As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rune Sovndahl.
Rune Sovndahl is the co-founder of Fantastic Services — an international brand with 10+ years of experience that combines technological innovations with bespoke customer care to deliver services for the home, office and garden. Rune Sovndahl, who is Danish, moved to London 20 years ago to study for a BA (Hons) in Business Information Systems Design at South Bank University. Following completion of his degree, he was accepted onto a graduate programme with British Telecom.
In 2003 he also established the European Young Professionals committee in London and was involved in its website’s creation as well as in the recruitment of more than 200 new members. Most recently he worked for last minute.com as Head of SEO.
Fantastic Services currently operates on 3 continents — Europe (United Kingdom), Australia and North America (USA). Over 530 franchisees and nearly 2,000 experts deliver services to 50,000+ Fantastic clients globally each month. Over 300 branded vehicles cross the streets of London alone. The company employs around 500 specialists responsible for web design, mobile applications, online and marketing optimization, IT solutions, sales and more.
Within 2019 the business reported over £40 million worth of services. Fantastic Services are easily the largest home services provider in London, yet it has been self-financed since the outset.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
I was born and raised in Denmark, moved to the UK more than 20 years ago to study Business Information Systems Design at South Bank University. I met my business partner, Anton Skarlatov, in 2009 purely by accident. A couple of weeks later, we launched Fantastic Services with the idea to revolutionize the services industry in the UK.
A little over a decade later, Fantastic Services is the easiest place to book over a hundred services for your home and office. With our apps and online booking process, you don’t even have to speak to a representative to schedule or reschedule your service. It’s all done online, just like ordering a Uber.
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?
There’s this one funny story from way back, must’ve been when we first started providing carpet cleaning. See, there’s a particular way that you have to plug in and connect a carpet cleaning machine. That’s why you hire a professional. I did it all wrong and instead of cleaning I managed to spray water everywhere.
Needless to say that ever since then I haven’t touched a carpet cleaning machine, and we now colour code our machines green and red for entry and exit, so even I can use them.
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?
That’s a difficult question. There’s no one person that helped me along the way, I’d say there are a number of people that helped me and Fantastic Services reach the heights we’re at.
My dad encouraged me to think freely as a kid. I guess that’s where the entrepreneurial spark is from. Anton has been a loyal business partner, and I’m just so grateful for having the opportunity to work with him. And, of course, I can’t forget the whole team of people who’re working hard every day to make Fantastic Services the best service company in the whole world.
From the franchisees who’re making sure every job is done perfectly, to the developers making GoFantastic the best services app there is, to every single person on the backend ensuring the company is working like clockwork.
See, it’s a well-oiled machine rather than a single person who got us where we’re at. I’m grateful for every single one of them.
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?
I think we had a very different approach to the business from the start, we called it the 360- degree philosophy of happiness. For our staff, franchisees and clients .Fantastic Services operates on a franchise basis. The purpose was to create a system that allows small service providers to thrive and grow, get their kids through college, have a life where they don’t worry about where their next job is coming from.
We deliver services for the home and the office, so that’s the tradespeople we targeted. Ten years later, we have franchisees enjoying a yearly turnover upwards of a million pounds.
And we like to think we have a competitive advantage. Fantastic isn’t a big corporation. We pick up the phone. We listen to our customers and we make sure our services correspond with what they’re looking for. All our cleaning services are customizable.
Moreover, we go the extra step and build relationships with our customers. And we know that our business won’t ever be perfect. That’s why we strive to make it better, rather than perfect. It’s an ongoing process and we don’t plan on slowing down.
We also invest in our staff, and we often rotate between departments and make sure the work is engaging and has enough purpose. We have the best parties in the company and training and development is a daily theme.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Oh, well. I don’t think this is going to be that long ago, given the whole pandemic thing going on. We were one of the very few companies that remained operational during the lockdown in the UK and even though we had a drop in bookings, and we had to quickly adjust to what’s going on, we still managed to create a whole new service (Antiviral Sanitisation) and launch our custom CRM system, ServiceOS, as a standalone product.
If there’s one thing that I can advise every leader to do in such times is just be transparent and be there. Like, take for example the lockdown. The government wasn’t very clear about what was going on. People were scared.
As someone who employs over 400 people, I went on Facebook Live every evening, updating every person in the company about what’s going on. Moreover, once a week we had a huge video call with every person in the company where Anton and I answered questions and spoke with people from the different departments. It wasn’t about speaking with the boss. It was rather being there for the people that have made their mission in life to make Fantastic Services the best place to book a service online.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
To be honest, I’ve thought so many times about quitting that I can’t even count them. I mean, who hasn’t? Things get tough. Business gets tough. Life too. Sometimes there are decisions that you have to make that you don’t want to, and let me tell you, this is what takes away from all the joy.
But I always get back on track. I hold myself accountable, and one of the things that pushes me when times are toughest is all the employees, partners, franchisees, they depend on us . For the past decade this taught me to keep going. No matter how hard it is, it will always pass. If I have one advice for new entrepreneurs, it’s keep going, stay focused, and stay accountable.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Be honest, transparent and accessible. People and companies are capable of doing the impossible, and remember, if it fills tough, it’s probably your perspective on things. Take a step back, set a direction and just let people do what they’ve always been good at — working together to create extraordinary things.
When the Coronavirus hit the UK we had the only goal of emerging through all this better, smarter, faster. When all service companies were closing down, we kept working. Anton, the managing team and I spend numerous days working without sleep. Our employees went the extra mile every single day. Franchisees were working helping the frontline workers.
While we’re worried about a second lockdown, we aren’t afraid. We managed to go through this once, if they put the UK in second lockdown we’ll be able to do it again, but better.
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?
Lead by example. You can’t expect employees to put in the extra hours if you don’t do it for them. During the lockdown we didn’t make anyone work extra, yet most people did. Everyone felt like they were fighting for their own business, and to an extent they were.
Being a C-level executive, an entrepreneur or a manager may sound cool, but it all comes with responsibilities that you have. You can’t afford to take a day off when the company is hurting. And when the whole future of the world is uncertain, you can’t even think about being lazy or unfocused.
You have to be 110% in the game. Stay calm, ask the right questions, control what you can control and don’t worry about the rest. When the lockdown hit, we couldn’t just sit around on our ass waiting for things to go back to normal. In just a week we launched a whole new service! I think that was one of the things that ultimately saved us and kept us operational.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Be honest. Don’t tip-toe, be straight and go to the point. You have to get that built inside the organization. It’s a mindset that has helped us be ahead of problems.
Things happen. People make mistakes. It’s normal, the worst favour you can do is being vague or unclear, that kind of information is useless.
Keep people motivated and driven and work with them once a problem arises, let them see the purpose and why we are doing things. Lead them when they feel lost. You’re on the same side. Way too many “managers” try to motivate employees with fear and that just doesn’t work in the long term, fear is excellent for waking you up, but fear must never be a constant state.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is always unpredictable, pandemic or not, I like to think like the stoics anything that can happen any time can happen today. Making plans about it is okay, but every entrepreneur should remember that they should pivot if things don’t work out. Make a plan, follow through and execute on the plan, evaluate your results and see if the plan works. If you don’t get the results you’re looking for, step back and change the plan. Sticking with something that’s not working is insanity.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
First of all, there are two books worth reading on this, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by Jim Collins and The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman. Make sure every unit of your company can live with and without each other.
And a principle I stand firmly with is ‘You don’t have to go with the first option. If you think about it, we’re living in a world of endless opportunities. Know that there’s always a third option. You may not see it yet, but there is and one of it is bound to work in your favour.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The most common mistake people and business make is that they give up too early. The second one is that people aren’t ready to press the reset button and shake things up, instead they choose to stay in their comfort zone.
Third mistake is that people aren’t adjusting their mindset. In tough times you have to adapt and be mentally resilient, there is always more mud and bad times you can climb through, we are capable of much more than we think.
Getting comfortable that you’ve made it. You’ve never “made it”. Being in business is not a sprint. It’s a never ending marathon and you never know what the next challenge will be. You won’t find satisfaction in chasing the end. Realize that being in business is a never ending game, and that this game is what the true business is, so enjoy the ride.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
The most important thing is to be lean. It doesn’t matter how the economy is doing, how big you are and how much money you have. Being lean is the number one thing every company should strive for.
And the second thing is to be resourceful. During turbulent times you don’t have a ton of money. Work with what you have, get creative and trust the people you work with. Measure what matters and only do the things that are proven to bring you success.
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 lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’ve shared everything in the above questions, so I’ll just recap for the readers.
Number one — stay calm and honest. That’s what I did with the live videos and weekly updates.
Number two — the company has to be lean and adaptable.
Number three — remember that there’s more than one option there’s always a third option (new product, new services, new ways to grow and improve)
Number four — never give up. You don’t have to be the smartest and biggest to win. Keep working hard on the right things, make small progress and don’t ever stop.
Number five — be resourceful. Some of the best companies in the world were made
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandmother used to say — “Only boring people get bored.” When you start to think about it, it’s true. You decide how exciting your life will be. To an extent, this made me into who I am today. That’s something that really resonated with me.
How can our readers further follow your work?