FK Meets | Featuring Gary Turner, Co-Founder & MD EMEA, Xero

26th April 2020

Xero has one of those apocryphal origin stories that all great tech companies have. One evening in 2006, Rod Drury and his then accountant Hamish Edwards, were working through Rod’s accounts, frustrated by the process they were plodding through and eager to explore how it could be made better.

Gary Turner, Co-Founder and MD EMEA of Xero

Having stumped up their own cash to get started, one year on, they floated on the New Zealand Stock Exchange, having raised a $10m IPO and a customer base that was around 100 friends and family dabbling with the platform – mostly for free to prove the viability of the prototype. 

Their next goal was to grow to a team of 50 and see if they could convince anyone to pay for the service. 

At around the same time, Gary Turner, a UK-based senior software executive and tech thought leader, was coming to the conclusion that the entire technology industry was about to be turned on its head by cloud computing. 

One fortuitous LinkedIn message and eleven years on, Gary is a Co-Founder and the EMEA Managing Director of one of the most exciting technology disruptors in the world, with he himself one of the most highly respected technology executives in the market today, with a flair for inspirational leadership and healthy dose of trouble making. 

Founders Keepers Stephen Rosenthal caught up with Gary to discuss his story, Xero’s incredible success in disrupting the disruptors, building teams and culture, attracting millions of users across the globe and creating the “Glastonbury for accountants”.  

How did you come to join Xero?

I was at Microsoft at the time and aware of Xero’s stock listing. I remember initially quickly dismissing them, thinking: “they’re listed in New Zealand, good luck to them.”

What I nearly failed to recognise was that in the cloud, all the rules change. Thankfully, I’d been an active tech blogger since 2001, trying to look round corners on what was coming, and read The Cluetrain Manifesto – a book that defined my career. I realised that the internet was going to have a massive impact on the world, and that the conventional world I’d spent the last ten years in was dead.

When I was approached by Hamish via a LinkedIn message in April 2009 to run Xero’s UK expansion, it was one of those “didn’t read the rest of the email” moments. I had to do it. 

I came in in 2009 as first non-Kiwi exec in the business, with no office, a team of two, revenues of around £50k a few hundred early adopters and five or six accountancy firms messing about or dabbling with the Xero platform. 

Today, 11 years on, we have more than 400 staff across Milton Keynes, London and Manchester, as well as hundreds of thousands of users across Europe, Middle East and Africa.  

I felt like I’d won first prize in a job competition in 2009, and still feel the same today. 

How did you totally re-disrupt an industry that was already successfully offering accounting solutions? 

Technological advancement. 

There was cloud accounting before us – Netsuite had an offering in 1998 – but they came before the tech was ready. Until 2005, if you wanted to build a web app, there was no way around mediocre tech experience. 

We were one of the first to focus deeply on serving small and medium businesses in the cloud.

Xero’s growth has been rapid. How has that speed of scaling been achieved?

Rod’s vision from the outset was always that Xero should be global. The blueprint was always, “how would this look when we had millions of users?” All the decisions we made at the beginning were profiled against when we scaled, not for the here and now. 

For example, you can’t phone Xero. To begin with, this was counterintuitive to some customers who were used to picking up the phone when something went wrong. But it can’t scale and we had the audacity – maybe arrogance – to believe we were going to scale. 

Your community sells Xero for you. Is that a risk as much as it’s a virtue?

We respect our community and have deliberately built a support network to help them. Xerocon (the annual conference held in London and called “The Glastonbury for accountants” by The Times)  is a community event. 

We just buy the coffee and muffins and host it. It’s really the community’s event. 

Culture plays a massive role in your teams. What are you looking for in Xeros?

We seek out unconventional people who have clearly got some proficiency in their domain, but who want to do something big and aren’t afraid to be curious or break the rules.

That’s changed as we’ve grown. The people we were hiring ten years ago were swiss army knives. Now, we go for the very best and then, once they’re in, get out of their way and let them crack on. 

Your Twitter profile states you’re a “trouble maker.” How so?

Steve Vamos [Xero’s Global CEO] describes me as a “corporate renegade”. I can exist in a corporate environment but can then route around conventional thinking to get stuff done. 

I’m not a classical CEO/MD. I’m very instinctive and passionate about the purpose and our mission. I think I’m unconventional. That’s good now, as most management books are encouraging people to be unconventional – proving I was right all along in the way I was doing it!

I love being provocative, challenging and having fun, so am very happy to identify as a “troublemaker”. 

Finally, what excites you about tech now?

The unpredictability of everything. Some of the steps we’ve made to get to Xero today are obvious. Analogue to digital was obvious. But where do you go when you’re digital? That’s a much harder one to answer. I’m much less confident that I know what’s coming next. That’s as exciting as it is daunting. 

Accounting is the most mundane technology you can get into. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from self-driving cars and spaceships. But every business needs it. 

There’s not one next big thing. There’s a hundred, and that’s what’s so exciting.

Copyright 2020, Founders Keepers