Connecting with Bill Sobel

Philip Letts likes to say he is "reinventing how businesses do commerce." He's CEO of UK-based blur Group — an "s-commerce company," as he explains it. In this case, the "s" stands for business services. The company developed a platform for buying business services.

Letts said his company's Global Services Exchange uses its proprietary platform to help about 45,000 business users in 145 countries buy, sell and deliver core business services and take advantage of Software-as-a-Transaction to pay for these projects.

The company was founded in 2006 and the Global Services Exchange was formally launched in January 2010. Back then, Letts said, just around three projects per month were submitted. Now, nearly 300 projects start on the Exchange each month.

Customers include Danone, Broadridge, Exceed, HCA, Momentive, Red Commerce, the Financial Times, Berlitz, Butlins, GE Healthcare and Tyco.

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Switching Things Up


Sobel: You say blur Group is "reinventing how businesses do commerce." What exactly do you mean?

Letts: When we say "reinventing how businesses do commerce" we refer to the way in which business services are procured. Until recently, it hadn’t changed for hundreds of years! But now, thanks to cloud based technologies, companies can brief thousands of global experts and ensure that their projects are delivered to the highest standard, regardless of the size or location of the customer briefing or the company pitching its expertise.

Sobel: Tell us a little about your professional journey and your path to CEO of blur Group.

Letts: I was coached since childhood to become part of the family business. My great, great grandfather is familiar to many as the creator of Letts diary, the world’s first commercial diary. Consequently, I always knew I wanted to start my own company. However, I was also fascinated by technology, something entirely unrelated and disruptive to the publishing ecosystem.

My first business was CMI, an online publishing company. Following CMI, I moved on to become the CEO of various tech startups, including Corechange, Beenz, Tradaq and Surfkitchen. Now there are more than 70 of us at our new headquarters in Exeter in Devon, England, with another 30 or so in our London, Dallas and Southern California offices. We're one of the fastest growing technology companies in the world, with operations in 145 countries.

Sobel: Where did you get the idea for blur Group? Who is your target market?

Letts: As a former CEO of a B2B exchange, I understood the dynamics of bringing together the demand-and supply-side of such a business model. After initial interest in the open source movement, I started doing some R&D and in 2007, blur Group came into existence. As such, our target market is businesses looking to buy business services online. We built our platform to be scalable to appeal to all companies from micro- and small businesses to enterprise-level customers.

Sobel: What makes blur Group different?

Letts: We're first-movers in this category. We’re the pioneers of services commerce (s-commerce for short), which means we’re disrupting the way businesses buy and sell services and challenging traditional views on how services procurement can work. To give you a small example, one of our customers needed specific expertise as part of a marketing campaign she was running but this need presented itself just as she was about to go on holiday. She posted the brief on blur’s platform and came back from holiday to choose from the three best pitches, reviewed and vetted by blur Group. Only our platform can offer that level of service and delivery.

Sobel: You are working in a rather competitive space ... basically working with thousands of freelancers and companies that have downsized, all of who are looking for quality creative without adding to their payroll. Who is your competition?

Letts: To be frank, our competition is the old way of doing things — long pitch processes, exhaustive benchmarking, arduous contract negotiations and then being stuck with preferred suppliers and inflexible rosters for years. It amazes me that innovative businesses put up with this state of affairs in a digital world. What you rightly point out is that blur Group is the right place to source quality creative agencies.

It’s a common misconception, however, that our crowds consist of “thousands of freelancers” or that we’re solely creative services providers. Blur Group is not just about procuring creative. Our crowd of experts includes legal and accountancy firms, as well as often large, creative and digital agencies. In fact, blur Group has ten categories — marketing technology, legal, accounting, content, innovation, design, art, and the newly released video and human resources. And it's not just about freelancers. It's about small, medium and large service providers. It's a large project commerce platform, not an e-recruitment site.

Sobel: You're always experimenting with new ways to market the company and make it more appealing to both your clients as well as your endless supply of people who provide the services. Is that one of your strategies for growth?

Letts: Absolutely. Blur Group is named after an abstract photography technique, which I think is a great metaphor for how we look at business in a different way. Our brand is disruptive as are all of the players within it, whether they are employees, customers or experts. I think it's easy for B2B companies to fall in the trap of confusing "professional" with "conservative" or even "boring." That’s certainly not the blur approach.

Sobel: Finally, from your experience launching blur Group, how can CIOs, CMOs and marketing and information managers optimize their company's use of digital information?

Letts: Whatever the role of the C-suite, transparency of data is key to everyone’s success.  Blur Group’s growth indicates that businesses are looking for new ways to use the information they have. In our case, that could be project specific or even heavy-duty procurement data. Professional platforms should deliver what executives need in whatever format. Only then can they optimize use of digital information. Our Global Services Exchange was born in the cloud and continues to develop in the cloud. We are developing from mobile and tablet up, so the entire platform will be usable across any device.