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with Mark McDermott, CEO, ScreenCloud

Disruption Diaries

with Mark McDermott, CEO, ScreenCloud

In our latest episode of our Disruption Diaries series, Jo Dalton, Founder of JD & Co, sits down with Mark McDermott, CEO of digital signage scaleup, ScreenCloud.

A cutting-edge SaaS platform, ScreenCloud is helping businesses communicate more effectively with their content management system enabling organisations to manage screen content anywhere, on any device. Founded in 2015, the business now boasts over 9000 customers, and employs over 100 employees globally, with offices across the UK and US. ScreenCloud isn’t just disrupting a sector, it’s defining one.

Join us as we uncover the secrets behind ScreenCloud's success. From weathering global pandemics and tech recessions, Mark shares invaluable lessons and battle-tested strategies that can guide and inspire entrepreneurs embarking on their own scaleup path.

The origin story

ScreenCloud emerged from a collision of frustration and curiosity, as Mark, together with Co-Founder, Luke Hubbard, found themselves grappling with the limitations of screen technology within their own agency office.

"It was more of an accident than a moment of inspiration. I think that's probably true for most businesses, no matter what they say later."

Mark wanted to make their team more aware of KPIs and other key data and digital information. Luke wanted to enable easy programming to the screens. There was no easy solution for either.

“We didn't do anything we were supposed to do, like market analysis. I didn't even know what digital signage was. We were just trying to solve a problem for ourselves.”

From humble beginnings, ScreenCloud has gone on to become a global leader in digital signage. After almost a decade, the business has gone from startup to scaleup with the next big growth milestone of £30 million to £50 million ARR in sight.

“I'm glad we passed the startup stage. Now it's a very different journey, which is scaling up and building. While revenue is not the definition of where we're at, I think revenue stages do define where businesses are and what your challenges will be.”

The road to resilience

With ScreenCloud going from strength to strength, Mark is most proud of the business’ resilience through uncertain times. Digital signage was an obvious casualty during the pandemic; a global shutdown in public places meant nearly every screen location came close to simultaneous shutdown.

“From a programmatic point of view, quite often, you build stress tests where you try to attack your own program. This was like a physical version of a stress test.”

Coming out of COVID, normal trading conditions were further disrupted as the tech recession hit. With businesses reducing their software spend, ScreenCloud was once again in the thick of it. It’s been a tumultuous few years, but Mark finds strength in their survival and pride that the business still managed to grow throughout that time.

“To come out the other side, I sometimes refer to as a cockroach after a nuclear storm. Resiliency is something to be proud of.”

What does he think was the driving force behind that desire to push through?

“You have to keep building, keep motivating and recruiting a team, keep building products and working for the customers, especially when the customers need you most.”

What makes it all more remarkable is that startups face an uphill struggle without pandemics and recessions. Is there some unique factor that meant ScreenCloud survived against all odds?

“There’s lots of cool innovation we've done around the products. I'm particularly proud of how we serve customers as well. We have a good reputation and they like our modern approach to the problem; we've come at it from a different angle.”

Collecting curiosity

“The world just keeps giving you gifts of knowledge, if you're prepared to listen to them. You have to have a very open mindset, or you will get exactly the result you expect.”

With over 20 years experience building digital products, Mark credits his success to his innate curiosity and ability to listen and learn from those who are passionate and knowledgeable about what they do. He subscribes to the point of view that “everything is interesting”.

“I see myself as a collector of all. If you take the insight of someone over here and insert someone over there, I mould these original artefacts together into my own story and invention. That’s the bit I bring.”

Building defence mechanisms

As any entrepreneur will understand, Mark values how resilience can come from failure.

“I don't want to fall into the trap of pretending that I'm perfectly resilient. I think you need to break a few times and then pick yourself up and go again. You need to experience it and get over that to really build muscle.”

By his own admission he doesn’t always follow his own advice, but if he did, what are those defence mechanisms that see him through tough times or set him up for best performance?

Getting at least seven hours of quality sleep is non-negotiable, as is a religious dedication to exercise. In fact, Mark is a qualified Les Mills Bodypump instructor.

“Time in nature is another really helpful thing; walking and being outside. I've never felt worse about whatever's going on after a workout.”

After a particularly stressful period in 2022, fundraising in the middle of the tech recession, he suffered a back injury that rendered him unable to exercise or sleep.

“All my defence layers just vanished and that was terrible. But I look back now and go ‘Wow. You got through all of that and are still standing on the other side’.”

Hiring for chemistry and alignment

How do you build a team that will evolve and adapt along with the business? For Mark, it is about hiring a team who can roll with the punches.

“You can triple in size in one year, and suddenly you're a totally different beast. New things become important at a much higher velocity. So suddenly, you need a success or an operations team. It’s down to the leadership team to prioritise that and figure it out.”

He has become comfortable with the transient nature of leadership. People come and go, and like the business itself, leadership teams will exist in a process of constant revision.

“You're not going to get it completely right. You're going to be constantly changing and tweaking as you go. Make it acceptable at the leadership team level. The expectation is that not everyone will be there for the whole journey. It's just unrealistic.”

It’s an approach that Mark suggests is as applicable to the founder as the wider team itself.

“It's okay to feel that I am a founder that's going to be good for this stage. And then maybe at another stage, I'm not the right person anymore. You start to depersonalise the person from the role, because it's not really a reflection on them. It's just the reality that things change really quickly.”

There are valuable lessons to be shared when it comes to investing in future talent too.

“If you haven't mentored someone through that journey before, it’s quite unfair to think that they're going to suddenly go from a VP to C-level, without a really strong mentor or guidance around that.”

At ScreenCloud, this has been most noticeable as employees move from one stage to another, or as hires from bigger companies fail to adjust into a more dynamic, scaleup environment.

“If someone's coming from that big company, it’s the dawning realisation that those structures don't exist here and that the buck stops with you. I think people can be quite exhausted from constantly needing to make a decision.”

His hard-earned advice is therefore to spend as much time as possible with candidates before you hire.

“If you're coming down to the final decision, I think it’s about chemistry and alignment between people. Can we have really hard conversations, but very much still be colleagues at the end of that conversation?”

Global leadership and locality

Mark believes that ScreenCloud’s success over other competitors in Europe is tied with the business selling into the US, before even their own home market.

“America is the biggest SaaS market in the Western world. Every founder has got to get there as quickly as they can, maybe even ideally, starting on day one.”

With 70% of their revenue coming from America, it may come as a surprise that the ScreenCloud leadership team is based outside of the US. By his own admission, the US market is an expensive venture, especially for European founders. Seasoned leaders there come at a cost; there’s a huge demand for their skills and a huge amount of money in that market to pay for those skills. What advice does Mark have then, for those building out a leadership structure in businesses with a global customer base?

“For a leadership team, what you really need is alignment and a group of people who trust each other. If you spread that out evenly across the world, I don’t think you’re going to get the team dynamics you need.”

With leadership and the majority of their customer base operating on two different time zones, the team have had to make themselves more available, and to focus on offering a unique perspective for their US clients.

“I think the European mindset is very much around critical thinking and problem solving. That’s how we’re educated. When it comes to customer service, being flexible and coming up with ideas and solutions is part of our DNA. I think it’s deeply appreciated by that US audience.”

Ultimately, locality comes second to being mindful of your customer base, putting them first, and as Mark declares, “getting used to travelling a lot”.

Cautious optimism for fundraising

There’s much talk about the challenges of the fundraising landscape in the current climate, but Mark is optimistic.

“I think the fundraising market now has probably reset back to what I experienced. Fundraising is difficult. We had the great freeze and pull-back from the excess of 2020 and 2021, but I'm seeing a lot more activity.”

What does he believe investors are looking for?

“The good news is they're not expecting to-the-moon-only results. They're looking for capital efficiency, domain understanding or expertise, and solving real problems for customers.”

His advice for those seeking investment is to build trust and reputation by coming armed with realistic results, and a (cautiously) optimistic vision of what is possible. With ScreenCloud only going as far as seed funding, he urges entrepreneurs to practise caution.

“Be as lean as possible with that initial capital. Don’t get addicted to money flowing in. The best way of funding is obviously out of revenue. So get addicted to revenue.”

Mark’s wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs:
  • Get your product out “I’m pleased with the speed we got our product out and started to generate revenue. It was uncomfortable. I mean, we didn’t work on mobile, for example. And to this day, the first version of the product still doesn’t. Ship quicker and get into the hands of customers.”

  • Value commercial customer feedback “I found that most beta feedback is not that useful because if you’re paying for something you have a different relationship with that product. You have an expectation. That will really tell you what matters.”

  • There’s no silver bullet for success “All of these courses and gurus, it’s all crap. Now it doesn’t mean there isn’t some best practice to follow. But there’s only one way to grow and that’s to get up every day and do what you need to do: talk to customers, get feedback, demo products, try and sell. If you fail, find out why, adjust, and go again.”

  • It’s darkest before the dawn “What’s hard is the relentlessness. You don't know if you're wasting your time. You start to feel like this will never scale. What you're really doing is spending time with the customer. These years are your training years.”

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