- Wise Words -
by martin leuw
I have been lucky in many ways. I have a family, friends and have also experienced business success. What I want to write about is while many of us have the talent to succeed professionally, the determining factor can be down to a choice of which opportunity to take, which door to walk through. It really can be as simple as a sliding doors moment.
I say this not to diminish anyone’s success and hard work, but also so that all of us who are striving for it but are not quite getting there don’t get frustrated, instead keep on going, so that when the door opens, you too can walk through it and if you happen to walk through the “wrong” door you don’t berate yourself too much.
Here’s my greatest sliding doors moment and it came after a crisis.
The year was 2001. The .com bubble had just popped. I’d literally fallen into the tech sector by chance and spent the previous two years running an early stage healthtech business, MediDesk which we’d pivoted into a .com. Three VC investors, one strategic, a JV, 20 pharmaceutical loan note holders and about 50 employees. I’d run myself ragged trying to satisfy the needs of all our stakeholders including a fast track route to an IPO which we’d pulled at the 11th hour as the market crashed in March 2000 – we were a week behind lastminute.com but that week was a lifetime. The music had stopped and there were literally no chairs left to sit on.
I’d then spent the next 12 months frantically trying to find a home for the business, culminating in a successful exit, on the day we ran out of cash only then to have the new owners direct me to make most of the people who had built the company with me redundant. A severe emotional low point, with the final roll of the dice, being my departure as there was only room for one CEO. Looking back on it, as I approached my late 30’s with two young kids and a mortgage, it’s surprising I had the much left in the tank to look for a new venture. But needs must and fortunately I did. I don’t recall mental health awareness being much of a topic in business 20 years ago, but it was certainly stressful.
Greasing the doors
I have always placed huge importance on building a strong network by helping others where I can. Whilst in 2001 we were in the midst of a tech downturn and a severe loss of business confidence, so to my surprise, my network delivered two new CEO opportunities quite quickly. They were very different. This was my sliding doors moment….
The first was to become CEO of an early stage neural network (precursor to AI) driven cardio ECG monitor that had the potential to revolutionise health monitoring. Accenture had assessed the world market at $1 billion+. At the interview I asked to understand how the kit worked and they wired me up and continued to ask the interview questions – were they monitoring my heart rhythms as some sort of truth detector? A novel approach.
The second was a small software business called Transaction Technology that automated statutory and fiscal returns for accountants to service their clients better- Sage was the Goliath in the sector. The introduction came via my former CFO at MediDesk who knew the Founder, as they walked their dogs together and he had mentioned he was retiring and had just sold a majority stake to the PE house LDC and was looking for a successor.
But which door?
My heart was super excited by the cardio neural network opportunity (no pun intended) and the technological and commercial potential. However, it was very early stage and I had just been on a high-risk roller coaster so how much risk did I want to take this time? Furthermore, I have learned more from my mistakes than my successes and before I joined MediDesk I had not done as much due diligence as I should have and having run healthcare businesses for around 6 years I had seen how the available technology seemed to run well ahead of market adoption. Would this be a re-run?
My head was telling me to look in more detail at the accountancy software vendor. A major concern was that I had trained as a Chartered Accountant as a means to an end (I was more literate than numerate!) but hadn’t particularly enjoyed it. It was a much more stable business, with profits of £2m, revenues of £9m and 100 employees. Of particular importance was the commercial due diligence which confirmed that not only did the customers love the product and service, but there were some technical design advantages that competitors would find hard to replicate. Finally, I really liked all the people I met and felt that we could work as a strong team.
Right Move or Wrong Move?
I will never know what might have happened if I had joined the cardio business. What I do know is that Transaction Technology, which we re-branded as IRIS Software grew to become one of the largest UK software businesses, a pioneer in subscription (later to become SAAS) software and a market leader in most of its chosen sectors, pushing Sage out of the #1 position in software accoutancy packages and providing software to over 50% of UK accountancy practices as well as other professional services groups and payroll too. We went through 3 PE backed MBOs, grew to 1,200 employees with EBITDA of £50m, industry leading recurring revenue and customer retention and a $1 Billion exit value in 2007.
This was my sliding doors moment, in a blink…
More business-related content from Martin: "Getting Match Fit" on E2E's Business (un) Usual video channel
Careers: "Career as a Journey" and "Careers Happen"
Networking & People: "Be a Giver", "Reputations Travel" and "Networking as a Relationship"
Stress Management: "Overwhelmed? Take a Mental Refresh"
Layoffs: "How I Came Back From Being Laid Off", "Laid Off? Take a Breath" and "Survivor's Guilt"
Martin Leuw is Founder of Growth4Good, which invests in high growth purpose led businesses in the digital technology sector, principally in social and environmental change.
He is also Chairman of Leathwaite, an international human capital specialist and Ground Control a leading environmental maintenance services provider. Earlier in his career, Martin was CEO of IRIS Software and grew it from small beginnings to become a market leader in each of its sectors and one of the UK’s largest private B2B (SAAS) software houses, with £50m EBITDA pa, exiting in 2007 at $1bn EV.