Aged 16, Razor CEO and co-founder Jamie Hinton built his first car in the summer holidays. Today, his tech company is working with the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) whose members include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, and McLaren Automotive. Jill Theobald caught up with Jamie to talk about how passion and practice grew Razor from a back-bedroom firm to winning a place on the AMRC’s million-pound digital framework – and the Sheffield City Region’s ‘humble brilliance’ pre and post-COVID
Amplifying. Accelerating. Amazing. My chat with Jamie Hinton CEO and co-founder of Razor is peppered with positive words and expressions – his energy for his business, people-first technology, the digital and manufacturing industries, his family, and the Sheffield City Region (SCR) at large (past, present and very much future) is seemingly limitless. But those are three particular words that crop up frequently.
We speak after Razor won a place on the AMRC’s million-pound digital framework to inspire innovation in British manufacturing. Selected as the front runner alongside two other digital consultancies, it means Razor can begin to forge the AMRC’s new digital vision.
Razor’s team of 27 work across tech sectors including user experience and design thinking data, analytics and machine learning, AI, web applications and software development and much more – and all at what Jamie and the company call the ‘bleeding edge’ of technology.
The ‘acceleration’ aspect is right there in their Razor Sprint, which is all about ‘faster solutions and maximum potential’ and designed to get organisations moving forward – because ‘today’s digital economy is all about speed’.
“One of the key things I have to emphasise – we do AI, automation and machine learning but we’re always about amplifying what people can do, not replacing them. It’s about taking away mundane things that are not the best thing for a human being to be doing for their mental health. They should be doing things that are forward-moving, so we’re supercharging what businesses can do. It’s almost like a bionic suit – we want to make you superhuman!”
There are other words that crop up in our chat, too – namely ‘passion’ and ‘practice’ – because the Razor team have certainly put in the time, dedication, and commitment.
“People who say that Razor is an overnight success – it’s been ten years in the making!” laughs Jamie. “It’s been a decade of hard work, graft and toil!”
But also “making cool things happen”, “having an amazing amount of fun” and creating “a place where people can’t wait to come to work.”
Oh, and building a legacy with the Razor Cause, which is “all about tomorrow and a legacy for the city and region’s future.”
But first, let’s go back to the beginning.
“I’m Sheffield born and bred. I love this place. I was born in Jessop’s and my children were, too – but the newer version!
“As an undergraduate at University of Sheffield I studied Music Technology – in 1997 I was in the Young Jazz Musician Of The Year finals, I got to play with Ronnie Scott Band and Supertramp and had record deals making house and dance music! I was interviewed by (record label owner, broadcaster and nightclub manager) Tony Wilson at the finals – he was pretty cool and invited me to go and see the Chemical Brothers, it was bonkers!
“My parents were very keen for us to have a broad education, ‘doing what you love’, and music was important for creativity and expressing yourself.”
Jamie chose the alto sax (“I heard Baker Street on the Mars Bar advert and said I need to play THAT!”) and this early passion taught him a lifelong lesson.
“If it’s what you want to do you will really give it your all – that’s where I learned not giving up. There was one degree module which was about multi-media and programming and I loved it – I thought ‘This is it for me!’”
And then there was the car. “You’re 16 so what are you going to do in summer holidays – build a car! That’s the mindset I was brought up with – if you put your mind to it, you can achieve almost anything.
“There was lots of physical tech going on at the time, as well as digital technology, and I could just tell that creating something was what I wanted to do – learning to bring these different worlds together.”
Jamie’s focus came from then-partner, now-wife Katy – “she’s always been my grounding for my crazy schemes!” he laughs. After a few years of record deals, Katy spotted the post-grad course that would become Jamie’s next drive.
“She found this ‘Multimedia and the Internet’ MSc at Sheffield Hallam and it sounded amazing – I was ignited.”
Further ignition was to follow in his first job in 2005 when he joined Technophobia, then a big web agency in Sheffield, as a junior uploader. “You find that passion, and it’s ‘I’ve found my groove, I’ve found my purpose in life!’ I’d not had a ‘proper’ job before – I was interviewed for Ministry of Sound radio station for record of the week while pushing trollies outside Sainsbury’s! – but hadn’t found my true cause. When I got to Technophobia it was – ‘I am alive, this is my niche.’
“It was the transactional stuff we were building for clients that really mattered to me because it transformed the way people worked. That combination of people and technology, and how it touches lives and changes things for the better, was incredible.”
But Jamie still had passion to spare in his spare time – and started working on the website of Rails of Sheffield model shop, which turned out to be the first-ever customer for what would become Razor.
“I went in, after my Dad introduced me to the owner who was a friend, and said: ‘Show me what you’ve got’. I was very confident while in my head thinking ‘holy shit!’” he laughs. “We shook on it, I walked out and got my Nokia N95 out and was on Amazon buying many books. They totally believed in me and I just spent 9-5 practicing, practicing, practicing at Technophobia and then, after having tea with Katy, I’d work on Rails of Sheffield until 10 pm, every day – absolute purposeful practice.
“They trusted me and I delivered – their business grew 40 per cent year on year, they let me automate everything. It was a great learning ground.”
Meanwhile at Technophobia Jamie worked up to head of development on major brands, including Coop Bank, Alfa Romeo, and Dyson.
“Technophobia was amazing and the culture there – I’ve said this before about Sheffield’s humble brilliance! These people, who are so amazing at what they do but they don’t shout about it. Incredibly talented people who could make magic happen and prove you don’t need to be in London, it’s happening here.
“It was pure practice, but really cool difficult stuff. I’m really proud of the heritage because the company (Razor, then known as Curly Web) started in my bedroom, and got big enough while still doing my day job.
“There was always this view that this is where my future is. I just needed a vessel. I wanted to take the essence of what I’d learned and make it hyper-focused; make amazing things happen, create a place where people can’t wait to come to work – people are the business and people make cool things happen.
“Steve Trotter was a senior project manager at Technophobia and he and I are such a good fit, he’s the yin to my yang. We co-founded (the full-time proper business) Curly Web, employed our first person and started at Sheffield Technology Parks (STP) in December 2013.”
But with a name change to Razor Jam – ‘Razor’ because cutting edge and ‘Jam’ because of the applied science.
“STP’s Tom Wolfenden – an amazing guy, so supportive – enabled us to grow and flex. We then moved into the Workstation before Speedwell Works, where we are now, which was a real ‘wow, we’ve arrived!’ moment.
“We grew and attracted staff through defining our purpose – what we’re going to do and what we’re not, and sticking to that. I’m glad I ignored early advice of ‘just take anything’. It didn’t sit right with me – if we are not bothered about the project and say yes, what are we saying no to? And we deliver on what we say we’ll do – there’s a huge level of integrity there, our reputation precedes us, and we care about the people we work with and that attracts like-minded people.
“Along that great journey, we got an NED, Julian Kynaston who is a fantastic marketeer – we love tech but we’re not very good articulating ourselves! He told us to drop the Jam part of the name, and helped us grow to where we are now.”
Which is winning that place on the AMRC digital framework – but this, too, was no overnight success story.
“Our AMRC journey started two and a half years ago if not longer. I was blown away by my first visit to Factory 2050 – everyone is so Sheffield City Region. AMRC is Rotherham and we shouldn’t forget that, we’re all in this together. It’s all Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster and Barnsley – it’s all Sheffield City Region.
“That SCR feel – it’s a cultural fit, a friendliness, an openness, it’s ‘I’m bloody smart but I don’t shove it down your throat’. And that’s what I found at the AMRC – plus a car being made by a robot! The excitement was palpable, and everyone bounced off that.
“I met Rab (Scott – head of digital) and we struck off in a really good way and fostered a relationship with all of the senior people, the developers and engineers as well, that whole friendly engagement thing.
“When I first met Steve Foxley (AMRC executive director) I didn’t know who he was! That’s how he fits in so well with the AMRC and the humble brilliance. I was in the coffee area at Factory 2050 and we just started chatting – I was later told he’s the new CEO!
“Our values were really aligned – again, it’s about ‘bring us a problem and we’ll work it out’ not just ‘make us that thing!’
“We basically put ourselves forward and said: ‘whatever we can do, we want to help’. A lot of people might expect ‘here’s a project, here’s loads of money’ – we weren’t like that, we looked at the greater cause and asked what can we do? We were always engaging with them and exploring connections. Sometimes you’ve got to give to get.”
Razor pitched for a project, which they didn’t get – but the ‘never give up’ lesson won out. “That’s okay! Some agencies gave up, but we kept going back – how else can we help, share knowledge?”
It meant Razor were ‘front of mind’ for a major aerospace project.
“Because the machine learning we do is about amplifying a task, or making decision-making faster, this project was a real sweet spot. They had made this prototype to help understand internal defects in a jet engine blade and engaged us to make it faster and production ready. A lot of digital companies would not have been able to, but we immerse ourselves, we get under the skin, so we do these discovery processes.
“We worked in total collaboration with these guys to make this process work in under 15 minutes. We ended up making it work in under two, and they were part of the process – it’s always people first. It’s hardcore technology, but with a full-on human element. None of this technology means anything unless a human being interacts with it, takes it forward.
“The AMRC put a lot of faith in us and trusted us and we delivered, and actually smashed it out if the park. The team here, the passion was immense and we’re so proud of that project.”
And the AMRC digital framework aligns perfectly with Razor’s Cause.
“Our Cause won’t be achieved in my lifetime or my kids’, but it really resonates and gets people’s emotions going. It’s about making a future here, making manufacturing better, making digital something that we’re proud of. Making a digital product with the Sheffield and northern stamp. We’re proud of the brand on our cutlery, that’s what we need with the technology space.
“In this country we’re told to grow our GDP, productivity and output but how do we do that by engaging manufacturing with digital? Lots of manufacturers come to the AMRC to learn to generate far-reaching innovations, and ask how to balance the digital side and run their operations – manufacturers can gain a big advantage by ensuring the back office is automated and engaging with tech.
“The digital framework was public, anyone could submit to it; we put every single bit of effort into winning it and we did.
“The initiative is to transform all processes, to make it a blueprint of Sheffield City Region manufacturing and digital. It’s got that stamp of the region and that’s what we’re so excited about.”
SCR ‘stoicism and success’ during COVID-19
COVID-19 hasn’t stopped the acceleration for Razor – and it hasn’t dented the ‘humble brilliance’ of the Sheffield City Region spirit. Here Jamie shares his views on the pandemic, Razor, and the wider business community.
“Change is inevitable – that’s part of our Razor Sprint. You have to embrace and be willing to change. What’s happened in retail – some say it’s the impact of COVID, but it’s not, it’s just accelerated the inevitable.
“In the last 10 years tech has accelerated at a great rate of knots – back then, usability was everything, but that’s now a given – there’s no place for ugly experiences. It’s not tech putting people out of the businesses, but it’s shifting to the realisation that tech has created more jobs and high-value jobs.”
“It’s times like these that people’s strengths emerge. We were able to hire because we found people who have the exact qualities we need, who are able to adapt and innovate in the face of change.
“We have this concept of ‘I can’t teach you why, I can teach you how though’. We score and grade and focus on the positives – what are they great at? What do they have that you can build on and amplify?
“We look for that spark. We spot and unlock potential in people where you can see that flame light up in their eyes. We’re growing a culture – we sprinkle some energizer and it accelerates. It’s that old business adage of: ‘hire great people and get out of their way’.”
“Our office space has always been about amazingly powerful laptops, workstations you can go anywhere with, free and collaborative spaces. We do a bit of remote working already, but COVID has pushed us to say ‘yes, this really does work’.
“However, it has also emphasised how important face-to-face interaction is too – it has amplified the value. We don’t have to do it all the time, but when we do it’s very special. There will be more of this type of interaction (Zoom), but technology-wise all of what we build starts with people.”
SCR business community
“It’s that resolve, that SCR grit – ‘no worries, we’ll get on’! Out of an adversity – like COVID – comes amazing things, when the human is pushed to create. The region has innovated in different ways and we’ve all gone local and helped each other out, which has been brilliant seeing that empathy for each other.
“For us, it’s opened up more conversations locally and nationally, which we might not have had; we’re combining forces. For example with Nick Cotton, of the Eroica Britannia event, we’ve spotted an opportunity to work together. Opportunities are springing out and it has brought us all together. It’s the stoic side of our region, which I love.”