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Kobas & Covid – The 2022 Update

James O'Sullivan
06 Jan 2022 3min read

This is the latest update from the Covid-19 update series from CEO, James O’Sullivan. See part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Anyone that knows me will know that I skew quite heavily to the optimistic end of the spectrum. If a trip would take 45 minutes in ideal conditions, allowing 50 minutes is ample wiggle room (I can’t be sure, but this might explain why I’m sometimes a minute or two late for meetings), so I’m trying to be extra cautious with what I’m about to write. My last blog about Kobas was at the end of Summer 2020, when it looked like the worst of things were behind us and I’d planned to write a follow-up on the anniversary of The Hardest Day, but such is the pace we’ve been moving at over the last 18 months, I just haven’t found the time. After 5 days with the in-laws, however, it was clear I really needed to make time for this article. Sorry, Mary / Ronnie and co, you’re great, really!

Team growth

When you look at some of the numbers for the business, it’s clear why this blog is so delayed. At the peak of the crisis in spring 2020 we were down to a skeleton staff, just 6 people working full time – both the most we could afford and the minimum we needed to maintain the application and write our online ordering system including our mobile ordering app. Come the end of Jan 2022 we’ll have 30 people working in the business, almost double our highest pre-Covid head count. The first time it really hit me how well we’d done in 2021 was at our Summer social, which was timed to coincide with our first intake of new starters. I can vividly remember the moment where all (about 20 of us at that time) were sat around a courtyard table at Kobas client Rare Breed’s The Plough, tucking into an absolute feast. I looked down the table and saw many people having great conversations with each other. About 30% of the attendees were meeting the rest of the company for the first time and to see all this interaction taking place was such a powerful scene. When it came to doing a short speech a bit later in the night it was clear to all, I think, with the pride I was feeling in having so many great people working with me on this journey. We’re heading to Sheffield for our Winter social in March 2022 (we postponed this to be on the safer side) and I’m quite excited about how energised I’ll be after that.

A number of people that have joined us recently are on technical side of the business and it more than doubles that team, plus adds some structure to support another doubling in 2022 if funds allow. From an output perspective it will enable us to have teams focused solely on new features and others on day to day pressures, rather than having their time split. We’ve also added people with significant food and beverage operations experience to the mix, so there is always someone to talk to if you need to know how something plays out in the real world. It’s hard to overstate how useful this is to developers that often have very little experience of the sharp end of the hospitality industry.

Growing client-base

Next I really need to tip my hat to the heroics of the sales and marketing teams. They all joined the business in 2020 and as I’ve noted before, really hit the ground running despite not having the best conditions for meeting operators and still learning our product. The quieter time was used to great effect with a new website, CRM, process automation and a spectacular new trade show stand, all of which meant when we were finally able to do shows again, we were ready. The Casual Dining Show, the first show since March 2020, was a brilliant couple of days with everyone seemingly really pleased just to be out and working as normal. Operators were more plentiful and more talkative than any of us can remember and the mood was continued at The Restaurant Show and Restaurant & Bar Tech Live a few weeks later. We’ve seen many leads from these shows convert already, with others planned to move along in 2022, but overall 2021 has seen our venues count increase by 130% compared to 2020 and even 60% against 2019.

The consistent, relentless, nature of new clients, rollouts and new venues shone a light on areas of the business that I’d never really given much thought to. Take the EPoS hardware for example, we’ve used the same supplier for nearly a decade and there was never been a time where they couldn’t supply the kit we needed within a couple of days. The knock-on effects of Covid were really felt up the supply chain here as precious metals became scarce and thus components were limited, and once you had all the bits there either wasn’t enough capacity in the factory to build the tills or there was no room on a ship (and flying was prohibitively expensive due to the decrease in general aviation) to get the finished products to the UK. Add in that massive ship trying to do a U-turn in the Suez Canal and suddenly our just-in-time drop ship model had to be re-thought; we needed to start capacity planning up to 16 weeks ahead. This isn’t the end of the world once you’re doing it, but when it’s coupled with a growing number of clients & venues, a largely new team and install dates that fluctuate with building work, it became a full time job. Indeed, this was another area of structural change for the business and we now needed a dedicated implementation team that would look after new clients (data sheets, training, hardware needs etc) and the actual installation of the Kobas EPoS and our training sessions.

With more clients and more venues comes the need for more client-focused staff and here we have been extremely fortunate. Kobas is held in such high regard by many of the people who use it day-to-day that when the chance came to work for us, we had more applications that we could have dreamt of. From this, we were able to hire some exceptional account managers which has been almost too easy – and they come needing a fraction of the training needed by someone without prior Kobas experience. My suspicion is that if people are looking to make a change in their career where they have more free time when their family and friends are available, being able to use a lot of the skills learnt in their time managing pubs or restaurants while only working a few unsociable shifts is quite appealing.

All the above might lead you to believe we’ve just cruised through the year, but that wouldn’t give enough credit to the incredibly hard work done by the majority of the business. Without the tireless efforts of many people we wouldn’t be where we are now, scaling isn’t easy (as I’ve found out the hard way) and it’s just one of the important lessons I’ve learned this year. Looking back on things now, I believe I was too slow to press the button on scaling the teams and this lead to bottlenecks appearing that were probably avoidable. When I analyse this fairly critical decision, I’m torn between some conflicting beliefs. On the one hand, it was probably prudent to build up some safety funds in the business in case things got worse again, but if that was the case, why did we invest in the sales and marketing teams if not to increase new client and thus create these demands. A good test of any decision is looking at what you did versus what you would do now with all this information (while not becoming too outcome dependant) and in this case I think I eventually made the right call, but 3-6 months later than I should have.

Changing responsibilities

Next up I had the belief shattered that when we had a bigger team, I would have more time. In fairness, I think this might still be true, but we’re not at the size yet where it noticeably is happening. What has certainly happened already is that while I’m doing fewer things that I’ve successfully handed over to other people, these same other people have questions they need me to answer and initially this takes about as much time as doing the work yourself. This has certainly got better as they become more settled into the business and understand what we’re doing and how we want to achieve it.

This passing off of responsibilities to other people is actually one of the hardest things for me to learn to do. I love writing software (and technology in general) and that’s where Kobas came from. Over time, however, we grew to a stage where I couldn’t do everything as development, support, finance, sales and everything else was too much. Given my network I was able to bring in people better than me on the development side, so I largely cut that from my day to day… and as this was the thing that actually got me into this in the first place, it was hard. I was lucky that I found I also enjoyed the selling of Kobas to operators as well – it was a challenge, a new set of skills to learn and ultimately quite rewarding. With the introduction of the sales team I’m largely out of that arena now, so I’m just left with the product ownership and the finance function (and I’m not one that wakes up itching to get on with my accounts). When I finally pass over the day to day financial elements of the business soon, I think I’ll finally be back in a place where what I do most days is something I enjoy and add the most value to the business, setting the direction for the product.

If this all comes to pass, there will be few happier people than my wife as it’s been quite the time for her and us as a family. Our son, Logan, is a particularly active now 3 year old and coping with him at home during lockdown one, with both parents working full time was a struggle. As he’s so like me, I think I’m getting a taste of what my parents endured 40 or so years ago. We’ve got #2 arriving this month, so I’ll need to make that my priority for a few months at least, so knowing the business is in good shape and safe hands is a real weight off my shoulders. Finally, as it that wasn’t enough, we’ve also moved from Surrey to Dublin, where my wife is from. We aren’t sure if we want to live here or in Surrey longer-term and now seems like the only chance to try it out before Logan starts school at 7 or 8, when he’ll be making friends we won’t want to take him away from. The good news is that flights are frequent, quick and cheap… and it’s actually less travel time to meetings north of Birmingham than it is from where we lived before.

What’s next?

So, with all this where do we go from here both in terms of Kobas and the industry in general? Looking at the macro picture first, I’m worried there will be some further restrictions placed on our clients in early 2022, I don’t personally think this is a reasonable step as it’s too late to do any real good (if it ever would have), but I think to do nothing when cases are growing leaves them too exposed to lazy reporting. This will, I hope, only be for a few weeks and Jan is rarely the most profitable month so shouldn’t be the end of the world. It will also, I hope, mark the last negative action due to Covid. Come winter 2022 we’ll know what to expect and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another booster drive in the autumn similar to that for the flu. We’ll also have more evidence of the effectiveness of antiviral drugs that have recently become available, reducing the likelihood of serious effects from Covid. With all this, Christmas 2022 will, hopefully, be the first festive season where Covid is just a normally mild illness some people get. Fingers crossed.

As for Kobas, we’ve got an exciting array of projects we’re eager to deliver in 2022, kicking off with Gift Cards in the next few weeks. Other things to look out for over the course of the year include: a debut for our Kitchen Display Screen offering, an upgrade to our CRM, a kiosk version of our Customer Interaction Centre, a complete re-write of our HR system and many other smaller tweaks along the way. As ever, the order and timing of these features is subject to change, but this is where we’ll be focusing our efforts for the time being.

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