Focus & Vision are the Keys
Gary: Des, tell me about your career so far.
Des: Well, I started out in Shorts in operational research & then in software. After that I went to ICL in consulting & then sales. Then it was on to Harland & Wolff as IT Manager and then to NIE, in business & information systems. Out of that, with a couple of others, we founded SX3. I was eventually approached by Lagan & I joined Lagan in the summer of ’99. We sold the business last November, so just last month I took on the role [of CEO] in I-Path.
Gary: So a big change, then, from Lagan…
Des: Huge, really…my brain’s hurting, you know?!
Gary: Because Lagan grew to what, 250 or so?
Des: Certainly at its peak, we had about 220, 230 people and this current year, Lagan will do about £20m in revenue. When I joined, there were 11 of us, and…one or two hairy moments in the early days, but eventually we got there!
Gary: So what was the secret of getting there?
Des: Ultimately focus. Finding our niche, in local government CRM…and that was partly planning and partly fortune, actually. We got an opportunity to get into that market in a way we hadn’t expected. We’d a very good team of people, as well, and were able to build out a very good product, and a good range of processes. And down the years, I suppose, the support of investors when we needed it. And particularly when we got the VC investment in, there was always a bit more horsepower behind the business. If anything, I’d say we weren’t particularly well-funded for what we were trying to do, in terms of the competitive market we were in. But, by choosing quite a tight niche and focussing hard…that was a good part of getting to where we did.
Gary: Lagan grew pretty quickly – that must have been a big challenge?
Des: Yeah…we were in the Deloitte Fast 50 ten years in a row. We set ourselves stretching ambitions, stretching goals and by going for that hard, you tend to run costs…because in going for growth, you’ve got to invest…in product, in sales capability, or whatever. That constant tension between investing for growth, but not being so crazy you run out of cash before you get there. It’s easy to get that wrong.
Gary: What about in terms of people? There must have been challenges there, too, growing an organization…there are different sets of challenges once you reach 100 people, once you reach 200 people…
Des: Once we got established, we’d a good brand name for recruiting in both Northern Ireland and GB. But when we entered the US, it was like starting again; we were an unknown brand in the market out there. In general we found it tougher to recruit quality people in the US than in the UK. Certainly we’d more staff turnover in the US – part of that was being a tiny company in a much bigger geography. And being foreign owned, too, I’m sure had some impact. But eventually once we got some very capable, senior people, then they attracted others behind them.
Gary: So, tell us about I-Path, then.
Des: We specialize in digital pathology, which is providing what would otherwise be images seen down a microscope, through a computer image. So instead of, for educational research and clinical purposes, having to use a microscope to view and analyse an image, a pathologist can use a computer image and also bring to bear diagnostic algorithms, or research algorithms…but computer based algorithms… that can analyse an image and enhance the pathologist’s visual inspection. And there are benefits in terms of being able to transfer images across the world instantaneously for peer review, second opinion, for educational purposes, through to having algorithms that might look at specific variants of cancer and assess whether a particular slide seems to exhibit those patterns.
Gary: And is this something unique that I-Path offers?
Des: We’re the only software company of this kind in the UK. There are others elsewhere in the world. Queens is one of the leading universities in the UK for research in this area and so our partnership with Queens through Peter Hamilton, professor of pathology there gives us a very strong research base for the company. So that’s powerful, I think.
That’s very important for the particular market we’re in. As well as the ability of the Queens team to work with us, it lends credibility to the company as we grow and the networks of contacts that Peter Hamilton can bring, particularly in the educational area, is strong as well.
Gary: What stage is the company at in its development, staff and so on?
Des: We are well established in education in the UK, in both UK universities and teaching hospitals. We’ve successfully sold to these organizations & we’ve also sold into Europe, Australia and we’re developing a new front in North America at the moment…couple of partnerships there. So, what we’re doing is, having built a base in the education sector, we’re now moving much more proactively into research. It’s going to be the next phase of development of the company. We’ve already a number of clients in the research sector, but we want to drive repeatability in that.
Gary: Your markets are global?
Des: Initially the UK and then the US will be a big market for us. There are lots of other places we could go, as well – Germany, for example, is very big into digital pathology – but, I think, given where we’re at, in terms of the growth of the business, we have an established base in the UK, our home market – so that’s a no-brainer – and then North America, given its scale, the contacts we’ve got.
Gary: And it’s an indirect sales model, Des?
Des: It’s a mixture. The majority of sales to date have been direct, but we have sold some of the large implementations through partners and as we go forward, it’s going to be a combination of direct & indirect.
Gary: And your experience with Lagan in the US is going to work well for you?
Des: Hope so! In Lagan we did about 40% of our business through partners, so I don’t know what the percentage of the mix will be at I-Path, but, it will certainly be a mixture of partner and direct.
Gary: And you’re hoping for a fairly rapid growth from this point?
Des: Yes – of course I’m only here a month – so in case anybody from my board reads this, I’d better be careful! I’ll not commit just yet!
Gary: When you’re building a successful technology business, Des, what kind of management is required?
Des: Well, a lot of it is about understanding your market; and having a proposition that’s strong and differentiated. And having people that can build out both the proposition and take it to market – so good people in product, sales, marketing. And having enough funding behind you to do that. So I guess part of the skill, in terms of leadership, is being able to pull those things together. And really, setting a vision about where you want to get to, and then harnessing the various parts of the equation towards that.
Gary: So – how do you make sure everyone’s on-board with the vision?
Des: I think part of it is having a good level of involvement in setting the vision, so its not seen in any sense as a foreign or imposed thing – there’s common sense behind it, it’s been discussed and debated, not endlessly, but so that everybody’s had a chance to input into that. Because I think ownership is a really big part of this, making sure people are motivated. And I suppose, as well, that everybody has a stake in the company’s future and success.
Gary: So, if you were to summarize the key qualities of a business leader…?
Des: Setting direction, building a team, communication – internally & externally.
Gary: Looking back at the Lagan experience, if you had to do it again, what would you do differently?
Des: Probably, in one or two areas, we might have been a little more cautious about the level of ambition. Because once or twice we over-stretched ourselves. That’s one thing. And secondly – and I’m not sure how to achieve this! – making fewer mistakes in hiring people in North America. We found this to be more unpredictable than the UK.
Gary: Yes, we tend to think of North America as being just like here. You’re so familiar with it – we speak the same language & there’s an assumption that it’s just the same as here, but it’s not.
Des: No, it really isn’t. It’s different. We lived there for close on four years, but even after that, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in understanding how Americans think. It is different. Actually in some ways it would be better if they spoke a different language, then you wouldn’t be seduced into thinking it’s the same. We all watch American TV and films and it all begins to seem so familiar.
Gary: What about managing people. What are your top tips for successfully managing people?
Des: It comes back to the same things, I think – it’s about setting direction. You can’t involve everybody in this, but you can certainly communicate and talk about it and in that sense try to get a sense of ownership in the company. Having everybody aligned in the right direction is a big part of it. I was always trying, as we built out teams, to foster a sense of empowerment. There’s no way that any one person, any one leader will have the answer for everything, or no senior team – you’ve got to spread that sense of ambition and ownership across the company. So, setting a vision, communication…and listening as well.
Gary: Des, looking back over your career and your achievements, what are the things you’ve been most proud of?
Des: Well, in a business sense, the achievements at Lagan – growing a business from a shaky start to being a leader in the world in its field. And as well as working in North America and the UK, working in Australia and a variety of other places – becoming truly a global player. And I’m very proud of taking the Northern Ireland brand out into the world – one of the things about Lagan was the name: people would ask why is it called Lagan and of course you’d tell them the story about Northern Ireland. This was a great conversation opener and everybody in the company was very proud of taking this across the world. In a sense as well, given the image that Northern Ireland has had in the past, Lagan was a part – even just a small part – of helping to change that perception, and drawing attention to the skills and the quality and the commitment that there is here to doing stuff that’s high quality.
I was very proud as well of creating SX3. Taking 400 people out of a public sector culture into a commercial culture, and ultimately that became very successful. Although I was only there a short time, I’m still proud of helping set that up.
Gary: We’re sitting here in the Innovation Centre and you see all these new companies here. Do you think the future’s bright for Northern Ireland’s technology industry? And what do you think are the major challenges?
Des: I only see a small sliver of the industry, but when you see the variety of companies here in the Innovation Centre, and you compare this to the ways things were even just a few years ago, that’s a big sign of development. And there’s a huge buzz around here – Steve Orr and others have done a fantastic job. So all that is very positive. And the infrastructure and support that has been put in here is really first class.
Challenge? The availability of skills. It’s a lot tighter now to get some of the key technology skills. Part of that has been the success with inward investment and all that Invest NI has achieved. But we do need to be careful that the emphasis on FDI doesn’t stifle the indigenous companies in accessing the sort of services they need. For us, recruiting and building a team – if we’re competing with people with very deep pockets who are prepared to pay a lot of money, then that becomes tougher, obviously.