify (with a wildcard), for the British Superbikes at Brands Hatch. Needless to say, he didn’t win — in fact he barely started as he came off his bike at the first bend! Nevertheless, that was his 5 minutes of fame and I also got to meet some racing legends that day, one of which I am still good friends with 15 years on. I suppose the lesson is, things rarely turn out how you expect them to; the most important thing is to make something positive out of a perceived failure.
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?
It’s difficult to name just one person that I am grateful to, but if I had to choose it would be my first business partner. He taught me some invaluable lessons that helped shape the person I am today.
The first bit of advice he gave me was, “You need to work out how to ignite the fire in your belly if you want to make a difference in this world!”. Believe me, that’s a lot easier said than done! You must dig deep if you want to do it properly, but when I did eventually find the switch, it was a game-changer. It isn’t based on the hours you work or how much you care; it’s hard to define, but I would say that it’s being willing to die for the cause. That ethos should be applied to every customer, supplier, and employee if you are serious about building a great business.
The second important lesson he taught me was you should never be too trusting of anyone when it comes to the business world. It’s crucial to have a strong and protected brand, and always enter into any dealings with careful consideration.
However, having built twelve successful businesses during my career, I would say that the most important lesson I’ve learned is to enjoy what you’re doing. When it stops being fun, it’s time for a change!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
During my time in rail engineering, I found that the pain points were always the same: inefficient, time-consuming administrative processes get in the way of optimum productivity. This, along with the practice of filing critical paper forms away in a cupboard where they’re forgotten about, results in problem areas that take longer to be detected. Subsequently, improvements take longer to be made when planning projects.
Within the highly regulated rail industry, safety is the number one priority. The capacity that technology has to improve this is boundless. This is why I founded OnTrac, with a vision to help rail businesses harness the power of digital to improve both the success of their business and the safety of their workers. OnTrac attempts to help rail suppliers accurately collect and analyse crucial data so they can catch patterns quickly and take relevant action.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
For the past decade, OnTrac has been supporting the rail industry on its digital transformation journey, by providing software that enhances the productivity, safety and efficiency of work being carried out on or near the line.
The rail industry is notorious for the countless regulations that must be adhered to by all involved when carrying out works. If a supplier fails to meet these standards, they face hefty fines and in some cases a suspension on their business. These regulations come along with forms and processes to complete manually, which is extremely time consuming. This in turn hinders the productivity of a rail supplier and can also jeopardize the safety of the workers due to communication lags.
By transforming these manual processes into a digital format, we save rail suppliers time and money, as well as potentially saving lives. Lives are quite literally on the line within the rail engineering space, and so the power of technology should be harnessed to improve critical reporting and enable real-time communication. For example, if engineers are working on track that has been improperly blocked from oncoming trains, technology allows these workers to be alerted immediately. In this way, the most important way we help people is by keeping them safe from harm.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
App technology. Mobile phones have only been allowed on a rail worksite for the last few years, and this has had a huge impact. Many rail businesses are embedded in traditional processes they have retained for years and are reluctant to make the leap into digital. They’re used to pen-and-paper processes and feel uncomfortable deviating away from that. However, businesses are being increasingly encouraged to make the transition, especially by industry figureheads such as Network Rail, which is currently implementing various digital initiatives.
Also, artificial intelligence is gaining momentum. The ability to predict train asset failures is hugely beneficial to the rail industry; currently, there are scheduled and responsive works, which can lead to disruption of journeys and risk to passengers and workers alike. By having artificial intelligence in place, with data loggers attached to assets, engineers have an accurate representation of how assets are performing and predict when the assets will fail. This means better planning of works and putting less workers unnecessarily on the frontline. However, this has received a mixed response, with many rail workers worrying this technology will eradicate jobs.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
We have been helping rail businesses to realise digitising doesn’t have to be that daunting, and the reasons to embrace the disruption. Our method of transforming processes into apps is simpler than ever; we offer out-of-the-box app solutions that meet all the rail suppliers’ needs. These apps can also be made bespoke to suit the exact processes of the business.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
There had been several tragic incidents on the rail line in recent years, including the fatalities of two rail workers in 2019. When looking at the incident report, it is clear the communication had broken down. Due to the time-consuming nature of passing critical information and changes back and forth between front line workers and back-office staff, communication can be jeopardised all too easily. It was in reaction to this that we realised mobile apps held the key to keeping workers on the frontline connected in real-time and therefore safe.
We are involved with some exciting initiatives in the coming year as more industry bodies are recognising the benefits of going digital. We have been approached by one body in particular to support them in their safety programme for 2021 — watch this space!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
Open communication. If everyone is on the same page, then you can navigate a team through disruption more easily. A leader needs to communicate exactly what the changes are, what they mean and what to expect. They also need to reassure anyone who has doubts or fears about the changes.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Consistently recognising and celebrating victories. All too often, businesses look at the negatives, which is important too as it’s the best way to devise an improvement plan. However, concentrating on improving all the time can mean you don’t fully appreciate the wins. Recognising these positives boosts morale of the entire team and helps you to see clearly how far you’ve come.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Turbulence can create a feeling of uncertainty and affect the confidence of a business. The number one thing to maintain is faith in your brand. Completely changing your ethos to suit the new environment will only lose consumer trust. Adapt, of course, as it’s important to gather inspiration from what is happening around you, but don’t lose sight of who you are and your company goals. No matter what has happened in the rail industry, we’ve always maintained that improving safety is our number one aim.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most common mistakes I’ve seen are businesses adopting the disruptive technology too quickly, too slowly, or inefficiently. Adopting too quickly, without proper research and planning, causes mayhem within a business structure, sending established processes into disarray and confusing employees. Everyone must be briefed and trained in the new technology in order for any transformation to go ahead as seamlessly and successfully as possible.
On the flip side, another mistake is to ignore the emergence of disruptive technology within their industry and carry on as normal, usually in an effort to avoid as much disruption to the business as possible. However, this approach gives your competitors an edge, and can make a business look dated in comparison.
Another mistake is to put more money than they can afford into an expensive method of digital transformation. With our company for example, we are extremely affordable compared to the expense of hiring a developer — our products are simple and quick for anyone to implement without the need for coding and other advanced technical skills.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Adapt. As the world is changing so quickly with new technology being developed all the time, it is crucial to keep up and stay relevant. For example, we specialized in computer software, then branched out to phone apps in reaction to the adoption of smartphones.
- Learn. Constantly be looking at your competitors and industry leaders to see what they’re doing. Identify how they react to disruptive technologies and see if you can do something similar.
- Don’t panic. As I touched on previously, when you panic, you make rash decisions that aren’t based on any research or planning. Many suppliers I’ve spoken with have reacted to disruptive technology by hiring expensive developers, thinking the best way is to throw money at the problem. With proper research, you can establish the best solution for your business no matter the size or budget.
- Don’t desert your business ethos. This will only damage confidence, if you have built up a loyal consumer base. Evolving is necessary to stay relevant, but this shouldn’t mean leaving your core company message behind.
- Communicate. This is so crucial to ensure everyone within the business is on the same page and knows what, if any, changes to expect in the face of disruption.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“It’s a sad fact that we all grow up being told that the world is the way that it is, and there’s nothing we can do to influence it. But, the day that all changes is the day you realise that almost everything around us was created by people that are not much smarter than us.” — Steve Jobs.
The point is: we can either choose to live in a world that someone else created, or we can help change it by designing and building things that other people can use and make our mark. This is the ethos I have founded businesses with, attempting to make a difference and solve problems.
How can our readers further follow your work?
They can follow me on my Linkedin — I often open discussions and share industry insight on there with my connections. Alternatively, they can check out the OnTrac website and social channels.