Episode 48 – Henry Lawson

Henry fires on all cylinders for stronger work connections



Henry Lawson has always been fascinated with cars and anything with an engine, really. He’s built 3 cars and restored countless others, including a 1902 MMC and a 1969 Dodge Charger.

In this episode, we talk about how work can easily become all-consuming if we let it. Henry reminds us all that it is acually a marathon and not a sprint, so managers can’t expect everyone to run at sprinting speed all the time. There are times to get things done and there are times to back off an respect people’s space and freedom, especially when it comes to spending time with family. Therefore, a business should measure staff by outcomes instead of hours or face time.

Henry Lawson is co-founder and CEO of autoGraph.

He received a degree in mechanical engineering from Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and then his MBA from Harvard Business School as a Baker Scholar.

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Other pictures of Henry

(click to enlarge)

Racing in his Lister Cobra.

Henry (in the bowler hat) takes a ride in his 1902 MMC.

Henry takes his Dodge Charger to the Speed Trials in Brighton, UK.

Henry’s links



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    John: Welcome to Episode 48 of the Green Apple Podcast, where each Wednesday I interview a professional known for a hobby or a passion, making them stand out like a green apple in a red apple world. Because I’m so sick and tired of hearing how people aren’t the stereotypical accountant or engineer or lawyer or whatever because I honestly believe that the definition of stereotypical professional is completely upside-down; I mean, we aren’t all nerds who only do work and then go home and do more work. And just to prove this I’m doing a little research for a book I’m writing about corporate culture, so it would be super cool if you could just take 60 seconds and do my anonymous survey by going to greenapplepodcast.com, click on the big green button there. It’s only a few questions because I know you’re really, really busy but the more data points I have the more legit my research, so I really appreciate it. Thank you so much.

    Okay now, it’s time for this week’s guest, Henry Lawson, the CEO of autoGraph. He just got off a flight from London to Seattle just a little bit ago, so I’m so happy he’s able to be with us today on the Green Apple Podcast. So I’m just going to get right into it, Henry. I checked out the website autograph.me, and this looks like a really cool thing, but it will probably be best to have you explain it to all the listeners.

    Henry: Yes, so autoGraph. We founded autoGraph in Seattle in 2011 and had been growing the business ever since. And essentially what autoGraph does is enable companies to have a direct connection with their customers where the customer generates and can then manage a profile about the things that they’re interested in, so what we call a user-generated profile and we’re kind of the cutting edge of person-centered marketing. There had been lots of attempts with big data and looking at different cookie streams and everything else. And gradually, consumers have gotten more and more weary of the use of their data in marketing and actually companies have found that because of that lack of trust the effectiveness has fallen away.

    What autoGraph has done is to really create a new space, which is called user-generated profiles where customers actually control the profile that the company holds about them. And it’s incredibly effective, six to ten times more effective than conventional methods. And I’m delighted, on both sides of the Atlantic, we’re now doing amazing business with household name companies which is very exciting for us, having started from nothing.

    John: Yeah, that’s awesome man, congratulations! That’s a lot of hard work to put into it and it sounds really cool and something that I would definitely be more open to it as well. I’m weary with, leery a little bit with some of the social media places that what are they doing with all my likes and all my pluses and all my whatever, and things like that, where this is something I can control a little bit more. Yeah, that’s awesome, man, that’s so cool. So what made you want to get into this?

    Henry: I spent 14 years running the largest company in the background, the Rogers Business Systems company for the advertising industry and kind of watched digital marketing grow from basically zero, several points behind the decimal point over the percentage.

    John: Right, it’s not even a rounding!

    Henry: Not even a rounding error, and it grew up to 20%, 25% in some markets. And at the same time, watched the response rate go from goo double digit percentages down to literally one in 1500 so 0.07% response rate is the average now in the industry. And just went, “Hang on a minute, there’s got to be a better way” because the cost of production on digital media is so low, we are sending out so many messages and just hoping for a response. But surely, if only one in 1,500 is hitting the spot, 1,499 are potentially doing damage to the brand.

    And as we did some research we discovered that that was very definitely the case, and started to look around for companies that could use all these new big data, all these new analytical techniques, data science, but crucially, to use the customer as the kind of guide, the consumer is the guide in that to be able to really help that process. So let the customer actually have a say in the process, which otherwise, was just not the case. Very large, digital advertising companies which were basically black boxes as far as the consumer was concerned, that had no visibility to the consumer, and so it wasn’t surprising that we gradually got more and more mistrust.

    And over the last five years we’ve grown that and this year has been very exciting for us because first in March, the European Union passed new general data privacy regulations, and then a couple of months later, the SEC passed a whole new raft of regulations around SEC-regulated businesses needing to get opt-ins from customers before they present new offers from third parties to them. But the result of that combination, those two sets of regulations, it just means our business has exploded because suddenly companies are turning around again, “Oh my God, I kind of knew I was going to have to do something but now the regulations say I have to.” And so they’re coming to us to say how do I solve this problem, and we’re able to help them.

    John: That’s great, that’s so cool. Yeah, that’s really neat! And I’d imagine that takes a lot of time obviously to be the CEO and to grow that. But based on the pictures that you sent in, I can’t wait to talk to you about this, but what sort of hobbies and passions occupy you when you have some free time?

    Henry: Well, it’s funny. Yes, autoGraph takes up an enormous amount of time, and running the business on both sides of the Atlantic does mean a lot of travelling and being away from home.

    John: Right, so flying on airplanes is your hobby, pretty much?

    Henry: Exactly, exactly, sitting in aluminum tubes. But, no, my core passion, I graduated in mechanical engineering because frankly, for all my life I’ve wanted to be an engineer. My father was actually an electrical engineer, and actually did not like the idea of mechanical engineering at all. To him it was dirty. Now, it’s everything else. Electrical stuff was much cooler. But the thing that always got me going was mechanical things. Basically, I think my wife will tell you, I’m interested in anything with an engine and really I’ve taken that to the extreme over the course of the last I don’t know, hundred or so cars that I think I’ve owned over the period. It’s been a long journey.

    John: That’s fantastic, that’s so cool. What was the first car you owned, maybe in high school?

    Henry: Actually, my first car was a Messerschmitt bubble car. Just after the war, Messerschmitt weren’t allowed to produce any more airplanes because they couldn’t make war planes in post-war Germany. And so they set out to make small, economical cars and they made what they call the Kabinenroller, which was a three-wheeler, with two wheels at the front and one at the back with a little two-stroke engine. And I bought one of those for £100, and sold it for £325, having restored it and thought I’d been absolutely, amazingly clever, and now you can’t find one for under about 30,000 bucks.

    John: Aw, man! Live and learn, live and learn. But yeah, at the time you had to be the coolest kid around, with the three-wheeler car.

    Henry: It was great fun. They didn’t have reverse gear, to go in reverse, being a two-stroke engine, you could start it backwards. So you had four gears going forwards and four gears going backwards, but it was absolutely lethal backwards.

    John: I was going to say you get into fourth gear going back in reverse, you’d probably hit something.

    Henry: Oh, yeah, exactly, exactly. But it was great fun, it was great fun.

    John: That is so fantastic! And so you just got into it because you’ve always been into engines and fixing things and tinkering with things?

    Henry: Yeah, just love playing with them, love building them. We built three cars at home over the years, restored countless numbers and then, just so you know, owned them at various times along the way as well. I say we, my wife caught it with me. My wife and I met while I was at university, while I was at Cambridge. We caught it over a car I was building at the time, which because I had no money because I was just a student, I had to build out of plywood and frames and weld everything myself and beg, borrow, and steal secondhand parts and so she knew exactly what she was getting into.

    John: And you remind her of that every time you get a new car, don’t you?

    Henry: Right, exactly, 30 years later, meanwhile, she’d say “It would be a hell a lot easier if we could just collect stamps.”

    John: Right! Well, no one wants to date a stamp collector, I mean, come on, like, seriously.

    Henry: It was great fun.

    John: That is really fantastic, I love it, that’s so cool. And the picture of you and the really old time car, what kind of car is that?

    Henry: We’re very lucky to own two MMCs and MMC stands for Motor Manufacturing Company and that was a company founded in 1897 in Coventry in England. And we’re very fortunate, in 2000 I bought a 1902 car, which has a two-cylinder engine and does about 18 to 20 miles an hour, and we drive that every year in the oldest car rally in the world which is called the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. People come from all over the world to participate.

    And then a couple of years later, I was very fortunate to be able to buy the four-cylinder car which is the blue car in the pictures, and that’s the only one in the world. It’s almost identical to the other car but it’s got four cylinders and therefore twice the engine that the two-cylinder car has and that one will do about 35 or 40. I drove about 25 miles on Saturday and it was running very well, and it keeps up with modern traffic which, when you think it’s 113 years old, it’s quite extraordinary.

    John: Yeah, that’s amazing! You’re like the Jay Leno of the business world. I love this!

    Henry: I don’t know about that. Jay got much smarter cars than me but similarly eclectic collection, I guess.

    John: No, this is great. I’ve met Jay and hung out with him many times, and you’re just as cool and just as funny. This is great, man, I love it. Such a cool hobby and just taking it to the extreme, going out there and getting those old cars and even modern ones. I would imagine that that one’s got a rank up there but what are some of the cooler ones that you’ve had or that you still own?

    Henry: I know I can date this because I only had one son at the time, so it was in 1992. I just got this passion to basically build a Dodge Charger in the style of General Lee and I was living in Bronxville, New York at the time, and found in one of the newspapers we scanned the ads, a car, $1600, for a Dodge Charger, on the street in Brooklyn. And drove down to Brooklyn with a trailer and went to bought this car.

    And as I put the car on to the trailer, on one side of the street, almost all of the families were Polish and on the other side of the street almost all the families were Hasidic, and the guys came out miraculously just applauding that this clunker of a car the neighborhood! And I brought it back to Bronxville, started a little bit of the restoration of it and then actually, we moved back to the UK at that time, and I shipped the car back to the UK. And for 14 years of running Donovan and would ship car parts back most of my business trips. Sometimes it will be eight pistons, and sometimes a wheel and sometimes a fender and all sorts of things and eventually restored the car. Got it in the very much as a General Lee and then raced it in drag races in one of the famous Brighton drag races in England. It was an authentic General Lee. Obviously, I haven’t been in the TV program, but it looked like an authentic General Lee except that being British in origin, I didn’t have a Confederate flag on the roof because that’s all sorts of other meanings which are not as politically correct today, so I put a Union Jack on the roof instead.

    John: Right, right. I saw the picture and we have it on greenapplepodcast.com for everyone to go check out, and man that looks awesome. Yeah, really cool.

    Henry: It was awesome and terrifying, all in equal measure.

    John: Right, right, right! So how fast did you get up and going on those drag races?

    Henry: We were doing about 13s. Across the line, it was doing something just over a hundred miles an hour. But it being a 1969 Dodge Charger was built for 1969 American roads, it was not made for the narrow lanes of England where you’re driving from the wrong side of the car. And, it was really terrifying to actually steer, it was like threading a needle down some of the roads.

    John: The good thing is it’s like a tank so even if you hit something you probably wouldn’t even know.

    Henry: Oh, yeah! But having lovingly restored it I did not want that to happen.

    John: No, no, not at all! There are only so many bumpers you can bring back as a carry on, right?

    Henry: Correct, right. And it was one heck of a lot of orange paint.

    John: That’s awesome, that’s hilarious. That’s so funny, so funny. What a neat hobby, I would even say passion, really I think, to the level that you’ve taken it and everything. But would you say that working on cars and what have you has really helped with your career?

    Henry: Yes, it has, because actually in your business life you actually find people who are passionate about cars. Everyone drives a car at some level and an awful amount of people in the most surprising settings you can actually find.

    But the other part of this is because I’ve got cars for this sort of turn of the century before last, so to speak, I’ve also studied in quite detail the progress of digital marketing and sort of the internet which is almost exactly 100 years, it’s uncanny. If you fast reverse a hundred years from whatever happens in the development of the internet, whether it’s Tim Berners-Lee doing his patents or it’s Google starting, it’s all these different things, go back a hundred years, you see the total analogy in the car industry.

    So if we go back to the 1900, it was not clear that cars were going to have a steering wheel, a tiller, or all sorts of other mechanisms. It wasn’t clear whether we were going to have three wheels or four; it wasn’t clear whether we were going to have the wheels driven at the front or the back; it wasn’t clear whether they were going to be run by gasoline, steam, electric or all sorts of other mechanisms. And so you end up being able to actually study that and look at how people secured patents, people secured commercial volumes. Some people like Henry Ford went for huge volumes of cars the same, any color you like provided its black, while others were making the most incredibly elaborate cars, beautiful elaborate, coach-built cars that could only be afforded in very small numbers basically by royalty and high society. And so an awful lot of what we see of fortunes being made and lost and different strategies being employed in the car industry a hundred and something years ago is incredibly analogous to what we have happening now.

    John: Yeah, that’s amazing and something I never really thought about. Yeah, and that significantly helps, obviously, with what you’re doing now with autoGraph. And like you said, we’ve all driven a car so when you meet people, some people are more into cars than others, people like me think they’re cool and I know a little bit but not a lot. But still you can relate to probably a lot of people that you meet and what have you. So how do you bring up, how does it come up, maybe, when you’re talking with co-workers or maybe some business colleagues?

    Henry: Everybody around the company knows that I’m a complete car nut so that’s taken as rote. But people telling you, you can quickly end up with the sort of guise people wear. I remember people, some people wore cufflinks and all sorts of things, you see cufflinks and you go, “Hang on a minute, that guy’s got GTR cufflinks on, he must be into that”. And sure enough you start talking about it and immediately there’s a bond and off you go. Because cars, there’s such a variety, it’s a great thing to talk about; all sorts of signals. I still get surprised sometimes actually but you can tell the car people a long way away.

    John: Sure, sure, usually the grease on their hands, or no, I’m just teasing you. I know, you can definitely tell. And I love how you said it where there’s an immediate connection and then off you go. That’s so great, where your relationship is just taken to a whole new level, and all of a sudden you’re friends, and you actually care about each other more than just that surface level of the business. That’s great how you put it, “And off you go,” I love that, that’s really great.

    So are there things that maybe within autoGraph or some of the other places that you’ve worked, that you see how to kind of cultivate others to share what their hobbies and passions are?

    Henry: Oh, sure! It’s a very funny story actually. My CFO here was born here but is actually of Irish descent of all things but is a complete, fierce Royalist. She absolutely follows the Royal Family. The easiest way to win Eileen’s heart is simply to bring over, when I’m on a trip back from the UK, to bring over the British newspaper with all the latest pictures of Princess Charlotte or Prince George and Kate and William and so on.

    But she was actually up in Victoria, British Columbia this weekend, which is obviously a hop, skip and a jump from Seattle; and was — actually presented a posy of flowers to Kate. Her photograph’s all over the internet and so she follow that as a passion as well. It’s whatever floats your boat, so to speak, which is not an expression you can use around Seattle because about eight out of ten people have a boat

    John: Right, exactly! You learned that the hard way, don’t you?

    Henry: The one with an engine I’ve never quite understood, I have to say.

    John: Yeah, some of them even live on the boats out there, don’t they?

    Henry: They might. So, there you go, my CTO and co-founder Brian Roundtree lives not 150 feet from the office on his house boat. I’m not sure he’s sleepless all the time but it is absolutely the Seattle lifestyle. In fact, I’m looking across Lake Union as I’m speaking to you, I’m looking at the house boat that Tom Hanks was on for that film, Sleepless in Seattle.

    John: Sleepless in Seattle, right. What do you guys do to make a culture where sharing and letting those passions out is an encouraged thing?

    Henry: Well, I think startups in particular can be all-consuming and there are times when it’s all-consuming. But one of the things you sort of appreciate and I certainly appreciate five years into this thing, this is a marathon, not a sprint, you cannot run at sprint speed the whole time. And anybody who tells you you do is either deluding themselves or is just not quite being honest. You can’t run at sprint speed for year after year after year after year. You can run at sprint speed in doses, of course you can, and that’s what we very definitely do. But I think a lot of this is actually respecting people’s — There are times when it’s absolutely necessary to get stuff done, and there are times when you can back off a little.

    Tom Huesby, our chairman, told me very early on, “In Seattle, because it rains really quite a lot here – especially during the winter time, when it comes to the summer, it is gorgeous green, lush but beautiful blue skies”, as it is today, “and people will want to spend more time outside and let them do that because actually during the winter they’ll make up for it as needed.” We have round-the-clock cycles at certain times when everyone’s absolutely on it, and that’s great. But you have to respect people for the fact that they have to take a break from that and come up for air at different times. And people grow up and do what they want to do.

    At the office, four of our guys have their motorcycles, they commute on them but they also ride them for fun at weekends. Kevin, our head of engineering, actually goes on his windsurfer and windsurfs down at the Hood River. People have to go off and let off steam at their various times and that’s great. And we encourage people to do that, provided… The only thing you can measure in a start-up is output, either don’t start trying to measure hours, because if you start trying to measure hours on Facetime, people are going to turn around and throw that back at you when you need them to be at 24/7. And being reasonable at the other times, when you need them to be really doing every hour, it all comes back and it’s all a merry-go-round if you like, and that works very well.

    Passion’s a great — our last holiday party last year, we actually did a cook-off at one of the Seattle cooking schools where we had — the guys that were running the iOS team, well, half the company, led by the guy running the iOS team and half the company led by the guy running the Android team, and we basically had a great big cook-off. It was great fun. Those are the kind of things that you need to give people the outlook for.

    John: Yeah, yeah and I think that’s a great example too, of maybe if someone doesn’t want to share their individual passion or hobby, well then create those shared experiences that everyone’s a part of. Now we’re all in, now it’s “Hey, remember during the cook-off and this happened,” and then you create those bonds. So that’s a whole another level of those connections that make everyone want to actually work together when there is those times where “Hey we got to kick it up a notch here and get some deliverables out.” So that’s some serious good will that’s built up. Really, really great example of something that everyone that’s listening right now can do next week.

    Henry: And I think the other one is everybody’s first hobby and passion, I think, is their family. Respecting family time and enabling people to get to that important softball game or whatever it might be is vital. I’m blessed with three sons, two of which are really into the cars, the other one couldn’t care less, he just wants to know the destination. But the younger two are absolutely as passionate about them as I am and have built cars and build all sorts of different things. And those three boys are absolutely crucial to my wife and I and I respect everyone else in the same way because that is why you’re doing it.

    I think sometimes people can actually forget why they’re doing a list. What is it; what’s the output; what’s the outcome; what’s the result that they’re looking for — whatever makes it for you. But I think most often people put family right at the very top of that list.

    John: Yeah, yeah. And like you said, it is very easy to forget why are you doing this and every once in a while you need to check yourself and be like, “Hey, really, what’s actually important here? Is my number of billable hours really that important, or being here first and leaving the office last, just for the sake of saying I did?” It’s like, no, there’s a lot of other things that are more important and as long as you’re getting the output there and creating great relationships, then that’s a cool thing. This is great, man, really, really good stuff. Next time I’m in Seattle, I’m going to look you up and go for a ride, that’s for sure.

    Henry: Please come by, please come by. You can go on Brian’s little motorboat, or Tom, our chairman, he has a sailboat that he races every other year from Victoria, British Columbia to Maui.

    John: Oh, man! Yeah, now we’re talking! This is great!

    Henry: I have to say that did worry me. Or actually, Eileen’s, our CFO, tug, which she goes on the coast up to Alaska with. Tom did worry me when he’s on his sailboat race. Tom’s not in the first flush of youth that you and I are but he’s helming this great, big, sailing boat across the Pacific, thousands of miles from land. And the only connection with Tom at that point is watching just what the GPS transponder says.

    John: Right, right, just hoping that it keeps moving along in the right direction?

    Henry: I’ll just settle for it still being on the map. But those adventures are what drives Tom, so why not?

    John: Yeah, yeah. And I imagine that after everyone does these hobbies and does these passions and you let them go that they come back so much more refreshed and ready to go and really you know, new ideas, and just hitting even on more cylinders — “Ha! See what I did there? Man, I’m so good.”

    This is awesome, but I always had my rule of whether or not we should totally hang out is based on my 17 Rapid-Fire Questions. So, I’m going to fire this thing up and here we go! All right, so here we go. The first one, do you prefer crossword puzzles or Sudoku?

    Henry: Sudoku.

    John: Right, I figured that, with the engineering background there. Do you prefer a PC or a Mac?

    Henry: Oh, used to be a PC solidly. Now very definitely a Mac.

    John: Wow, you switched over! Oh, my goodness. All right, when it comes to a mouse, are you a right click or a left click?

    Henry: Left click.

    John: What did you have for breakfast?

    Henry: Full English breakfast at Heathrow Airport before I got on the plane this morning.

    John: Right-o, I was going to say that’s a curveball since you were on a flight this morning/this afternoon/do you even know what time it is. Right, right. How about Star Wars or Star Trek?

    Henry: Oh, Star Trek.

    John: Oh, wow, nice! Do you have a favorite TV show of all time?

    Henry: Happy Days.

    John: Oh, yeah! That’s a solid answer, that’s really good. There you go! How about a favorite color?

    Henry: Blue. And the reason is, because my wife once said, twenty-odd years ago, “You can buy any car you like provided it’s blue,” and many, many cars later I have taken her at her word.

    John: Well, you know whether she sets the parameter then you got to go with it. How about do you have a least favorite color?

    Henry: Yeah, sort of violety kind of horrible violet-y kind of colors, purply kind.

    John: Oh, yeah, yeah, right. Kind of like pastely, maybe, yeah, I got you. How about do you have a favorite adult beverage?

    Henry: Adult beverage. Yeah, really, really, fine Australian chardonnay.

    John: Oh, yeah, there we go. Now we’re talking. How about do you prefer cats or dogs?

    Henry: Well I have two Labradors at home and nothing else.

    John: Okay, there you go. How about running the business, do you balance sheet or the income statement?

    Henry: I like the income statement. My CFO likes the balance sheet.

    John: Right, yeah. Accountants are always into that side of the stuff.

    Henry: Because I care about the future and what’s happening rather than what’s happened.

    John: Exactly, right. How about do you prefer a suit and tie or more jeans and a T-shirt?

    Henry: Varies. My wife likes to see me in a suit so I really like to wear a suit for her.

    John: Blue suit, I assume, right?

    Henry: I’m sitting here in a jeans and a shirt.

    John: Do you have a favorite number?

    Henry: Seven.

    John: Seven, why’s that?

    Henry: Just always has been.

    John: Yeah, it’s mine, too; I was just curious. Do you have a favorite sports team?

    Henry: Well I have two, actually. They’re both soccer teams, so, one is the Seattle Sounders and Brighton & Hove Albion.

    John: That’s great, man, very cool. How about are you more of an early bird or a night owl?

    Henry: I’m more of a night owl.

    John: Okay. Do you have a favorite comedian?

    Henry: Yes, I do, Billy Connolly.

    John: Oh, yeah! Very, very funny, very funny. And the last one, and we might have covered it already, but what’s the favorite thing you have, or the favorite thing you own?

    Henry: I think it would actually be a Jaguar D-type replica which I built in the early 2000s and raced and won the championship in. That’s very special to me, it’s actually my connection back to my father.

    John: Yeah, wow, what a powerful answer, absolutely. And it’s so cool that you’re able to keep it going now. Well, thank you so much, Henry, for being with me today; this was really, really fantastic.

    Henry: My pleasure.

    John: Wow, that was so much fun! I really love how Henry said that work is a marathon, and not a sprint so you can’t possibly expect everyone to run at sprinting speed at all times. If you’d like to see some really neat pictures of Henry including him and his 1902 MMC, go to greenapplepodcast.com. And while you’re there, please click that big, green button and do my anonymous corporate culture research survey.

    Thank you for sharing this with your friends, so they get the message that we’re trying to spread which is to go out and be a green apple.

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