Fostering culture while scaling: My interview with Magway co-founder Rupert Cruise
Welcome to a new leadership series called Next Gen Tek. I hope to inspire industry professionals through a series of personal interviews with leaders in the tech industry who are leaving an impressive mark.
I am excited to kick off the Next Gen Tek series with guest Rupert Cruise, co-founder and technical director of Magway. Rupert is a professional engineer with an MBA from Oxford University who has a broad range of experience in academia and business. He is focused on inventing resource-efficient technologies that have a significant social and environmental impact. Magway is pioneering a revolutionary e-commerce delivery logistics solution using linear motors.
Tell us about Magway and how you arrived here on your career path.
We describe Magway as a zero-emissions goods delivery system. Another way to think of Magway is like the physical internet. When you order something online, we effectively deliver the packages and parcels through underground tunnels. Eventually, it will be right into your home, but to start off we link the big out-of-town consolidation centers with distribution centers nearer to your home. So, the last mile could be delivered by someone on foot or on a bike.
I started out in academia as a university lecturer and researcher and did a lot of research into linear motors. I came to the UK on a sabbatical year to earn an MBA at Oxford and formed the company that Magway would later spin out of. And of course, even way back in the early 1990s, the scopes we used were Tektronix.
You've envisioned a car-free, zero emissions future, which is an amazing goal. How do you go about making a big difference in the world and what challenges do you face?
In early 2020, during the first lockdown during COVID, my kids and I got to experience what Magway is trying to achieve with regard to a car-free city. London is a wonderful city to explore on bike or foot, particularly when there's no traffic.
All our cities have been designed around the car. Those cars and trucks cause a lot of pollution and congestion. They are also very dangerous, so there are a lot of fatalities. Also, we've seen a huge growth in terms of e-commerce deliveries globally. What Magway is aiming to do is to actually take some of the goods off the vehicles and the vehicles off the roads, freeing up space in cities to be used for other uses, whether it be more park space, more residential development, or even more space for other mobility solutions to move around cities.
I love that vision. You've got some big goals. As we're building or leading a company, we need to motivate our employees. How are you keeping your teams motivated, especially as you think about scaling your business?
One of the key things, especially when you have highly talented or innovative engineers as both of our companies do, is we give them a lot of autonomy to determine their own working hours and their own working patterns [regarding] where they work from.
We started this pre-COVID, and it was quite unusual and innovative for a company. Post-COVID, I think everyone's realized that sometimes the employees are actually more productive when they work from home because they don't have a commute. The other thing is we give them the freedom and tools to actually get better at what they do. Engineers just love that and it gives us the ability to grow.
I think most importantly, we give them a sense of purpose. They are doing something meaningful–meaningful to the world. And, working for a company like Magway that is trying to make a significant change to the air quality within our cities, and therefore to the environment, and have a small impact, is a tremendous and real powerful motivator.
We've talked about the culture of feedback, and I know that is a strong part of who you are at Magway. How does this show up with your employees, whether it's on projects or even with external partners such as investors?
One of the key things we do at Magway after every project is completed is a “lessons learned” session for people to think about not only what went badly or could be improved, but also the positive aspects that we need to repeat.
The first session is just capturing everyone's ideas. We do this in a very open forum where people are free to raise things without articulating blame on any one individual. After we've run a session, we run a second session where we go through that same list again, and we work out [things like] did we have a process in place? If we didn’t have a process in place, [then] we need to create one so that someone else could actually repeat it. Or, if there was a process and it wasn't followed, how could the process be improved or changed? So, it's almost like a continual quality process. But it starts with lessons learned.
We always view ourselves as a learning organization. We are continually trying to improve ourselves. We are fortunate we're a young organization. We're still growing [and] there are lots and lots of lessons to be learned. There are lots of things we haven't got wrong at all. There are lots of processes we haven't got in place. So, it does give us the opportunity not only to be innovative with the tech but also innovative in the way in which we run our business.
Just the fact that you name it lessons learned I think is a powerful reminder that you're really trying to encourage your teams to say it's okay to fail or to learn or do things differently—what a thoughtful way to set up that process and vehicle for feedback.
Yeah, and, we look forward to failure events. When we're developing a new system, it's really good to understand the different failure modes. And, when we do have a failure event, as long as we've collected the data, the team is very, very happy. It's a bad day in the office when we have an event and we don't have the data because we can't learn anything from that.
I know that there's an adage to fail fast, but we don't necessarily like that adage. We prefer to intelligently iterate. We also encourage the team to take a little bit of risk. If there is a mistake or a small failure as long as we learn from it, that's how you truly innovate by pushing the boundaries.
Absolutely. Magway has been around for almost five years, and there's been a lot of growth over that time. How have you built the business around innovation and what are some of the challenges you faced with scaling?
Yeah, one way to look at Magway is as really cool technology. But actually, the technology wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the people. In terms of scaling the technology, although we can create digital twins or digital siblings and processes that can be repeated, it's really our team of innovators. And, while we have grown phenomenally, particularly over the last year where our team has grown by 200%, we're still only 35 odd employees. So, I think our biggest challenge going forwards is actually how do we leverage off the talent and continue to grow the team and continue to scale the tech, particularly since we don't view ourselves as a small, UK-based company. We’re solving a global problem. We’ve got a global solution in basically 1,700 cities around the world. That is basically our target market. So, we've got big ambitions, but we need more people to achieve those ambitions.
At Tektronix, we often think in terms of our customers, like Magway, and how we can help them get faster and make their jobs easier. So one of the questions I love to ask is anything holding you or your engineers or engineering back in the organization and what can we do to even help you go faster?
Yeah, that’s a really good point because one thing is actually growing the team organically but the other is finding organizations with a similar outlook, a similar deep tech way of thinking, a key technology, or perhaps a core set of skills or tools that we don't have and to partner with them. Tektronix is a perfect case where we did partner with you to get some really, really cool equipment, which helped our team do their job better, learn, and uncover some anomalies particularly when we had a failure. The support we get–not just the financial support and discounts on equipment or investment–through joint marketing activities or sharing of knowledge or collaboration or introductions is what a small company like Magway truly, truly values.
You've been an inspiring leader. When you look at how you create an inclusive culture, how does that show up at Magway?
The key thing is we focus on diversity in all aspects, particularly cognitive diversity. We've got some very broad engineers, who've followed a true traditional path through engineering. They got top marks in school; they went to the top universities, and they work for a truly innovative company like Magway. But there are others, who might have come to a different route into engineering, bringing different skill sets like our industrial design teams. These are a group of both young and older individuals who have followed perhaps non-traditional paths but have a very good skill set, particularly in terms of design in terms of drawing. It's how they interact with the engineering team to come up with something truly amazing. There are also different people from different sectors.
Recently Ramadan, Easter, and Passover all coincided so we had a lunch and learn session, where one of our Muslim colleagues spoke about what the fast of Ramadan meant to him and linked it back to the social element and thinking about the environment. I think making everyone feel inclusive is key.
For my last question, what's been most surprising to you as a leader and entrepreneur?
Yeah. It's going to come back to people. One of the youngsters, a 23-year-old, writes an email to the board with some phenomenal ideas about how we should be approaching the pitch deck for our fundraising, and that blows me away. The guy has done his research. He's got no formal training in finance or financial things, but he's just applied the same principles to innovation. What's the prior art? What’s out there? What's best in class? What should we be doing? What should we be saying? How can we present this? It's truly amazing that you've got a youngster, a 23-year-old, showing the more senior leadership team just what to do. I think people just constantly surprise you. And I think as long as you create the right environment, the right enablers, you know, people will thrive.
I'm really inspired by the work you're doing at Magway. We cannot wait to see your incredible company make a mark on the world from employees to sustainability to technology and innovation. So thank you so much.