Pizza, US Roadtrips and Geeking out on technology = Freedom Pizza Founder & CEO, Ian Ohan
Week 2 of 52 weeks of inspiration and SwissGulf Partners were lucky enough to catch up with Freedom Pizza CEO, Ian Ohan. We chatted about the incredible success of Freedom Pizza and Ian’s outlook on Entrepreneurship
In 2009 you were head of Investment Transactions at JLL. What was it that made you completely change industries and move into the pizza world?
In 2006, my two partners and myself sold our company to JLL. Whilst they were a great company, the entrepreneurial challenge and reward was gone. I had just completed my earn out period relating to the transaction, the recession was on and they wanted me to lay off a bunch of folks. My beautiful daughter had just been born. Seemed like a good time to pause and reassess after having work be such a big part of my life.
I was off for around six months and then came across a company in the US that I liked. I emailed them the next day and spent the following week with them in New Orleans and then did a motorbike trip across America with them to get to know each other. Loved the company ethos and the founders. Their spirit remains alive now in Freedom. The rest is history.
You went into an incredibly tough market and went from an unknown to a market leader. How? What do you do as Ian and what steps do you take as Freedom Pizza, to make sure that you keep innovating and coming up with new ideas and embracing Digital?
Mostly, I see myself as the ultimate customer. I am difficult, demanding and have little patience for companies that don’t put me as a customer first. So, I think, what would I want, because I don’t think I am so unusual in that respect.
Technology, backed up with a great team is a near perfect solution. If you can measure it, you can improve it. Digital gives you those metrics and knowledge and more importantly the ability to react in real time. The ideas naturally fall off the back of those two questions – what would I want and how can we do it better. Then of course we listen intently to what our customers are saying – technology gives us the opportunity for instant and direct feedback – we listen to it all – good, bad or otherwise – we need and want to know. It’s not always good but the bad stuff is sobering and real and makes us work even harder.
Your recent safety delivered campaign was a huge viral success, what was it that made you choose Saatchi & Saatchi and what was the inspiration behind the campaign?
The inspiration was simple. I am an avid motor biker. I commute daily to work on my bike. I believe strongly in making sure I have the best equipment that I can afford – small price to pay for an inherently dangerous activity. I want the same for our drivers. We have always cared about driver safety and I reached a point where I decided that it was mandatory. I have purchased safety equipment for our drivers in the past and they didn’t want to wear it. So I put my foot down. Wear it, drive safely or work somewhere else. So we built all of the equipment into our new uniforms, we doubled down on driver safety training, purchased brand new bikes, upped our insurances (medical and workmen’s comp etc.) and compliance and got serious.
Saatchi and Saatchi are a great company and we had always been looking for a great idea to work together. One day I was sharing with them what we were doing and the idea was borne. We not only wanted to ensure we were doing everything possible for our staff but we wanted to ensure that drivers on the road would also respect their safety and lives.
You went through some rapid growth how did you ensure you were bringing in the right people to drive the business forward and keep the company culture?
You can never be sure. We have had many of the wrong people in the past. It is kind of like running a football team. You need to make sure you get the best over-all team you can afford. And they must be a team that shares the values, culture and ethos of the company. We work very hard together as a team every day to get better and make our customers more satisfied. A common set of values makes achieving our objectives and priorities easy because we all understand what we are trying to achieve. If you don’t genuinely want that – go work somewhere else.
We are now growth ready – awesome team and ready for more explosive growth – watch for it.
What would you say were the biggest challenges of being an entrepreneur and what advice would you give to those looking to make that big step?
The biggest challenge is learning that your job as an entrepreneur is simply to solve problems – not prevent them. Once you realize that solving challenges is the art of entrepreneurship – it becomes easier. At the beginning, you really know nothing about your business. I am and always will be a student of my own business. I am learning more every day and it is empowering – but it takes time. Mastery comes with painful and never-ending preparation. I did not know what I did not know when I started. My advice for others is that entrepreneurship is grueling – if you don’t genuinely have the drive and stubbornness – don’t do it. The ability to persist in the face of all common sense is the one thing that will make you succeed.
If you weren’t growing Freedom Pizza, which other start up would you love to work at? Why?
I got smitten with technology about 5 years ago when I wanted to be able to do something in our business but could not. It frustrated me to no end and then I listened to tech guys speaking in tech tongues trying to dazzle me with tech that did nothing to solve my challenges or improve the customer experience. So I learned their lingo and now they listen to me. This is not arrogance but it is putting the customer first – so technology to make life better, give a business an edge – not for its own sake. I loved it so much that I started a company called Big Dwarf with two partners in the tech business. This company has and continues to develop and innovate Freedom Pizza’s tech platform. We have years of vision and work ahead and think we are building something very special. I would work there.
What does the future hold for Freedom Pizza and what’s next for Ian?
Freedom is very much in expansion mode at the moment. We are very growth ready and champing at the bit. Look for more stores in the UAE in the immediate future. We are also launching another brand in the first half of next year. You might even see us expand internationally. Our technology remains a key growth opportunity and there is a lot on deck right now. We will be in our new offices in a few weeks time so we can spend more time together as a team. Collaboration is critical to our success – we have the strongest and best team we have ever had – it’s time to play.
If people want to follow you and Freedom Pizza where would they do so?
Follow us on our web site at www.freedompizza.ae or social media or check in with me on LinkedIn.
(Ian spoke with SwissGulf Partners Director, James Kevan. James founded SGP in 2012 and like Ian has a real passion for Tech andEntrepreneurism. SGP started the 52 weeks of inspiration to help motivate, inspire and teach budding entrepreneurs)