Tech Q&A: Rated People CEO Celia Francis on why product developers make great leaders

In the next in our series of interviews with tech and digital industry leaders, MBS’s Stephen Rosenthal talks innovation, leadership and alternative career paths with Rated People CEO Celia Francis.

As her incredibly diverse CV attests, Celia Francis is a creative, a techie and a seasoned business leader all rolled into one. Her career background is truly fascinating, having seen her start out as a photographer and designer before discovering the wonders of technology and its power to unleash her creative potential into the wider world.

Following product development, marketing and CEO roles at various tech companies in both the US and the UK, Celia took up the CEO post at mobile gaming group WeeWorld. In 2015, she brought her extraordinary range of skills and experiences to the CEO role at Rated People, an online marketplace founded in 2005 that connects homeowners with quality local tradespeople. Under Celia’s leadership, the business is currently enjoying phenomenal growth.

When you arrive at Rated People’s office on the south bank of the Thames, you get a clear feel for the fusion of digital innovation and real-world services. Exceptionally-focused execs and engineers sit at banks of desks walled in with glass partitions and, on one wall, there is an installation decked out with all manner of tools such as paintbrushes, hammers, screwdrivers and garden trowels – a reminder of all the manual skills and trades available through the Rated People platform.

Whether a homeowner needs a leaky sink fixing, their electricals re-wired or a loft extension, Rated People provides access to the relevant tradespeople in their given area. At the heart of this model is a rigorous verification process, in which tradespeople must apply with their credentials in order to get access to posted jobs, and where homeowners can then rate and review the work to guide future users.

“We’re adding quality in a country where there is relatively little regulation of the trades industries” – Celia Francis, CEO, Rated People

Celia, a half-Canadian, half-German born in New York City, has a unique take on the challenges of building a digital business – and where future growth will come from. And having studied at Harvard before catching the tech bug and completing an MBA in product development at MIT, her views on said growth are worth hearing.

These smarts are evident the second you start talking to Celia, and it was great to get some time with her to discuss digital disruption, building customer trust and how product development can be a great grounding for future CEOs.

Would you still describe Rated People as a disruptive business – or has its service become mainstream? 

We’re still very much at the beginnings of this category. Last year we had £2bn in GMV (the amount of gross value of all completed jobs on the platform) and this year we’ll be at around £3bn. That sounds like a lot –  and it’s certainly a big, impactful amount – but it’s still only 7% of all the work that’s done in home maintenance and repair, so there’s huge opportunities for further growth.

We’re a marketplace for over 160 different types of jobs – some of which are quite generic, like installing a light fitting, and some of which are more complex, like a loft conversion. To do all of that elegantly is a big engineering project, and so it requires a lot of thoughtfulness on the operations side. The other point is that this service is adding quality in a country where there is relatively little regulation of the trades industries. We have stepped into that space and invested so that we can offer a good level of assurance to the customer.

How do you go about verifying the tradespeople on the platform?

One out of four times we say “no” to someone joining the platform because of flags raised by the checks we have in place. Once a person is approved through our process they can get ratings and reviews from the homeowners, so that is another check that they are doing a good job. Only about 0.5% of our job ratings are 3 stars or under.

We encourage homeowners to post negative ratings if they are not happy and we post them immediately. Some other services give the tradesperson months to fix the work before they put up a negative rating, but we put it up straight away. We’re seeing growth of 30% year-on-year because homeowners are cottoning on to the idea that it’s a much better service than a directory or the Yellow Pages, which don’t do the same checks on tradespeople. We will also find quality professionals who are available to do the work and that’s typically within 5 minutes of the job being posted.

How does the revenue model work?

We have a tariff for tradespeople and trades businesses, which is an annual commitment. Based on the tariff, we provide them with access to a certain amount of potential work, allowing them to offer quotes for jobs. Some people can spend as little as £20 a month with us, while others may choose to spend thousands in order to grow their business quickly.

Why was a career in tech so appealing to you?

I’m probably one of the few people who started out as an artist and ended up a CEO, which is an unusual pivot. In the early part of my career I was involved in photography and graphic design – I’m a creative person and that was the driving force behind my initial choice to go into tech. Once I realised that the creative work I was doing was so dependent on getting customers, I decided to start a company that would drive commissioned work to me and found myself very good at making sales happen, and getting that experience of building my own company.

“I’m probably one of the few people who started out as an artist and ended up a CEO, which is an unusual pivot” – Celia Francis, CEO, Rated People

From there I landed on the idea of doing product development and essentially being an inventor – that’s when I decided to go back to school to MIT. I saw that when you’re a product developer in tech you have an opportunity to really have an impact on your generation. That has been a core motivator for me throughout my career.

How have your product development skills helped you as a CEO?

Product management is the best training ground for being a CEO, because the best product managers are humble, are listeners and look for the best ideas from everyone on their team. As a result they’re also great communicators and commercial thinkers.

Their job involves listening to the customer and looking at something at a systems level to decide how to solve a problem. So I think the product manager role is the best role you could take if you aspire to be a CEO.

What are your ambitions for Rated People in the years ahead?

We have four big areas of innovation for this year that we’re working on, but at the same time we’re very confident that our business has got the right proposition, so we’re always scaling it and making it more and more efficient. That’s very exciting because there’s lots of innovation in the minute details of just making the basic stuff work better. Even if we just kept doing what we’re doing today we will see a high level of growth, but innovation could kick us up to an even higher level.

The marketplace story is that the bigger you are, the more efficient you are – so growth in and of itself is a good goal, not just because we make more money, but because we gain so much more data that we can use to aid everyone in the matching process. We can help tradespeople become more and more efficient with their time, so they’re only seeing the perfect work for them, and you can add value for the homeowner by using data in that way too.

Celia Francis: Quick facts

Born: New York

What do you do when not working?: I’ve got two kids who I love to spend time with. I also love bringing communities together, and am involved in a number of groups in London, including one of 50 senior digital leaders. We have speakers that present and it’s a great way to listen, learn and share. I also enjoy experiential theatre and photography shows.

What excites you about technology?: I’m really interested in ‘joy tech’ – those things that are related to solving the problems of humanity. That could involve looking at the ways in which technology has been a problem in terms of loss of community and the real face-to-face connections in relationships, and thinking about how we solve issues of loneliness or depression. There’s lots of interesting apps, services and tech in that space. 

Who is your mentor?: I was lucky that I had two people that I worked for in my career who were really impressive leaders. I always counsel people going into their careers to find the most inspiring person that they can find to work for, because a lot of learning is experiential. You can read all the business books in the world but if you’ve not actually lived it and seen great leadership in action, it’s hard to truly understand it. | @SteRosenthal | @TheMBSGroup