Interview with William Gordon-Harris, CEO of Knoops

William Gordon-Harris

William Gordon-Harris is the CEO of Knoops, a fast-moving, super-exciting chocolate drinks brand experiencing ultra-fast growth. Renowned for its chain of cafés, both in the UK and beyond, it offers a unique tasting experience allowing customers to choose the percentage of chocolate in their beverage. William, an expert in leadership, communication and business strategy, is also a serial entrepreneur and early-stage seed investor. He also has strong educational spine with an MSc in Finance from Bayes Business School.


Can you provide a quick overview of what has been guiding your career path to-date and how you first became involved with Knoops? 

I have always tried to work in areas that interest me and where I feel I can add something to the equation. I discovered Knoops in Rye when I spent weekends and holidays in my house nearby. I was an interested observer and then customer. Jens (the Knoops founder) had clearly created something special but it needed someone to unlock that potential. 


On that journey, what would you say has been the most significant moment or milestone that has shaped your approach to business?

Sticking with the Knoops story there have been several moments now looking back that were milestones. Clearly Jens’ agreement to come on the journey to build an international brand is the most significant because without that it would never have begun.

Other milestones have centred around our huge growth; one of the most interesting of which is how on some days we now take up to the equivalent of the 2018 year’s turnover – and that is within just four years of embarking on the journey with Knoops. The Rye shop itself does over 4 times more revenue than it weas doing back then too! Clearly becoming profitable at a group level was an important moment as well. 


Every year it seems the pace of change gets ever faster. Against this backdrop how do you ensure you stay adaptable and open to change? 

The team here at Knoops is the engine that allows us to grow at a continued triple digit percentage rate. The team is diverse in age and backgrounds, and a very flat structure allows ‘question and challenge’ to shape our journey. We look at every part of the process and constantly innovate and improve. Our customer Net Promoter Score is our most important metric – sitting just ahead of our staff satisfaction survey metrics!


Leading a business often involves taking risks. But what role do you believe risk-taking plays in achieving success?

Taking risk is about gathering the most information possible ahead of deciding -  to make sure the risk is measured and acceptable. The correct structuring of risk is as important as the price associated with it. Understanding the big picture and the optimum slope of growth and taking risk in line with the rewards you want is key. The 50 year old me is far better at this than was my thirty year old counterpart. My MSc in finance and keeping mentally and physically healthy is key to choice, rather than compulsion, seeping in to the risk taking decision.


What is your leadership philosophy, and how do you use this to inspire and motivate those around you?

I have a vision and I tell stories and that’s really all I do. In most cases one is not lucky enough to have a business like Knoops where one can communicate a clear and plausible picture of the vast opportunity to all stakeholders. Unless those around you can see what you describe and share the vision and understand the purpose and feel they have all the delegated authority they need to execute their part they are to play - then I do not think you can be an effective leader. Delegate, trust and then listen.


Over-coming challenge and displaying resilience is increasingly important. Can you share any setbacks you’ve encountered, and how you used that experience to learn and grow?

So many setbacks... I have had businesses fail for a host of different reasons – lack of regulatory approval – poor focus from myself – mispriced of risk.. you name it. The key is to learn from one’s errors and to not repeat them. I cannot over state how important mental and physical exercise are to business growth. The gym and the therapist are essential.


Uncovering, supporting and backing ideas can often make the difference in business. What do you believe is important when seeking to foster a culture of innovation and creativity?

I am a keen incubator of ideas – we are too siloed as a community – we are too tribal altogether. I encourage conversations with all age groups and with those with very different life experiences to myself. One needs to see through a multitude of lenses and therefore curiosity is very important. Also having plenty of time in one’s diary for last minute meetings – the real eureka moments don’t come out of a deeply curated and packed diary.


Business leaders often face challenges in balancing work and personal life. How do you manage this balance, and what strategies do you use to prevent burnout?

As I have discussed, exercise and mental health are key alongside sleep – also continual curiosity.. in the arts and music. I am aware I am deeply involved in Knoops and this is at the expense of other aspects and this is something where a spontaneous ‘yes’ to some time out is a brilliant idea. The ICA on the Mall is £20 a month and always has a fantastic film showing that I never regret making the effort to see. My children and family are extremely important to me in this regard.


What advice do you have for individuals aspiring to be business leaders of the future? Are there key principles or lessons you wish you had known when starting your journey?

Just do it – try the idea and learn from it. But collect the data and learn and adjust. If something isn’t working its unlikely to start working without adaption or change. Closing a failing enterprise down is not necessarily a negative – it might be the correct decision – do not be led by herd instinct or social pressure. Life is a series of chapters and building something of great worth or value is a journey with ebbs and flows. You need to pace yourself and enjoy it. Choose your partners in every aspect of life carefully and then trust them and don’t ‘micro manage’. I was far too insecure when I was younger to do this.


Finally, are there any resources, such as podcasts, blogs or books you’d recommend others consider that you have found particularly influential in shaping your thinking?

I read all the time and adore podcasts. Robert Caro is the master biographer and I am mid-way through his book on Robert Moses the ‘Power Broker’ – Moses was a true visionary and probably the most powerful unelected man in the history of the USA and a great deal more powerful than most elected individuals) his books on LBJ are a masterpiece. I was given the Tap Dancer for Christmas by my sister and finished it in a day – it was wonderful. The Power Law by Sebastian Mallaby is the best book on venture capital.

I was in Vietnam last year and Ken Burns’ ten part documentary on the ‘The Vietnam War is brilliant – and the Stanley Karnow book on the war and on the history of Vietnam more generally is astonishing – its Pulitzer is well deserved. 99% invisible is also my ‘go to’ podcast for interesting things I know nothing about and Esra Klein Show is really thought provoking.