Business In:Brief with Jonathan McFarlane (PlaceOS)
CEO and co-founder of PlaceOS – 2010-present
Jonathan McFarlane is the CEO and co-founder of PlaceOS, a PropTech integration platform that helps to connect everything in an office, tenancy or building – from lobby to desk, and everything in between. PlaceOS can connect to every device and system in a city, precinct, building or tenancy, and then automate anything that it's connected to. This might include automating a meeting room booking or shutting off elevators to floors that are at capacity.
Using the PlaceOS platform, organisations can scale out to a multi-national deployment and scale down to an individual device, desk or room. The user experience can be tailored for the specific set of use cases, and the user interface can be a combination of automatic logic triggers, touch panels, voice control, buttons, switches, apps and kiosks.
Find out more about Jonathan, his business and his achievements below.
What's your proudest achievement?
My greatest and proudest sense of achievement is building the PlaceOS team. At the start of any business journey, you're on a constant rollercoaster of ups and downs. During this period, the sense of achievement that stays consistent is the one that comes with building a great team and culture. This has been my rock – if all else is failing, at least I have good people to problem solve with over drinks. We are also in such a new niche with smart buildings, that there is so much potential for new ideas. I am most proud when I see our employees come up with ideas that end up implemented in some of the largest projects in the world.
What's something that you have learned in business that took you by surprise?
That sales has as much value to the buyer as it does to the seller, particularly in a complex enterprise environment.
The salesperson is responsible for setting up the project for success by scoping the best solution. As someone that has a technical background, I had the common misconception that salespeople were just ego-driven extroverts, in it for their own commission. However, I quickly learned that good solution salespeople have a superpower – they are specialist generalists. They understand how everything comes together and have communication skills to coordinate everything. This has been a personal discovery – I never in a million years would have thought I would end up in a sales role – but as a specialist generalist I've become quite good at it.
How do you plan on growing your business in the near future?
One of the hardest things with growth is that you have to sacrifice short term wins for long term success, and you have to do this by changing the way you work – even if at the surface level it is profitable. This is why CFOs aren't in charge of growing businesses. We could be a healthy, small business, but without scale we risk losing relevance. All art and all businesses need to be relevant to be successful.
We are transitioning from a service based company to a platform business model, done through building better tooling and API's for developers – ultimately enabling anyone to build their own smart building product on top of the PlaceOS platform. In a few months, we are also releasing a marketplace and promoting our ecosystem. This is a very typical platform business model that has been successful for companies like Salesforce and more locally Xero. If you make your platform fundamental to other people's products you can scale at a much higher growth rate.
We also have great industry partnerships with the likes of Cisco, that allows us to enable some of their global smart building offerings and access their delivery and sales channel.
Our biggest risk is if we don't scale, someone will come along and leapfrog us because they came at it from a high growth model rather than getting stuck in comfortable profits. I like to think our approach is the best of both worlds – we know how to build a profit model and we are now scaling this up into a platform business model.
What other business leader do you most admire and why?
I feel that studying anyone's successes or failures is missing one critical dimension – time. Most business success is due to timing, so by trying to replicate something that someone else has done is impossible because that time has already passed. I do however read extensively. A good starting point is the Tim Ferriss Podcast, where he interviews some of the best business authors living today and asks them what they are reading.
I'm currently obsessed with the contradictory ideas between being a generalist or specialising in a certain field. Basically the 10,000 hour rule by author Malcolm Gladwell or the "dabble in everything" point of view explored in David Epstein's Range. Being the centralist that I am, I like to look at both sides of those arguments and pick and choose what is most relevant to me.
What's the best piece of business advice you've ever received?
The best piece of advice I ever received centres on how an individual's workday can be made easier. It was thinking about how they can get home earlier and how we could make them look good to their boss. Often when you're introducing technology, you're creating more work for that employee. So focus on the benefits to that individual because people are going to make recommendations or purchasing decisions only if it helps them on their level. This advice came from Landell Archer, who years later ended up becoming our Head of Solution Sales.
The other advice is something I think I just read somewhere and it really resonated with me – to win more sales, you have to send more proposals. We often get stuck in saying yes to more meetings but if you look at the metrics, you actually need to provide a quotation and proposal. The sooner you send a proposal, the sooner you can negotiate and close a deal. Sending proposals frequently and quickly is the key.
What advice would you pass on to someone starting out in your area?
My advice for anyone starting out in PropTech is to start small, but to always consider scale – scale in your technology and scale in your business model. Scale can be enormous. It can be a whole city or expanding to multiple buildings, but start small as a single floor or even a single room and always keep the idea of scaling within your peripheral.
The other area you need to be scalable is your feature offering. You cannot predict the requirements of the future and COVID-19 is a great example of that. But if you are scalable and modular in your feature offering, you can adapt to anything that comes up.
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