Monthly Archives: November 2015

How to build 21st century businesses of scale in the North of England

This morning it was my pleasure to attend the Yorkshire Post Business Club at AQL in Leeds. The panel included Dr Adam Beaumont the CEO of AQL, Bob Monroe the CFO of Call Credit and Chris Spencer the CEO of EMIS Group. Chairing the Panel was Bernard Ginns, the Business Editor of the Yorkshire Post. All three panelists started by describing their journeys in scaling up tech businesses in the North of England.

Adam Beaumont kicked off the session describing how his business started out life in Leeds. AQL started by offering secure mobile messaging and domain names to customers. They had been trading 16 years and didn’t want to go direct to the customer, instead they wanted to find a partner in order to scale. Adam mentioned how data security as a trusted entity is important to AQL. Originally all the infrastructure and equipment was based in London and the skills were based in Leeds. Adam’s choice was whether to move the skills to London or the infrastructure to Leeds. Luckily for Leeds, AQL chose the North, explaining the living standards are that much better and with excellent Universities on the door step there is lots of potential talent.

Sustainable skills in Leeds is important and Adam sees a skills gap and a potential opportunity in cyber security. Data is becoming more open and more sharable, and we need to safeguard it. In fact the government has just announced it will put £1.9bn into cyber security over the next few years. The links that local colleges provide for new talent will fill this skills gap, and ever increasing challenge in this field.

Bob Monroe then went on to describe some of the history behind his company Call Credit, a credit rating agency spun out of the Skipton Building Society. Bob had spent the last 6 years at Reed Elsevier, running a unit dealing with health data on the south coast, and has now been in place as CFO for the last 7 months.

48M adults have data held by Call Credit, and they describe themselves as a Big Data company. The heritage of Call Credit is that of financial services, but what has been driving the success of Call Credit?

Bob went on to describe how Call Credit had been a troubled teenager. Troublesome to their competitor as they were a disrupter in the market place. Originally Call Credit looked at credit decision making in-house for the Skipton Building Society, but the strong financial players in the Leeds city region allowed the business to spread it’s wings. Their first product was an affordability product, and the offering was then extended so that Call Credit could become a fully fledged credit agency. Software was then put on top of the data, and some of the software was data-agnostic, so would work with other people’s data.

All tech companies need identification software to know who they are dealing with, their age etc. Call Credit is now 2nd in the credit reference agency market and is growing beyond financial services into gaming, eCommerce, retail and other markets.

Bob explained how the difference in age changes people’s views on how happy you are to share data. Older people are still more cautious and tend to have paper shredders at home. Millennials, on the other hand, are much more relaxed in sharing their data.

Consumers need to know how their data is being held and used. £1 can be paid to get your data and find this out, but in the future the consumer will own their data. Call Credit is now a £150M business with 20% growth year on year. The business expects to double in the next 4 to 5 years.

Bob finished by describing what he sees as the three things needed to scale up a business:

  1. Technology: Business must refresh and invest in this
  2. You must be customer focussed
  3. People and culture is crucial

Call Credit have 300 techies and 750 people in their Leeds office. 64% of Call Credit staff are millennia’s and the average age in the company is 34. Call Credit need more data scientists and their Leeds site has the capacity to grow to up to 1,000 full time equivalents.

Third up was Chris Spencer of EMIS Group. Chris was born in Halifax and then moved to Barnsley before going to University in Leeds. Trained as a lawyer, Chris funded his studies as a nurse. It is therefore amusingly appropriate that Chris now leads a successful HealthTech business which started out life in Egton village in North Yorkshire. Two doctors started the business in Egton, thinking it would be a good idea to have an electronic patient record system as they could not read each others handwriting. At the time there was nothing else in the market, and the first product was launched with the name LV otherwise know as Launch Version. Chris was brought in to help build the business up as both doctors wanted to continue practicing in their doctor’s surgeries. The initial vision was to get the software into 50 practices.

Today EMIS software is in 54% of practice covering 5,000 establishments, and the 2nd player in the e-patient records market is TPP also based in Leeds. The software has now gone from the desktop to the cloud with EMIS Web and has expanded it’s reach to be used in pharmacies, A and E units and opticians.

Chris went onto state that people are getting older and are having to live with developing conditions. Cheaper care can be driven by getting the right data out of the systems. EMIS went through a management buy out in 2008 and then went on to be listed on AIM. The share price started at £3, and is now £10.50 giving business a market capitalisation of around £600M. EMIS turns over £150M with a net profit of £30M employing 2,000 members of staff.

Although AIM listed EMIS are proud to use local Northern providers for their legal and financial advise, PR and they are still with the Yorkshire Bank. EMIS are keen to partner with other tech companies in the city region.

The verdict from most of the business people at the breakfast event is that there is a technical skills shortage and that Leeds needs to build it’s brand as a one of the technical hubs for talent in the UK.

Webanywhere my company are encouraging the Iron Yard an American tech company which teaches students how to code to establish a presence in Leeds. Leeds City Council have been very proactive in connecting Daniel Luff of Apollo Eduction Group and the Iron Yard to tech businesses in Leeds. In addition we have steered the American company as to the best locations for setting up their coding bootcamp. I hope that initiatives such as the Iron Yard coupled with more collaboration from the likes of Webanywhere, AQL, EMIS Group and Call Credit will help make Leeds a digital destination for both students and businesses. Leeds can then make a real contribution to building the Northern Powerhouse as part of the new digital economy.

TechNorth – Funding for Tech at KPMG, Manchester

TechNorth Panel at KMPG Manchester

TechNorth Panel at KMPG Manchester

It’s not often that I cross The Pennines for business, but following my invitation from KPMG Partner Graham Pearce, I jumped in the car to make my way over to the North West. The new KPMG building in Manchester’s St Peter’s Square is impressive, and it’s the only building worldwide which KPMG shares with other tenants.

The pull of the event was funding for tech businesses, and represented on the panel of guest speakers was TechNorth’s James Bedford, Head of Investment Strategy. I remember mentioning to former Deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg a few years back they should have Silicon Yard in Hull, Silicon Pit in Sheffield and Silicon Mill in Leeds, and it now looks like one of Nick Clegg’s legacies is happening. TechNorth aims to accelerate the digital economy in the North of England.

Most of the audience were start ups, and following an introduction via video link from KPMG’s Global Tech Lead Mihir Jobaliaand, a lively debate ensued. One of the annoyances of the startups was the funding gap for early-stage businesses. This was demonstrated by the lack of an early-stage venture capitalist on the panel. A debate around solo vs co-founded businesses then emerged.

It was stated that investors prefer to invest in co-founded businesses rather than sole founders. Perhaps it’s deemed that a solo entrepreneur is more risky. Some people think that if you go solo, the results will be so low. Others think that having a co-founder can increase the risks of disagreements around direction in the early-growth stages.

Bill Enevoldson of  GMCA Public Funding (a Greater Manchester organisation), explained how one of their key criteria for funding was job creation for the local economy, and that they had invested £20M in the last 18 months in tech companies in the North. Bill explained the importance of the management team and how, after the first hour of meeting the team, they decide whether to invest. David Parr of Barclays Debt explained a new initiative to make funding available for start up tech firms, with £80m earmarked in the fund, increasing to £200M.

Mo Aneese, of Living Bridge Private Equity, explained how the investment mentality in the UK is very much different to that of the USA. Where failure is generally accepted in the USA, it is frowned upon in the UK. Private equity houses are generally interested in later-stage businesses and expect a x2 or x3 return on their capital compared to the high multiples expected by some US investors. I guess the US investors are prepared to take more risks.

My key question for the evening was, if I was to raise capital, where should I look – the UK or the USA? The audience seemed to think better valuations and risk-appetite would be found Stateside. USA investors seem to be driven more by growth and UK investors want to see bottomline profitability.

If you travel across the M62 and the North of England it is of similar distance to travelling down Silicon Valley from San Francesco to Palo Alto. I guess the only difference is that the M62, the highest motorway in Europe, can be tricky on snowy winters evenings. High speed rail across the North (HS3) might have been pulled but there is  always the high speed Internet, and we are all tech companies after-all!

Hopefully, the funding gap for early stage startups will be resolved in the near future and initiatives to allow startups to flourish in the commercial centres of NatWest banks can only be seen as good. Startups don’t just need money, they need “money+” – money plus mentoring and advice.

Finally, for good businesses, money can always be found. Investors are looking for a market opportunity and a back able individual.  The evening was a great way to share views and learn more about the tech scene in the North. TechNorth, after all, is about collaboration, and if more connections can be made across the North that can only be a good thing.

BritTech, xAPI and Hamburger University, Chicago

On my last visit to Chicago I suggested to Emily Roden, Vice Consul at the Technology and Creative Industries at UKTI, to create a BritTech group to connect UK tech companies in Chicagoland. Our own Jon Perkins had previously met Lord Francis Maude (the UK Trade Minister) on a Chicago layover en-route to Silicon Valley and this spawned the idea.

The BritTech group is certainly helping UK companies make their mark stateside. Simon Bryan, Americas Managing Director at Lumi have a complementary product to our product range. Their product MeeToo is a mobile polling app, which could quite easily by linked to Moodle, our learning management system of choice. This partnership, although in its early stages, could prove to be mutually beneficial on both sides of the Atlantic.

One evening we met Aaron Silver, the inventor of xAPI – the next generation of SCORM for e-learning content. The Experience API (xAPI), also known as the Tin Can API, is an e-learning software specification that allows learning content and learning systems to speak to each other in a manner that records and tracks all types of learning experiences, with learning experiences  recorded in a Learning Record Store (LRS). It was interesting to understand what Aaron’s views were on the future of learning management systems and how new technology is transforming learning.

On another evening on the edge of the city, myself and the team visited the McDonald’s global headquarters. McDonald’s have been through a turbulent time of late, having had two CEOs in a short period of time. The brand is looking to re-invent its fortunes and the Chief Learning Officer Rob Lauber challenged the ATD (Association for Talent Development) meeting to come up with some ideas around the future of Hamburger University. Hamburger University is where all McDonald’s managers get trained, but questions were being asked around its viability and whether it was still relevant to the business. Of course, digital learning on mobile phones probably isn’t appropriate in McDonald’s when customers are waiting for burgers, but it was suggested that perhaps learning could be delivered through the tills and point of sales devices, as is the case in Domino’s in the UK.

McDonald’s need to enable collaboration across geographies. They currently have 15 learning management systems and this needs to be reviewed. Adaptable content which is learner-centric is needed. The learning has got to be easy to create and easy to execute. McDonald’s hires 800,000 new staff each year, which shows you the scale of the challenge. The learning system needs to link with business-based measurement systems to drive sales and customer satisfaction.

Meeting new people at McDonald’s, the BritTech group and being introduced to the founder of xAPI shows how new countries and new people can give you new insights to change your thinking and open up new possibilities.