Category Archives: technology

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.

Webanywhere meets Basecamp, Chicago

Sean Gilligan (Webanywhere) and Michael Berger (Basecamp)

Sean Gilligan (Webanywhere) and Michael Berger (Basecamp)

The old meatpacking district is really taking off in Chicago’s West Loop. With the Google’s Mid-West HQ only 5 minutes away, we met our neighbours Basecamp at our new office for lunch. Basecamp is one of the world’s favorite project management software companies and Jason Fried one of the co-founders has written a number of successful business books such as Rework and Remote both of which have been best sellers with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Jason Fried’s mum was looking to buy an iMac from the local Apple store and the customer experience was so exceptional she recommended that Jason, the co-founder of Basecamp, hire Michael Berger.

Michael had just got back from re-locating his 96-year-old grandmother from Florida and was able to meet myself and my brother for lunch before we jumped on a plane back to the UK. Over lunch we discussed a whole range of issues, including how Basecamp are rewriting their project management software from scratch. Basecamp are definitely getting their name out there – sponsoring music festivals and advising Coursera on some project management courses.

Michael was particularly interested in how Webanywhere gains feedback from its customers. Michael’s role at Basecamp involves QA, and part of the unique work culture at Basecamp means he often works from home in a morning, goes to the gym and then heads to the office. Jason, who leads design, and Daniel who leads engineers, are equals and opposites. Whilst Jason is a permanent residence in Chicagoland and is a well know business-face, Daniel spends time in California and Southern Spain while pursuing his interest in racing cars.

Howard Tullman of 1871, Chicago Startup Summit

Howard Tullman of 1871, Chicago Startup Summit

Basecamp’s open APIs means it can be integrated with learning management systems such as Moodle. One of the challenges Basecamp has is the education of the user. Users in positions of authority can ensure the whole organisation is using the product, whilst more junior members of staff may struggle to get further buy-in. Basecamp helps SMEs in particular get stuff done by providing best-in-class project management software. In addition, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is a mentor to Basecamp, who have millions of paying customers and perhaps go against the grain of most software. Basecamp believes in “less as more”. Perhaps this is why they changed their company name from 37signals to Basecamp a number of years ago. Furthermore they trimmed down their product line from several products (such as Campfire, Backpack and Highrise) to just Basecamp.

The “billionaire rule” in business is focus and Basecamp have bet the farm house on their product. They believe you don’t need to spend money on marketing, you just need a great product. Basecamp certainly has a great product, with interested followers and participants such as Bezos.

Chicago Startup Summit

Chicago Startup Summit

Earlier in the week I visited the newly-installed Virgin Hotel in downtown Chicago. The Chicago Startup Summit, held in conjunction with Virgin Unite (The Branson Family’s foundation charity), was held to educate and impact local startups. Seminars were held by One Trick Pony, a design agency based in Philadelphia and Detroit Soup, a crowdsourcing charity featured in a recent BBC documentary. Other people presenting included a number of “Pitch to Rich” finalists who had been flown in from London. Andrew Hunt finished the day talking about how he planned to import a little-known fruit known as the baobab from the African continent, which would ride the current trend of super food consumption whilst providing a profitable harvest for African farmers. Andrew had been in a state of depression as a young marketing executive in London, only to find himself inspired after 4 years living in Africa. Andrew spotted an opportunity of driving demand for the African superfood using his skills and expertise. Richard Branson awarded Andrew’s company £100,000, allowing him to move out of his kitchen and employ 15 staff.

Webanywhere USA Team at The Little Goat, Chicago

Webanywhere USA Team at The Little Goat, Chicago

What was particularly good about the week in Chicago was seeing other British entrepreneurial startups alongside Webanywhere. Chicago is too often skipped for the more glamorous destinations of New York and San Francisco, but is now becoming a real contender for startups, with the highest proportion of female-led startups in the USA. We on-boarded 3 new members of staff at our Fulton Market office and met a few of our key customers. All in all, another good week in America and my 2nd week in one month – which is a personal record!



Back to School!

This term I’m going back to school for the first time in a good few years!

I’ll be touring the country to visit Webanywhere customers, offering advice on the current challenges facing schools.

I particularly want to talk about how technology can inspire, engage and assist teachers and pupils alike; and how schools can use technology to fulfil their development plans.

You can follow the journey here or send me an email if you’d like me to drop by.