Consilium’s Colin Reid: Dolphins, football and fast-moving technology!

Consilium CEO, Colin Reid

Gary: So Colin, tell us a bit about Consilium

Colin: The business used to be Task Software and focused very much on the local government market, originally in Northern Ireland and then into GB, supplying finance systems, works order management systems, for local authorities. We took on VC investment a number of years ago, changed the name to Consilium Technologies and we started doing some broader stuff, we offered our solutions ASP hosted. I suppose you’d call it Cloud now!

But over the last few years we’ve morphed into a mobile company. So when we were looking at workforce management, we saw that there were devices and technologies around that can be put into the hands of the maintenance workers to make them more efficient. We  decided to do it as a bigger thing, rather than just a bolt-on to our existing product. If you look at a large local authority, there are lots of areas where there is scope for mobile workers – from social workers to maintenance workers to environmental health inspectors. So the brief was – can we come up with one product out of the box that was enterprise wide and can be configured to give a solution for all those different areas? And that’s what we did.

And we’ve been in the mobile space, mainly, for the last few years. Still doing our finance systems and so on. But the new business and the growth is all from the mobile side.

When we first did it, Windows Mobile was the only game in town, but if you look over the last year or two, with Apple and Android and RIM (albeit they seem to be on a downward slide), it’s all much more complex. So just this year we brought out Total Mobile 5 which is multi-platform and provides a native experience on every different device. And we’re getting really good traction with that now.

I think we were probably very early into the market – a few years too early – we could see the potential and the opportunity but customers have been slow to embrace that

Gary: But I guess that’s now starting to pay dividends?

It is. Of course it was good that we were early, because we got a lead on the competition. But it’s as if mobile has only existed since Apple came to the market. Which is funny, because our CTO has been running around with a Tablet for years – you remember Microsoft had a Tablet PC, but it never really took off?  People think this industry has been invented by Apple, because they’ve done such a phenomenally good job in their marketing.

And the key difference is the speed of change with mobile. Mobile has been in the industry for a long time but it’s is the first technology where the consumer is driving the enterprise. Think back to the days when the first PCs came out – they came into business first and then eventually reached the home. With the mobile stuff over the past 2, 3 years, it’s been the opposite. It’s consumers that have been running around with their iPhones, Android phones, Tablets and so on. And it’s only now that the enterprise is trying to catch up. And now we’re seeing organizations saying to their people – bring your own device. So it’s no longer the company providing and mandating your Blackberry – people are saying, no, I want to use the device I like using and companies are having to face up to that.

Gary: How does that sit with the public sector with their security requirements and so on?

Colin: Badly! They are still very focused on security and of course that is very important. But I think they are starting to take a more risk-based approach. To date, certainly in Northern Ireland, it’s been “Blackberry or nothing” or a locked-down laptop, but, it’s like King Canute and the tide – this stuff’s not going away, you’ve got to embrace it. And to be honest, the Apple stuff is secure, the data can be locked down. Android – there can be issues, but there are tools out there to make it secure and manage that.

Gary: So when you’re going to a new organization, you’re approaching them as an enterprise mobile supplier?

Colin: Well, on some occasions we’re going in with a point solution, so it all depends. We still do all the local government stuff, but health is now a big focus for us. We did our first piece of work with a local Trust and we have some good stuff going on in health in GB too.

Gary: Presumably that’s a slow market to try and get into?

Colin: It is, but our timing I think is very good, because the National Project [NHS National Programme for IT] has now been killed off. Over the last number of years, that was the only show in town and even though people knew it wasn’t delivering, there was no other option. But now it’s down to Trusts to sort out their own issues.

But when we go to an organization, it’s all about delivering return on investment. In all my years in the industry, this is the first technology where you can actually see clear return on investment, and very quickly. We always said that the back-office systems we sold in the past would give you benefits, but it was always very hard to really quantify that. So for example, we put Total Mobile into Aberdeen City Council, into their maintenance department, 250 operatives, and they saved £1.5m per annum. Because the guys don’t have to come into the depot to get their instructions, they stay out there, they get more jobs done, it’s just all more productive.

Gary: So that starts to make your sales proposition very compelling.

Colin: It does. You have that business case. And then, in certain areas, compliance can be very important, so again, with the mobile technology, you can have it set up so that when the employee says “I’ve arrived”, it takes the GPS co-ordinates, date and time, so you know they were there. They can take photographs. You’ve got proof points to show that people have done what they said they would do and the organization can show compliance.

Gary: And you’re working across the UK. Have you any other territories for your business?

Massachusetts Convention Centre.

Colin: Yes, we do some stuff in the US as well. We’ve a small office in Boston and we’ve a number of customers at the State local government level. From a mobile flu’ clinic to public safety at the Massachusetts Convention Centre.

Gary: That could be a massive market for you. Are you putting a lot of effort into developing that market?

Colin: It is a massive market, and that’s the challenge. Because it’s so big – for a small company, where do you focus? Do you focus on a particular vertical or solution, or on a particular geography? And each State is different. So  you’ve got to pick your market niches. We’re also cultivating some partners in the States – we’re working with AT&T, we’re doing some stuff with CGI and a couple of smaller, regional partners. And we see that as an important way forward for us.

We made our first foray into Europe recently, so we now have a partner in the Netherlands who are reselling Total Mobile there. Again they are focused on Local Government, Healthcare and Utilities.

Gary: So where are the major opportunities for Consilium – is it developing these other geographies, is it developing the product further, or developing you own customer base?

Colin: All of those. But we do see Health as a big opportunity so we’re putting a lot of resource behind that. Also we’ve been starting to do some stuff in the private sector, mainly around  the Facilities Management and Compliance areas, e.g. Health & Safety. FM companies have a lot of compliance issues, so we can help them with that and give them productivity benefits.

Gary: So, what are the big challenges for you. Is it competitors, or is it getting the right people to grow the organization or….?

Colin: The skills challenge in Northern Ireland is certainly there – getting really good developers is increasingly tough. That’s something we have to be mindful of. But also, growing the sales and marketing is a challenge. We have a world-class product in Total Mobile 5, it’s ahead of the competition, but what we really need to do is execute on the sales and marketing. We’re trying to grow our partner base – we’re now working with partners like BT, Capita, Fujitsu,  Vodafone and Serco. And we need to get new sales people out in the market to help us grow our market share in new sectors like health.

Gary: How do you find getting the right sales people?

Colin: Sales people are tough to get. I always think – if somebody’s being a very successful sales person, why would they leave their own organization? I always think – are all the salespeople on the market those who haven’t cut it for some reason? And if you’re selling at an enterprise level and you get guys in from the bigger companies, then there’s the culture problem of them fitting in at a smaller company.

So yes, it’s difficult to get sales people. And the sales cycles can be relatively long, so even when you get somebody, it can be 6, 9 months before you know whether it’s working out or not. And there’s a big cost if it doesn’t.

And over the years, there’s always been good assistance from Invest NI for marketing – but never sales. And yet sales is always more important than marketing! But if you could get, say, 50% assistance so that you could take on two guys instead of one, you could have some resilience if one of them failed.

Gary: Back in the good old days, when you and I started out, you had big companies like IBM and ICL with 2 year programmes to turn out professional sales people, who got experience and then who moved on to small companies with that solid experience. Even the big companies aren’t doing that now…

Colin: That’s right – if you look at people in the industry like Brian Baird or Bro McFerran, some of the major players – all these people were once with big companies. One of our guys was able to get on an ICL sales course years ago and we still use their methodology for strategic selling. But since those big companies stopped doing that, it’s become more difficult.

Gary: Colin, tell us a bit about your own career, Colin. Your role and job has changed a great deal, presumably, over the years as the company has changed. You were one of the founders of the original company?

Colin: I’m a Business Studies graduate, so I’m not a technical person and I started my career in local government as a finance manager and I had responsibility also for IT. And I did some lecturing and consultancy and got involved with the guys when they were setting up Task Software, initially part-time. But then I came aboard as Commercial Director and became Chief Executive in the late ‘90s. At that stage we were neither lifestyle nor growth as a company – probably the worst place to be. So we decided to go for growth and get some funding. And since then, we’ve been growing the business. And as you take on people, you get various break points – when you’ve just 10 people, you don’t have to worry about communications, because everybody heard every phone call! And then you get to 20, 50, then over a hundred  – and you have got to get the right people to manage the right areas.

Gary: So you have a vision for where you want to take the company. How do you make sure you get everybody on-board with that?

Colin: You make sure you’ve got good people around you. And communication. We put a lot of effort into this – we have staff meetings to let people know what’s going on in the company, what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, the importance. That’s particularly important in our area, the mobile space, because it’s moving at such speed. We’ve changed how we do things, the markets we’re in, even how we do our development – for the last few years we’ve been into Agile development, so communication is important.

And we all make mistakes – no doubt I’ve made every mistake that’s ever been made! It’s the speed at which you learn that’s important. If you try something that’s not working, then change it. That’s the key.

Gary: Technology is moving so fast, you’ve got to continually develop your products. How do you keep make sure you’re keeping the company moving forward in such a fast moving space?

Colin: It’s engagement external to the organization. On the one level you’re plugged into your customers and you need to know their market, what are the drivers. So, for example with health – they’ve got to make $20bn efficiency savings by 2015. There’s compliance issues, you’re looking at what are the main drivers – there’s a reorganisation coming. So we’re saying, how can we help them with this, how can our products help them better meet their business objectives? But then on the other hand, you’re looking at all the technology trends – looking at the blogs, the magazines, going to events, talking to other companies.

Gary: Is that more important for you to do than it ever was before?

Colin: Yes, because the pace of change is so great. A little over a year ago, I went to Blackberry World in Orlando, the pace was buzzing. RIM had 50% of the Enterprise mobility market in the US. Fast forward one year. 68% of those who gone a year previously didn’t bother going to Blackberry World this time round. Two years ago the iPad didn’t exist, or 5 years ago the  iPhone. When the iPad first came out people said – who needs that, what will we use it for? It’s just phenomenal, the pace of change.

The mobile stuff is moving at fashion speed. Before you got an iteration of a technology which lasted a few years and you could have planned a bit more. But things have changed. And this is the norm, it’s not a blip. There are big challenges – a shorter product life means a shorter period in which to get your return. So from a sales & marketing point of view, how do you get your technology out there very, very quickly to get that return.

Gary: So what is it that keeps it fresh for you, Colin? Is it the continual challenge you’ve highlighted of the pace of change, how you respond to it?

Colin: It’s that and seeing the people in your organization grow and seeing the other things you’ve achieved – delivering for customers, getting into a new market. I remember the first time we got a customer outside of Northern Ireland – that was a big deal for us. And then when a major company wants to be a partner – somebody like Capita or Fujitsu – who wants to ditch their own product and take on yours. Or you go to the US and win business. It’s not just the technology, it’s the things the business has achieved and how it’s adapted and grown.

Gary: So what are you really good at and how did you get good at it?

Colin: Better to ask other people! I think maybe what I’m good at is seeing the bigger picture, not getting bogged down in the detail. And it’s partly because I’m not a techie. I’m always looking at “what can this do for the customer?” And I can quickly understand technology and trends from a high level point of view. And then acting on it. So seeing the bigger picture so you can make the right sort of decision. It is critical to be decisive, make quick decisions rather than waiting for more analysis. You will never have enough information. And being prepared to change. If you’ve gone wrong – change quickly, don’t get hung up on an ego or be afraid to admit mistakes.

Gary: How does that work for smaller companies, which can be very focused on just getting in the revenue, paying the salaries, all hands to the pump. It can be very difficult for the management in a small company to take a step back and think – what’s the big picture, where do we want to go. They’re just so caught up in the day to day. Is that OK at that stage, or do you still need to be paying attention to the bigger picture?

Colin: It’s a balance. At the start you’ve got to have a niche focus and be able to deliver what’s required. You can’t afford to look at things from too high a level. It’s a bit like a dolphin – you dive in to the detail for a while and then come back above the surface for air and see around you. You can’t be always at the high level or always at the detail level. It’s getting that balance. The more high tech your business is, where there’s a great pace of change, the more important it is to keep looking outward and see what’s happening in the wider technology world.

Gary: Colin, sounds like you’ve a best selling business book there – the Dolphin Model!

Colin: I have another idea actually! The business as a football club! So the strikers are your sales guys, they bring in the orders, they can win you the game. Your defence can’t win you the game, but they can lose it for you – the business defence is your support capability, your after-sales service. And then the mid-field is the product development guys, linking the two.  And of course, when you’re defending a corner, the strikers gotta be back in the box – you got some customer issues, then sales guys, you got to be back in there sorting that out, even though your main role is up front.

And then with a football team, at each stage of your progress – Championship to Premier League to Europe, you’ve got to make sure you have the right team for each stage. Same in a business – you might need some different “players” to help you once you qualify for Europe, so to speak, or start doing business internationally.

You see Gary, you shouldn’t have got me started on football. At least we didn’t get on to Manchester United or we really would have been here all day …


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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