Working with entrepreneurs: 15 Gifts

At Howard Kennedy we are proud to work with many ambitious entrepreneurs. We know that when you are building your business you need the right team behind you. A team that’s looking out for opportunities and spotting challenges and that makes your life as hassle-free as possible.

Part of what motivates our lawyers is that they love getting to know our clients. What makes them get out of bed in the morning and how can we help them get from where they are, to where they want to be? We took the opportunity to talk with one of our favourite clients 15 Gifts, we asked founder-CEO Tom Cox about what drives and inspires him and what they have planned for the next year.

Q&A with 15 Gifts

Tell us in your own words why you started 15 Gifts and what makes it special?

The original business was actually totally different to what it is today. Originally I just wanted to design an intelligent gift finding service to solve my own problem. I almost never remembered birthdays and always struggled to find something personal, so I designed a piece of software that would have a conversation with you and suggest 15 gift options from across the web based on that conversation and what other people were buying.

After we started operating we were approached by a number of retailers who wanted to use the engine on their own platforms to sell goods and services, such as credit cards and clothing. That's when we realised what we were offering was a much bigger proposition.

This highlighted a whole other very fascinating problem which is that when shopping online people find it very hard to make confident decisions in the same way they would when having a conversation face to face. Customers experience FOBO (fear of a better option). We now have a product which combines machine learning and psychological principles to better understand buyers and make more intelligent suggestions which removes some of this buyer anxiety. It's really interesting that the people who use this engine to have the conversation behave completely differently.

What has been your biggest challenge in setting up and running 15 Gifts?

There have been quite a lot of challenges along the way but I would say underlying it all the biggest challenge has been building a business without investment. We have grown from a two person operation to a team of 36 with over £2m recurring revenue. It's meant that we have managed to keep control of the business but it's been massively challenging building a business without investment in this market. The only way we were able to do this has been because of the amazing partnerships we've had with our clients. Everyone who has started using the engine hasn't stopped using it and because of that we've been able to invest confidently every time we get a new partner.

What's in store for the next 12 months?

We now specialise in the telecommunication sector which has a really interesting buyer effect where people struggle to make choices given the landscape and how similar all the networks are. We now work with all except for one telco player in the UK market and we have some key partners in Europe so will be looking to continue that global expansion over the next 12 months, particularly in the US.  We've already started working with some of the top US networks so globalising the engine is the biggest thing we'll be working on.

What's been really interesting is we've just spent 6 years mirroring the human sales assistant with these engines and we have now realised that advisors in store are using the engine themselves. We found out from the telco networks that staff were actually using the engine to sell products and were using it as social proof when talking to their customers about recommendations. They have told us that because the engine learns what similar people have bought they feel more confident that they are making the best recommendations. As a result, we have spent the last year building a new retail engine from scratch for use by assistants in store which is completely different and allows them to have the conversation and build a profile. This is very much catered to the instore staff and this tool has just gone live in the first batch of O2 shops across the UK.

The plan with it is that you will start your experience in store and, if you're not quite ready to buy, the agent is now able to send you the recommendation. You'll then get an email with a link to our online engine which has all your answers saved and then the sale can be closed there. It works vice versa as well, you can start online too and complete the sale online. The blending of the two together is key.

The other big focus for us will be the data side of business as our engines collects customer profiles which can be invaluable to brands when they look to re-engage customers through marketing activities like personalisation or retargeting.

You're based in Brighton, what made you pick there?

I love Brighton and the reason I started the business here is that it has an amazing tech scene which was culturally right for us. There are more and more groups and meet ups happening all the time and there is a huge tech talent pool coming from freelancers and those coming out of the university. It's also much more affordable. Costs weren't the only consideration, but I don’t think I could have built this business without investment in London.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

I'm sure I'm missing something amazing as I have had so much great advice but I think someone told me early on 'Always hire people better than you’ and I've certainly carried that philosophy forward. So many businesses don’t invest in their people or they hire people who make them feel comfortable. What I've tried to do is hire people who are scarily better than me and give them a good amount of responsibility.  I also think it's even better if someone doesn't agree with you, the worst thing in the world is sitting with people that make you feel really good about your ideas and perhaps are not confident or experienced enough to challenge you and tell you the ideas actually are not going to work.

Another lesson I was told was - if you're nervous about something then you're doing the right thing, because if you're nervous it means you're talking to the right person and you're probably doing the right thing.

What's the biggest take away point you've learnt since starting up 15 Gifts? 

I didn’t know anything in the beginning – I've learned so much

Lots of statistics show that entrepreneurs are more likely to have been rebellious teenagers – were you rebellious?

I wouldn’t say rebellious, but in university I didn’t apply myself and I didn’t feel engaged in education. I was the ultimate average student just about scraping by. It was only when I got into trying to solve an actual problem that I came to life. I'm more motivated by the problem solving aspect than just learning, and the people. If something is human, and it's real, and you can actually achieve something, it's amazing. When I was sat listening to someone or taking an exam, I was so disengaged.

What made you choose Howard Kennedy? And why do you like working with us?

I was introduced by our chairman who has worked with Howard Kennedy for years and years, he wanted to bring you in to the business. At first I was quite worried that you were going to be an expensive and very corporate London firm. Actually it's been amazing and we've worked together on so many things. Some of these have been really big, complex and important cases. Howard Kennedy have that very rare balance between being incredibly professional but also being very human and actually showing an interest in our business, which we hadn't really seen before in a law firm. Certainly with Gill White and Paul Glassberg, they really seem to genuinely care about our business. It's a nice thing that they are hugely professional and you feel like you're in a safe pair of hands but there's definitely an actual feeling of caring there, which I feel is very rare.

We ask all our lawyers to give us a fun fact about themselves when they join – what would your fun fact be?

I was born with half an ear, doctors have rebuilt it with plastic and skin grafts so now I have two identical ones.


Q&A with Gillian White

We also asked Partner, Gillian White, who has worked with entrepreneurial clients from a range of industry sectors, a few questions.

What do you like about working with 15 Gifts?
They have a really interesting business and I have really enjoyed seeing it grow. We know Simon Drakeford the Company's NE Chariman and both him and Tom are a real pleasure to work with – they both take time discuss the business and its progression and are appreciative of the advice we provide.

What have you learnt from them since starting working together?
You can be successful and drive a business forward whilst putting culture front and centre - we experience that culture even as a service provider in the way that Tom and his team interact with us

What's your favourite thing about working with entrepreneurs?
I love working with entrepreneurial clients, learning about their vision, ambition and what they want to achieve; understanding what is exciting them or what is worrying them – and then helping them with that.


Find out more about Gill White