BOE’s co-founder Rupa Ganatra met with entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist Piers Linney at his London-based office, to talk about his entrepreneurial start, his growing company Outsourcery and his views on the technology industry.
How did your entrepreneurial journey begin? At the age of 12 and 13, I was making £5 a week working for a local newsagent doing the paper round. I had noticed that there was nobody delivering the Sunday paper and this was something that I knew my Dad hated. I asked some of the neighbours and they all thought it was a good idea so at the age of 14, I launched my first business in the Sunday papers. I went directly to the wholesaler and asked to buy them directly in bulk. Whatever the weather conditions, I would get on the BMX every sunday to deliver the papers. I had gone from earning £5 a week for more hours of work to earning £15-£20 per week for less effort. That’s the first business I ever started. I eventually sold that business and went on to other things like door-to-door selling.
You’ve also done law and worked in investment banking. What brought you back to entrepreneurship again? After my degree, I went to law school and then went into investment banking (M&A) for several years. I always had entrepreneurship and business at the back of my mind and even launched a Company Formation business while at law school. While I was a trainee solicitor, I was working at a venture capital law firm, so even then I was dealing with investors, entrepreneurs and VCs – and that fascinated me. I enjoyed my M&A experience but I felt too far away from the action. So when the internet opportunity came up, I quit banking to become an entrepreneur.
How did Outsourcery come about? My business partner Simon and I never sat down and thought let’s start Outsourcery. Outsourcery evolved out of the other businesses that we had been involved with and the evolution of the market at the same time. In 2007, we had bought a business from Dixons in a management buyout. We then moved into mobile voice and data solutions and we built a business around it by acquiring several other companies such as Genesis communications. At this stage, we were generating around £45 million in revenue but acknowledged that mobile was heading into a saturated market and we needed to diversify our revenue streams. We then moved into selling the email solution in 2008 so to that we once again acquired a business; this time a small hosting company. And with that came internet hosting. Around this time, we decided that cloud was the future and having a legacy and an existing culture from other businesses, especially in mobile, can hold you back so we knew we had to start again. And because many people didn’t understand what we were trying to build, other than a family, friends and ex-colleagues round, Simon and I funded most of it ourselves. We then raised some money from institutions pre-IPO and floated the company in early 2013. It has been a long and sometimes painful process, transitioning from a simple mobile phone resale business to a very sophisticated fully converged IT business.
How did winning accolades early help your marketing strategy? In 2010, we were thrilled to win the Microsoft Global Hosting Partner of the Year award, which put us on the Microsoft map. If you want to have partners like Vodafone and Virgin and customers like Pearsons, you have to be credible and there was nothing like us then.
How else did you market your business in the early days? When we started the partner channels, they weren’t really ready for it, so we had to have a large marketing budget to spend on direct marketing. We invested in sales people and marketing events such as conferences. Cloud is about scale so we knew eventually we would need to start bringing the partners on board.
What excites you next about the future of Outsourcery? We are now about to build the platform for the government. This is a huge opportunity for us and we are working with Microsoft and Dell to do that. We’re also focused on delivering the growth we expect and beginning international expansion. We’ve built the platform now so it’s all about scaling it.
What excites you in the technology space at the moment? We’ve already seen how the cloud has revolutionalised the consumer space by the likes of Apple, Microsoft and Dropbox. The solution offers your identity, data and content to exist in a secure platform. Where you consume or create that content depends on the device, and this is what is going to continue evolving now. That ranges from one end of the spectrum, wearable technology such as Google glasses and Smart Watches to your phones, tablets and TVs. Smart phones is already one of the most useful devices and is great for consuming content, while not being great for content creation. Then there are the tablets, which again are great for content creation and not so great for content consumption. Then you come to the laptops and desktops which are great for both creation and consumption and finally the smart TV, which takes us back to content consumption. What you’re seeing is tablets of all sizes coming to market and I expect that to continue, partly because people want choice and partly because the manufacturers need to keep differentiating and reinventing.
If you were starting a venture in technology today, what would it be? All my business ventures have always been related to the internet. Outsourcery is a combination of all my interests (technology, the next thing, communications and the way the internet has transformed it) and that’s probably why the company looks a lot like it is. Outsourcery embodies my interests. Internet is going to continuously transform our lives.
We’ve really enjoyed watching you on Dragon’s Den! How has your experience been? It’s been a great experience. When I was initially approached, I was sitting in Africa with Sir Richard Branson and asked his opinion on participating. His response was; “screw it, just do it.” I had to pinch myself at that moment as I thought back on the evolution of the last ten years of my life. From being on secret millionaire, the CEO of a public company and talking to Richard Branson on his private games reserve in Kenya about whether I should join Dragons Den. If anyone had told me ten years ago that that’s what would happen in the next ten years, I would have never believed it. It was then that I decided to take the plunge.
And then shortly after that, I went from sitting in make-up with Kelly, Debra, Duncan and Peter to sitting in the Den and having someone come out of the lift and start pitching to you. People think there is a lot of prepping beforehand but it is literally as you see it except the viewers see 12 minutes, while we could be sitting there for hours sometimes. It is no different to any other angel investment and even afterwards you get to do your due diligence. It’s great to be working with entrepreneurs again and great to add a new crop of investments to the portfolio. The whole process is exciting and fascinating. And I think the addition of myself and Kelly has really freshened the show.
You’ve had one investment air so far. What have you enjoyed about it? Kelly and I invested in Skinny Tan and it has certainly been a great investment so far. You could see that the two of them, the product and the name have legs. Following the show, we realised how brilliant the product really is and how popular it has been with customers and retailers. My other investments haven’t aired yet but they are also just as exciting.
What puts you off the most about an investment pitch? It’s when they finish and you still don’t know what they’re pitching to you. Especially in technology, people talk about the technology and forget to explain the use of it in the real world.
We first got to know you on Secret Millionaire. Can you tell us how that was? The programme didn’t air everything I did there and didn’t air all the money that I gave away so what you saw at the young offenders institution was only part of my experience. Being in that environment was really tough and what was hard to comprehend was the low levels of literacy there. I was shocked that there were so many 18 and 19 year olds that couldn’t read and write and if you can’t read in today’s world, you’re bound to get into some trouble. For me, the most fulfilling was a young man I met there called Daniel. He was there for quite serious offences and since leaving the institution, he joined Outsourcery and is doing really well. The fact that his job has completely transformed his life and seeing how far he has come since I first met him, was the most fulfilling part.
What do you like to do when you’re not working? Ride bikes.