How UKFast became a British cloud giant

The web hosting firm’s staff may literally be on a downward spiral, but a husband and wife team have built a booming business

Anyone who's spent any length of time working in a big office would love to invoice the company for all the life they've lost waiting for the lifts. That's not a problem that afflicts employees at hosting company UKFast: if they want to get from the top floor down to reception, they just chuck themselves down the company's recently installed helter-skelter.

A 60ft drop down a massive slide isn't the only unusual benefit of working at the Manchester-based firm. The company has a purpose-built gym, sleeping pods and a crèche at its headquarters, with plans to open kennels for employees' best friends next year. New employees don't spend a week being PowerPointed to death in a training room, but get to spend three days climbing Snowdon to find out if they've got what it takes to become a UKFast "Superstar". And when founders Lawrence and Gail Jones dropped Easter eggs into the office this year, they didn't come wrapped in foil paper, but in an incubator – they were actual eggs with chicks about to hatch on the day we spoke.

What drives the company to go to these extraordinary lengths for its 350 staff? We met Lawrence Jones MBE to find out.

KEY FACTS

UKFast claims to be the UK's largest privately owned hosting provider. 

It offers both cloud and dedicated hosting from its campus in Manchester.

  • STAFF: 350
  • FORMED: 1999
  • HEADQUARTERS: Birley Fields, Manchester
  • WEBSITE: www.ukfast.co.uk

Accidental host

Lawrence Jones certainly didn't set out in life to become one of the UK's leading web hosts. He claims he only got into the sector because others were doing the job so poorly.

After selling a business that rented grand pianos to hotels, Lawrence and Gail registered the domain gallery.com, with the intention of allowing artists to upload their creations and sell them online. They soon realised the idea was ahead of its time, however, with pre-broadband Britain not yet ready for such a service.

"I'm a great believer in 'there's no bad decisions in business'," explained Jones, "because all of my bad decisions have actually led to some pretty good openings and that was one of them."

Having attempted to launch his site, Jones was appalled at the service he got from the web host. "After zero help from one of these big American companies, who clearly demonstrated they had no interest whatsoever other than taking my money... I put the phone down and said to Gail: 'this is our opportunity'. The internet's going to expand massively and Britain needs a hosting provider who actually cares about small business."

Within weeks, the company had bought its first server and was starting to take orders, but if UKFast was placing an emphasis on customer service, the larger hosts that Jones was buying bandwidth from didn't reciprocate.

Quite the opposite in fact. "They used to switch us off on a Friday... because we were trying to win customers from the same [market], we were both advertising in the same magazines. There was just such unprofessionalism at that time in the industry."

From that moment on, Jones said he was focused on creating "the best customer service imaginable". The company offers 24/7/365 tech support, there are no automated 'press 1 for support' type messages, and UKFast promises to pick up the phone "within three rings". Jones also imposes strict rules on the number of support staff devoted to each customer. "On every [support] pod we've got four technical people and three service managers," said Jones. "And you're only allowed a certain number of customers on each pod and a certain amount of revenue on each pod. If there are too many customers or too much revenue, they go on to the next one and we continue to build. That means we guarantee a level of customer service that everyone is happy with now, and in the future when we have 10,000 or 100,000 staff."

Keeping up morale

Jones is not only focused on keeping customers happy, he's intent on keeping staff morale at peak levels, too. Hence the helter-skelter, free fruit and cinema-style auditorium that's built into the company's HQ. And even though sceptics may wonder whether perks such as on-site gyms and steam rooms are simply incentives to stop staff leaving the building, Jones insists he's more likely to be found telling staff to go home at 6pm than encouraging them to work late into the night – apart from those manning the out-of-hours support lines, of course.

Are the unusual perks a PR stunt, a bid to bring a little of the Google stardust to Manchester? (As an aside, all the gym balls, pool and table-tennis tables we've ever seen inside a Google campus have always been immaculate – as if they've never been used once the press tour was over.)

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