Forget the business plan; just build a great reputation!

Peter Shields, CEO, Etain

Gary: Peter, tell us a little bit about your own career so far.

Peter: I’ve a degree in Computer Science and Maths from Queens. I started as junior programmer using COBOL in Shorts in 1984, I became a Programmer-Analyst and then moved on to Logicom / Wang, working with Bro McFerran. I worked there for three & a half years and then joined Harland & Wolff & stayed for about seven years. I eventually became IT manager with 32 staff, responsible for all IT systems and CADCAM design systems & so on. For a couple of years I worked in consultancy roles with  PWC and then Vision – but all the way through this I knew I was working towards setting up my own company. So, in December 1999, I resigned from Vision and set up our own company – that’s me and a colleague from Vision, Martin Goss.

So, we’ve been nearly 12 years, and the company is called Etain – it was previously EG Information Consulting and we are in the custom software development game. Mainly Microsoft – working in .Net, Sharepoint,and mobile technology.

Gary: So, whenever you left Vision – at that stage you were starting a business from scratch, you’d no customers? Or did you have a customer to get things started with?

Peter: I was on a fairly comfortable salary, but I’d been thinking about this for a long time –we started with no customers and no idea where our customers were going to come from. Our first customer was Belfast City Airport – I’d done some work for them through Vision. And I remember saying to their CEO (John Doran), who was asking me to do some additional work – “I can’t, I’m leaving” – I explained what I was about to do, and he asked me to do the work anyway. So he became our first customer and Belfast City Airport is still a customer 11 years later.

Gary: And how hard were those first couple of years?

Peter: Both Martin and I were technical people and neither of us were sales people. In terms of winning business, we didn’t really go about it very strategically – but I was connected into a very good network of people, and whenever you’ve just started a new business and you’ve a family to feed and a couple of people to keep busy in your business – you find a way to do it.  It seems hard work, but at the time it was fun. Getting business, actually was never a problem – and we’ve always comforted ourselves, that whenever times have looked tough, we’ve always had the ability to go out and shake the trees and get work.

After that first contract, Carrickfergus Council came on very quickly – and then suddenly, within the first year, we were winning work from people we didn’t know – from people where we’d no contact and no previous relationship at all.

Gary: So at what stage did you start employing people?

Peter: In September 2000, we inherited two staff and suddenly we were two developers and two managers! So now we were not just consultants, but were able to develop systems ourselves.

Gary: Is that what you wanted to do – to build a company, rather than just the two of you doing consultancy projects?

Peter: I think we probably thought at the beginning we’d do more consultancy – but suddenly we had the opportunity to do development as well. For the first 4 or 5 years, consulting was a big piece of what we did – less so now. But the problem with consultancy is you’re limited by the time you have.

Gary: So what were the biggest hurdles you had to overcome in those early years?

Peter: As a micro-company, the jobs we were winning were small and the process was also – you sell for a bit, then you deliver for a bit, then you sell again…so cash flow and revenue flows were a bit stop-start. It’s very hard to get a consistency of revenue stream into the organization. I think that was probably the biggest challenge. Our base has always been in Northern Ireland, so part of our struggle, has been to break out, because the market here is quite constrained in terms of the type and volume of work possible. By chance, we won some work in Dublin – and suddenly, then, we had a platform. And over the last 8 or 9 years, Dublin’s been an important market for us. We do a lot of work for several banks – that took several years, of course, to get going.

Gary: So was it a matter of getting referrals or how did you win the business in Dublin?

Peter: Yes, the business largely came by referral. Referral has been a huge part of how we’ve won work. We win some tenders, but a large part of our work has come from referrals by existing customers. We’ve always operated the company on the basis that Northern Ireland is a small goldfish bowl – you can end up doing very badly if you get a bad reputation and you can do very well if your reputation is good. And our reputation has been key to our future success. We haven’t got everything right – but if we’ve ever got ourselves into a hole, we’ve managed to dig ourselves out and generally do it with some style. So our reputation in Northern Ireland is good (I think!).

And in Dublin – we’re doing exactly the same there. Reputation is key for us. To deliver work that clients will refer on. That’s a big part of what we wanted to do.

Gary: What is it that you do right in order to build that reputation?

Peter: There are three or four different ways to define your relationship with your client: you can be technology leaders – that’s not us, we’re not at the leading edge. We’re good at being operationally efficient – we’re fast to deploy, our processes are good, but the thing that really defines us is that we’re very customer intimate. We get close to the customer, we understand the customer’s pain points, we work on these – in a technical way, but recognising that the customer is often not technical, so that we can ease the pain, increase the customer’s efficiency, meet their need. And for the most part we get that done very well.

Gary: And I suppose if you do that right, then the customer will come back to you again and again. Has that been your experience?

Peter: Over the years we’ve lost very, very few customers. We’re not been working with each customer all the time – but they have systems of ours that still go on working for them. We’ve a system we developed for European Components who’ve now closed in Dundonald – but it’s still working in Poland! So, very few clients walk away from us and so, when a new opportunity comes along, we get the chance to tender for the business and, hopefully, win it.

Gary: Peter, how many people do you employ?

Peter: 34 currently. And about 27 of those are technical delivery staff – chargeable!

Gary: And what’s the key to managing those staff?

Peter: I have no idea! Because my colleague, Martin, does all the people management & I stay well away! I just manage a small sales team – there are four of us. That’s easy. But managing technical staff – hanging on to them and giving them career paths in a small company like ours – that’s a lot more complex. We don’t have the career paths that larger companies have. But to counter that – we give them great opportunities that they won’t get in a big company. We give them great experience, from start to finish, all the way through the [software] lifecycle. Whereas, typically, in a large company they’ll be very silo-ed. We try to be competitive in salary & package – but Northern Ireland is very competitive at the moment in terms of being able to hang on to key staff and good staff. We expect a huge amount from our people and to be in front of the customer at any stage. So this creates a more exciting, dynamic, fast-moving environment, which is very appealing. And we’ve a very committed staff – people who’ve been committed to us over many years. We’ve had a pretty low turnover of staff.

On the sales side – getting that team very customer intimate, getting them focussed on customer need, recognizing that we are a custom software development company. So the conversation has to start with, “what’s your problem?” and finish with “we can solve it”. But also recognizing that being creative in every project we do isn’t necessarily a good commercial model. You need a certain amount of repeatability as a starting point. But so far, we’ve been very fortunate – our sales staff have been very successful.

Gary: More generally, what would you say are the key qualities of a business leader?

Peter: A couple things. Our whole company has been based on customer care; and quality of what we do is key. These things are part of our vision. They’re key – what we’re going to do, we’re going to do well, we’re going to meet a need of the customer. So those are the over-riding things. Leadership actually is something we instil in everything we do. At the most simple level – whenever you see something going wrong, you make a fuss if it’s affecting either customer care or quality.

There’s something else which has challenged us a bit more as we’ve grown. That’s making sure the whole organization is aligned. Make everyone knows what we’re trying to do, why we’re doing it and how we’re trying to get there.

Gary: Internal communications?

Peter: Yeah. And hand on heart – we could have been better at that. We work in a single floor office and we assume everybody knows what is in everybody else’s mind. We’ve worked hard to get better at this, but we haven’t got it right every time, I’m sure. But it’s very important – that alignment of vision, practices, direction. That’s a constant struggle.

And whenever the going gets tough, the senior team in the company are very supportive, wanting to get involved to get a solution – but always wanting to let the staff get on with things.

Gary: So what is it that Peter Shields is really good at and how did you get good at it?

Peter: My strength is probably people – I’m a good networker, I don’t lose many contacts. And I enjoy coffee! So many of our business relationships have become personal friendships over the years. And that’s not done because I’ve read it in a text-book – actually, I inherited it from my mother! But maybe what am I bad at is a more interesting question! I have the attention span of a small insect! I don’t really like to get involved in the detail of projects and…that’s my big weak spot. I can map out things at a high level…what we’re trying to achieve and so on, and then move on quickly. But this suits our operations and I’ve been supported all these years by Martin particularly – he’s been the detail person and now we’ve other detail people as well.

Gary: So what are you most proud of, Peter?

Peter: Well…forming a company from scratch and growing it to a medium sized operation – it’s like having a child. It takes that level of involvement, of nurturing at every stage. It’s now 12 years old, and like my own 13 year old, it now has a life of its own – there are other people involved, not just the parents. So there’s a pride in that.

Whenever we first started, my wife said, “run it for six months and if it doesn’t work out, you can go and get a real job”. Twelve years later, she’s still saying that! But we’ve spawned something that is almost self-sustaining; yes it still needs attention, but it can sustain itself. In general, we’ve a happy customer base; in general, we’ve a reputation that we’re proud of. We’re incredibly hard on ourselves if something goes wrong – to get things fixed. And sometimes with that attitude, you can fail to look at what you’ve achieved and the solutions you’ve built, where you can say, “Wow, that really is making a difference”. You’re in business to make profit, but at the end of the day, some of the softer things are just as important, if not more so.

At the moment, we are building a solution that will be used by Sainsbury in London, so we’re now fighting well above our weight; we’ve clients outside of the UK and Ireland but every client is special to us and that gives us a lot of pride.

Gary: Finally, Peter – what advice would you give a young person coming into this industry?

Peter: Well, to be provocative – don’t read any text-books! Be naive; stay naive. Keep your enthusiasm. Customer care, quality of what you do is all important. Don’t believe half of what people tell you! Forget about writing the good business plans; be prepared to wing it! Our best decisions came whenever we were sitting with no revenue; whenever we walked away from very good salaries & had no income and no clients. Business cases have their place, but it’s not the way to run yourstartup company. You have to engage with the customer face to face. That’s my advice – be naive, walk away from the comfort zone, take the risk and be prepared to fly on your own. Most people can do it. I wish I’d done it 20 years earlier.

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About Gary Burnett

Fabrio's Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.
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