Roll back to New Year’s Eve 2019 and the technology industry was looking forward optimistically to a new decade of advancement and achievement. Investment funds in cloud B2B applications was increasing to record levels across Europe, the UK tech scene was flourishing, and the ERP cloud market was starting to evolve into the era of the ‘experience economy’. Everything felt good and the world was full of opportunity. However, by the end of April 2020 we found ourselves in what could be described as a global economic apocalypse due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

We will beat this terrible disease that has caused such devastation to our lives and our economy. Its impact for some will affect the rest of their lives as we mourn loved ones lost, and economically, I predict we are looking at least five to seven years for full recovery. 

Regardless of how dire the situation has become we have to look forward positively and rebuild. With any crisis opportunities emerge that can make a positive impact. We just have to be brave enough to take them.

The crisis has inadvertently accelerated the need and use of digital technology. Those enterprises that have deferred their digital transformation have found themselves having to accelerate their plans and immediately adapt to support new ways of working. 

For some organisations it has been too little too late and unfortunately what we are seeing is pure Darwinism; ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent – it is the one that is the most adaptable to change’. Organisations that continue to produce over-engineered business cases, lengthy procurements, and inaction around decision making I will just be diplomatic and say nothing, but hopefully you get my point.

We are at ground zero and the only way is up in rebuilding our economy. At the 9/11 memorial in the wonderful city of New York there is a message carved into the wall that has always struck a chord and the words are just as meaningful today as we face this global crisis. It simply says; “We came in as individuals. And we’ll walk out together.”. In any progressive society we all have a role to play.

SMEs are now more important than ever

The technology industry thrives on start-ups and small companies as this is where you find the risk takers pioneering innovation and new ideas. These are the people that create businesses from nothing, where the kitchen table and the garage are the innovation labs of the future. Often short of cash, such individuals pursue their ideas by being highly creative searching to deliver solutions that just make the world a better place. They create wealth in various forms, usually through employment of others and where the smart ones focus heavily on developing talent contributing to the industry and the wider economy. 

Consequently, more than ever we need to support this market segment as this will become a key element of the engine room for rebuilding our economy. 

Continued government support will be key

Kick starting the economy is down to the government. In such unprecedented times, whilst criticism will always be present, I personally feel Rishi Sunak, chancellor of the exchequer, could not have done anything more than the multiple initiatives he has taken. The stimulus package has been constant – Deferred VAT, Business Tax Relief, CBILS, Furlough Scheme, Future Fund and the Bounce Back Loan.

Unfortunately, it always takes time from announcement to action, and time is an extremely precious resource that many in the SME world do not have – some businesses will unfortunately still go under. However, for those that have been able to access the measures, we need to ensure that government leaves these funding options in place for a significant amount of time. This is going to be critical as suddenly withdrawing the support will create just as many problems.

Opportunities a-plenty

Technology advancement in regard to digital solutions comes in many forms and what has happened will make a profound difference on how we think and undertake work. From the obvious advances in video-communication technology and collaborative software platforms, through to the back office including:

Tim Warner, former chairman of Certus Solutions, said: “Cloud technologies have already enabled us to adapt to seismic unexpected change, the challenge now is to continue the journey to innovate and make the world a better place”.  

The market should be more receptive now than ever to new digitalised solutions.

We need one another – life is about human contact

Despite championing technology advancement, if there is one thing humans value above all else it is social contact. 

Our time on this planet is limited. Some of us might live to 100, others will live shorter lives. But in the time we do have, wouldn’t you want to spend it with your loved ones and friends? Innovation should drive our physical social contact upwards and allow us to get on celebrating and enjoying life.

Technology therefore should achieve two things at a minimum; firstly, make the work we do more fulfilling by eliminating the mundane and providing us with learning experiences; and secondly, create more time! 

People contribute in many ways – entrepreneurs have their role

We all contribute in different ways, and whilst the NHS and those on the front line are leading the efforts to tackle the crisis, I know that entrepreneurs will also play their part as they continue to innovate, generate tax revenues and further wealth creation opportunities for all. One thing is for certain, there is a lot of hard work ahead If we want a better future, but for now #staysafe everyone.   

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer, companies I invest in or am associated with. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This article is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published on May 5, 2020

The magic dust of a Great Business Partnership

Jobs & Wozniak, Gates & Allen, Laurel & Hardy, Sweeny & Warner? Well we haven’t quite reached their level of success, but I am often asked about the business partnership Tim Warner and myself have had and why it was so successful? why did it work so well? and why has it lasted 15 years?

So, on Tim’s departure this week from Accenture after the successful sale of Certus Solutions we both thought it would be an appropriate time to provide a brief insight on why our partnership has worked.

Believe it or not, it’s something we have never actually discussed before, let alone written about and then made public. However, we think there is value here and if we can positively influence and help someone then it is worth it. If nothing else, it allows me to say thank you to Tim for what has been one hell of a journey.

First Date – A little bit of history…

I first met Tim on HM Prison Service Shared Services Phoenix Programme in 2005. Today, many people know this as Shared Services Connected Ltd (SSCL), a venture now owned by Sopra Steria and the Cabinet Office, but we were proud to be part of a truly wonderful team of people whose commitment and diversity of skill under pinned one of the most successful Central Government Shared Services programmes conceived and who can really turn around and say “we built the place!”. Phoenix was also the origin of where Certus Solutions was founded.

Tim was working as a contract Solution Architect for the incumbent supplier, and I was working as the client-side contract Project Manager. Tim instantly made his presence felt on the programme through his expert product knowledge, which seemed to be absolutely endless, and his unique ability to work with the customer to find pragmatic solutions to the myriad of problems we seemed to lay at his door.

For myself, managing something as large and as complex as the HR and Payroll side of the Phoenix Programme (45,000+ employees then) with all its moving parts in a tough operational environment, I was grateful he was on the team. You can just imagine my shock and horror when, shall we say “diplomatically”, Tim had a contract dispute on the supply side which resulted in the supplier Account Manager walking up to me to tell me late on a Friday afternoon that one of our star players was leaving immediately as he didn’t fit their company profile and there was absolutely nothing he could do!?!?!?!. By Monday morning Tim was working directly for me client side and you can say the rest is history. (Who says Tim Warner isn’t a maverick?)

Many successful deliveries followed. Our view was simple, surround yourself with a small highly skilled team of the very best people and successful delivery will be the only outcome with a happy customer. Client advocacy is everything, and our relationship with the HM Prison Service, then National Offender Management Services and ultimately the Ministry of Justice just grew from strength to strength, simply because we delivered every single time on fast-moving complex Oracle back office programmes. We were straight talking, easy to work with, experts in what we did, and got the job done in the right way. Fundamentally we loved what we did, and everyday we felt we were contributing to the Public Sector. Quite simply by using us we minimised the delivery risk in the equation every-time. Projects didn’t fail when we were involved.

In 2009 we were presented with an opportunity that would cement our business partnership, and would see the second incarnation of Certus Solutions born where we would hold initially a 50% stake each, a deal which was done very quickly over a glass of red wine and on a handshake.

These were the days before G-Cloud, where major Government contracts were the domain strictly limited to the large SI’s and the concept of an SME bidding was frankly unheard of. However, with some highly creative deal shaping, careful positioning, and finding a financial backer in an AIM listed £100m market cap company, we came up with a differentiated value proposition and walked out with a £6.1m services contract from HM Government. Not bad for two boys from Guildford with a few power-point slides, but that is what real selling is like at the absolute edge. Seize the opportunity, seize the moment. But remember you have to always deliver on the promise.

Within hours of being given preferred supplier status the cry of “Avengers Assemble” was issued, and one of the very best contract teams ever assembled (you know who you all are!) then proceeded to work for 6 days a week for 18 months to pull off not just one, but two major Shared Services programmes.

From that we had the start-up capital to create the third and final iteration of Certus Solutions in late 2011, the original pioneers of Oracle Cloud SaaS applications in UK&I, that was eventually sold to Accenture in May 2018. We will leave the rest of that story for the book! (yes, it is still coming)

What’s the Magic Dust?

That kind of success is not down to luck. Far from it. You have to create your own luck, and it takes real ability to see business opportunity, a lot of hard work as well as a large appetite for personal financial risk. But without doubt there was and has always been a real business chemistry between us as we would always really listen to one another and think about what each other was saying. 

Between us we had what can only be described as “balance”, the “yin and yang” of business. In doing so we also found immediately that by pooling our joint resources and working together, our output multiplied. It really was a case of 1 + 1 = 3, or in our case 5, and when we recruited the Executive Team of Certus (Richard Atkins, Ian Carline, Mary Thethi, and Rob English), the extrapolation increased by many more multiples. Throw in the likes of Debra Lilley, Charlene Young, Ryan Jackson, Tom Mann et al with the experience of Peter Jenkins and James Ham, and you are seriously cooking on gas!

However, under pinning this for us subconsciously, we had the following ingredients which when mixed together create the so called “magic dust”. So, if you are looking for a business partner we would suggest you use this as a checklist.  

1.     Same Values & Integrity

First and foremost, we both shared, and still do, the same core values. We don’t make businesses overly complicated and our values are pretty simple:    

2.     Trust & Transparency

We have incredible amounts of trust between us; and that means we have always had to be completely transparent with one another. We never promise each other something that could not be delivered, and we always instinctively know the decisions we needed to make together, rather than alone.

This also means you have to have hard talks about money. We had some really tough times, we were nearly bankrupt with six hours from closing the doors on one occasion, albeit the root cause wasn’t actually down to us; hence my constant distain for high street retail banks when they say they are small businesses best friend. Trust us when we say, they are not.

3.     Agreed Vision – A Shared Goal

From the outset we agreed the vision and what the desired outcome was, and then planned the journey to reach our destination. Whilst the route constantly changed at times, we were never ever detracted from what we were trying to achieve which was “building a company of value” and achieving the end-game.

Value isn’t just financial reward, but real tangible things like working with people you like; seeing your customers succeed through things you do; seeing the people who work for you grow; providing new learning opportunities; being able to share the wealth generated amongst everyone and also by just having a lot of fun and a great time.

It’s really all about looking after the “family”, because if you do, the family will also look after you.

4.     Decide Who the Real Leader Is

Time to park the ego at the door. Regardless of business partnerships, Companies cannot be run as a democracy. My role from the outset was to lead the Company and set the direction, Tim’s role was to ensure there was the right amount of governance around me so that I didn’t screw up. By being the Chief Executive, I had a responsibility to report to Tim as the Chairman. This worked really well, it helped me to constantly focus on what I was doing, and also ensured that I always knew I had someone who had my back covered. It really did bring the very best out of me.

We didn’t agree all the time and would occasionally agree to disagree. Infact I can only remember us ever having two proper arguments in all the time we have known each other. 

Finally, we both recognised, depending on how the journey progressed, that one day one of us, or even both of us would not be the right persons to take the Company to the next level. Some people are always shocked when we say this, however we both know this is what experience and maturity looks like in practice. As a Company grows, different skills are needed at different times. “C” suite roles are not immune from this, and a hard fact is that the people you start the journey off with are not necessarily the same ones you end up with at the end. We were lucky in that respect as we did.

5.     Complimentary Skills Sets

Our technical skills sets were complimentary. Tim was the Oracle Product Expert and managed the Oracle relationship, I was the Project Manager and the Deal Maker. This gave us perfect technical balance. When the others Exec’s initially joined, we maintained this balance, on a technical practitioner level – 3 Project Managers (myself, Mary and Rob) with 3 Solution Architects (Tim, Richard, and Ian).

6.     Complimentary Styles

People who know us, will really laugh at this point. But it really is important. 

Our management and personality styles are very different. I know at times I come across as the “Boy from South East London” (Not Peckham, more Bexleyheath); but whilst I know some see this as a major weakness, I see it as a differentiator. Remember, when you are in a procurement competition, one Consultancy or Professional Services organisation can usually just look like another. Now in this day and age, people may consciously play around with the diversity and inclusivity mix just to be different but being different for me is bringing out your authentic self. I don’t “b***sh**” and I don’t expect it back, my time is just too precious. I just want to do great work and make happy customers. If you buy into me I will get you to where you want to be. Just play fair and I will be standing by you holding your hand every step of the way. 

Now that style will not always win the day. In-fact for some people it is a complete turn off. However, if your business partner is the opposite – a less extrovert personality that talks with a quiet confidence then that equally can be just as effective. Consequently, we would always discuss who was the right person to “front” something based upon who was sitting opposite us. It was at these times it didn’t matter who led, so long as we won.

Trust me when we say put both personalities together and you have the absolute best of both worlds. Certus would not have been the success that it was if we had had two Tim Warner’s or two Mark Sweeny’s.

7.     Empowered Decision Making

We empowered each other to make decisions. The ability to act really fast and decisively is a real game changer when dealing with an SME, you can absolutely kill the competition stone dead with speed. However, good governance is still required. So, we had pre-agreed rate-cards and deal levels, pretty much up to £250K we could do on the spot. Anything, larger would need a conversation, and even then this was done quickly. The checks and balances in running a business are really important, we cannot stress that enough.  

What’s Next?

We found each other by chance and we were not the best of friends who socialised together. We were business partners, who had and still have a high degree of integrity and trust with one another. Over time, we have become friends, and are always there for one another. 

Our values shaped the culture of Certus, and we lived and breathed them subconsciously and looked for those individuals that shared the same values as we did and were at or really wanted to be at the very top of their game. Work for us means it has to be fun, and the social banter in the office is something we both personally miss. Every morning we would both look forward to getting to the office just to be around the team. Also solving complex problems together is a lot easier than just doing it on your own. 

What’s next?, who knows?, but they say “The Phoenix has to burn before it rises”. As Tim enters semi-retirement looking over the mountains in Switzerland, I can only say we really did disrupt the market and thank you for being the best Business Partner ever.

Mark Sweeny

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published on March 21, 2020

Managing in a Storm of Uncertainty and a World of Hurt

Looking at the current global economic crisis and reflecting back on my own personal journey as a business owner, I can’t remember ever facing such a perilous and frankly scary situation as what small business owners must be going through right now. But I do know what it is like to nearly go bankrupt and lose everything, and also having businesses not work out, so my heart genuinely goes out to all of you as I know many people are having sleepless nights right now. The economic impact of Coronavirus will be generational but right now we have an immediate crisis to deal with as we are in a world of hurt.

The ABC basics they teach you in First Aid when putting the patient into the recovery position equally applies to business. A = Airway, B = Breathing, C = Circulation. As a Chief Executive survival has to be at the forefront of your mind, growth and expansion are no good to anyone if you are not breathing. So, if your business does not have a clear airway, is not breathing properly and the blood not circulating correctly, then you are in trouble. The current economic crisis has put businesses, especially SME’s, into shock. Now you have to come around quickly and get moving.

Whilst I don’t have a magic wand to fix anything, I can contribute in so much as to what I would do if I was sitting in the Chief Exec’s Chair again of a small business facing the current situation. Some of this maybe common sense but even these pieces of advice hopefully can act as a check list of sorts for someone.

This list is far from exhaustive; and we are going to be all living with the effects of this crisis for probably a decade once it passes. Stock markets and the global economy are not going to recover overnight. Look at the recovery periods of the FTSE and the Dow Jones, post 1987 (Black Monday), 1992 (Euro), 2001-2002 (Dot Com Bubble), 2008 (Financial Crisis), but be assured that the markets always do recover and remember what triggered all of this was not a financial crisis.

I do hope this short blog is of some help and my thoughts and best wishes are genuinely with you all. It may come across as extremely self-centred, but when you are the Chief Executive of a company, especially of your own company, the buck stops with you. So I am not going to apologise for that. You have nowhere to hide, and you have responsibilities to your employees, customers, shareholders as well as to yourself and your own family.

As I have said so many times before, if you don’t look after your employees then you won’t have a business. So, right now you have to do the right thing by them for everyone. It’s tough sitting in the big chair, many think they can do it, the reality is few actually can. But for those who do, I know that you will steer your ship successfully through the stormy seas ahead and I also know that you will be truly amazed how your people will rally around you and how much you will learn about oneself.

If anyone wants to talk through where they are, then feel free to connect and direct message me. If I can help, more than happy to do so.

Stay Safe – Mark

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published 29th February 2020

Discovering the Spirit of the Entrepreneur

I have to admit, the word entrepreneur was something for many years I used to personally cringe at. “The Apprentice” didn’t help matters (though I absolutely love the programme and was lucky enough to be in New York when the very first series was launched and remember being glued to the TV every night). But it was really for the fact that I had been fortunate enough to work closely for two very successful entrepreneurs during the late 90’s early 00’s who cashed out for hundreds of millions of pounds and in all my time I worked with them they never used the word once.

These were people who took massive risks, laid everything on the line, and came through the other side both having previous businesses that hadn’t performed well. From my perspective these were people that had earned the right to use the word, where others were metaphorically falsely laying claim to the throne. Equally I would roll my eyes when the corporate world invented the word “intrapreneur” – I think I will leave the debate and my views on that right here.

However, it was during a “reality check” session with one of my own mentors and advisors at Certus when I was told I should just accept that I was a serial entrepreneur and I should embrace that fact. The context being that I had just closed a major deal in under 48 hours, something that a big SI would have taken 6-8 weeks to agree, how? – because quite simply I was prepared to take a calculated risk and was prepared to close the opportunity there and then. How many people can actually do that? what was I complaining about? Two business failures behind me, it was now my time to be in the sun.

This blog is about providing some insight into what the essence of entrepreneurial spirit actually is. I will also touch upon when this also can become highly destructive to a business.

So how does this help you, the reader? Well hopefully it gives you some insight into the mindset, and maybe something to think about, or potentially apply in your own career.

Exploring the DNA of the Entrepreneur 

For me, the essence of entrepreneurial spirit is the DNA of the entrepreneur. Consequently, you can identify a number of characteristics, but it is the totality of all of these that come together that creates the driving force.

Few people are born with every characteristic I have identified, and the list is by no means exhaustive. However, I do know there are elements that you can learn and can embrace, because I did. 

Equally you still have to have a healthy appetite for calculated risk; an eye for business opportunity and naturally a willingness to actually go do something? 

Passion channelled correctly by being “your authentic self” brings the human dynamic to your product, your service and ultimately to your business venture. If you are not passionate about what you do, how can you inspire others to be? Entrepreneurs are full of passion for what they do.

What does this really mean? Simply, you have to be able to make things happen and to do that you need to have and maintain a positive mindset. Even to the extent sometimes you just have to be “bloody minded” about things. Think SAS: Who Dares Wins or Rocky Balboa, and you won’t go far wrong. Delivery is absolutely everything. You have to find a way to solve the challenges in front of you. Entrepreneurs do not like to be around negative people, so they surround themselves with people who have a similar mindset and outlook. 

Entrepreneurs don’t like structure or bureaucracy; indecision; lack of ownership; delay; and having someone manage them. Freedom to make your own decisions and knowing that you have to perform just to eat every day are great drivers for success. Annual appraisals don’t cut it in the world of entrepreneurs. It’s also a lens that doesn’t recognise “50 Shades of Grey” either (probably the wrong metaphor, but you get the point). You either win or lose and trust me when I say you know when you’re winning and you especially know when you are losing. 

Breaking the rules, having a healthy distaste for the status quo and an open mind willing to explore whilst learning as you go. Defining a new market? even better as you get to write all your own rules as you are going along.  (Big Smile)

Entrepreneur’s don’t have any hang ups regarding failure. If something you try fails, you just learn from it and move on quickly. The rule being just don’t repeat the mistake. The much-scorned old adage of “Fail Fast” has in my opinion a lot of merit when taken in the right context. 

From my experience no one starts a business just to get rich. Yes, it’s a great outcome if you can make a lot of money, but if that’s your primary goal I doubt you will ever really be successful. An entrepreneur’s “drive” often comes from the simple desire to solve an annoying business problem and/or kill a customer pain point by applying and delivering a “better, cheaper, faster” solution. 

To solve the problem, you have to be brave and just think differently often being prepared to go where no-one has been before or be willing to choose a path that those around you are not prepared to go. Think Robin Williams Dead Poets Society, standing on a desk “the world looks different from up there”. That’s always a good place to start.

The ability to sell a vision regardless whether you are talking to an individual or to the masses. Communication is critical and the ability to hold an intelligent, informed conversation whilst listening and taking onboard people’s opinions is vital. Remember “people buy from people”.

If you have no customers, you don’t have a business. Customers are everything, albeit I would say from my experience remember first and foremost to “look after your employees, as they will look after your customers”.  

Entrepreneurs know this in abundance. They seek ways to create long term “Customer Advocacy” which is the most powerful form of marketing you can ever have.

A critical skill, and one I can’t give a definitive view on whether you are born with this, or it’s something you can learn. Being able to calculate risk, is all part of having a strong business acumen. The other elements being, primarily having the ability to see the opportunity in the first place, shape it and naturally generate profit. 

To seize the day you have to be willing to take risks. Not everything you do is going to work. But to do nothing, and the outcome is certain – nothing happens. Michael Jordan’s quote of “I missed 100% of the shots I didn’t take” always comes to mind. 

Entrepreneurs are not reckless cowboys, but they do look at the world through a different lens, can quickly evaluate options and the associated risk and rewards making informed decisions at pace.

The ability to see a business opportunity, move quickly and close the deal is absolutely critical. You need to know instantaneously the deal economics, so you can be confident in your pricing. No waiting around, having hundreds of people involved, multiple levels of governance, legal reviews et al before you put a price on the table. Speed is one of an entrepreneur’s greatest assets, and often an element customer’s appreciate and crave. Entrepreneur’s know this, go after the opportunity and make something happen at pace. Executing this alone often can kill the competition in a heartbeat.

Entrepreneurs mess up! but it is never about blaming someone else when something goes wrong. The buck stops with you, and an entrepreneur’s ability to be absolutely honest with themselves about where they went wrong is a critical skill. 

Warning – Path to Destruction

Entrepreneurial spirit left unchecked inside a growing company can lead down a path of self-destruction. I have witnessed this first-hand. Founders of companies that start the company off and have the ability to create the vision and lead into the unknown, are sometimes not usually the best people to operate the company as it scales to the next level of maturity. When concrete thinking sets in and those that lead are not willing to listen to others, then you can end up in trouble.

Different skills are often required for scaling a company, and the smart entrepreneur knows when it is time to either exit, or to surround themselves with those who have the relevant skills to grow the company accordingly. Good corporate governance can keep this in check.

Can Anyone be an Entrepreneur?

In theory yes absolutely, in reality no. The vast majority of people are quite understandably not prepared to take the risks involved in starting up a business and do not have the required DNA. The idea of the combination of constantly living outside your comfort zone correlated to financial risk, is usually something people are just not willing to tolerate. (And quiet understandably).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with not being an entrepreneur. Everyone is different, some people want to follow this path, and others don’t. Still to this day, I don’t think being an entrepreneur is a badge of honour and it shouldn’t even be seen that way. At the end of the day it is just an adjective for describing someone. Nothing more than that.

Finally any entrepreneur will tell you that running a business is a rollercoaster ride of massive highs and lows. You often scare yourself, and sometimes others around you, but for me it’s absolutely the ultimate adrenalin drive and the most rewarding experience you can ever have. Why? because quite simply it’s the ultimate test of one’s self in business and you are walking a tightrope without a safety net!

Look forward to the comments as always…

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

In the cloud era, the ERP market that serves an organisation’s back office business operations is dominated by the tier one players of SAP, Oracle, and Workday, supplemented by the tier two vendors such as IFSUnit4, and FinancialForce et al who have focussed upon the smaller to medium sized enterprises. The software vendors’ proposition that has served them so well over the past decade, as cloud platforms and SaaS took hold, is itself now changing. 

The argument around feature-function servicing finance, procure-ment, HR, payroll and supply chain – either in silos or for those who were smart enough to re-engineer their applications for the cloud – is no longer enough. The markets they serve are now learning from their experiences of dealing with customers through the front office and they are putting their employees front and centre, not only in how we build systems, but fundamentally how we ‘work’. Don’t underestimate the impact of this as it is more than just the next fad of IT as it affects workplace culture and ultimately an organisation’s performance. 

The conversation is changing and it’s going to have a profound impact on the back office

Giving employees more power to shape business 

The conversation is changing and it’s going to have a profound impact on the back office enterprise. It is this that suggests a new frontier of opportunity for those with entrepreneurial flair. 

The old adage “look after your employees and they will look after your customers” is very real. Taking the lessons learned from the front office, and two decades of unprecedented learning from the powerhouse platform known as Salesforce, we are in a new era where we are replicating the move from ‘customer service’ to ‘customer experience’ but now focussed on the ‘employee experience’. In doing so relatively new players like

ServiceNow (definitely the one to watch in my opinion) are coming to the forefront and opening up the experience economy.

No longer are we talking about which software vendor has the best feature-function in the cloud. It is assumed, rightly or wrongly, that all the major players have basic standard process capabilities. Now we are looking across an organisation’s enterprise and recognising that employees will interact with various ‘data sets’ outside the core functions of the ERP platform. 

This move is more than subtle as we transition from being process driven to data driven. Machine learning and adaptive intelligence (a subset of artificial intelligence) are taking hold to play greater roles in deciphering what we need to know, when, and what to execute. So, finally, we are seeing that tech platforms can be even more useful in helping employees to maximise customers. To take this up a level, employees need to be fully engaged with the tech best suited to their market. 

The challenge for many start-ups or SMEs is to convince someone to ‘give it a go’

Where to focus innovation today

With market economics in full flow and the oligopoly of the tier 1 players firmly secured, coupled with consolidation of the tier 2 players, just where are these new opportunities? I believe we find them in two areas.

Innovation usually comes from start-ups and the ‘S’ in ‘SME’ so, for me, this is the place to look. Success in the cloud game favours those suppliers that can provide niche industry solutions to operational problems. And there is nowhere better to look to find breakthroughs right now than the UK, not only in London, but with regional tech hubs emerging all over the country. The large vendors don’t focus upon industry solutions (save for IFS and Infor that have highly specialised applications for industries and micro-verticals), they leave this to the wider ecosystem to use their platforms to solve these problems. 

But real innovation in the ERP market today has to start with the basic premise that the world doesn’t need another ERP or HCM SaaS application in the cloud. However, what is required are solutions to those industry functional specific gaps, or gaps focussed on the employee to untap new ways of working that to date have not really been considered or leveraged. If you can bring both elements together then so much the better. In doing this there will be an element of connecting the front office to the back office seamlessly and leveraging new data driven technologies to predict and inform employees as to what’s next in the world of work.  

Challenges for changing up

By carving out a high degree of specialism with vertical solutions, such companies are then easily targeted once they are proven to be snapped up by bigger fish in the sea. This is the natural order of things, before the cycle starts again as usually the original founders of such companies become the new business angels for the next generation. However, innovation – often unproven at scale – usually has its detractors and the challenge for many start-ups or SMEs is to convince someone to ‘give it a go’. Whilst risk can be mitigated through minimum viable products, prototypes and pilots, it is those corporate sponsors that are brave enough to metaphorically ‘put their head above the parapet’ who we should all be really grateful to. The problem is finding them.

Paul Sheppard, founder and chief executive of start-up We Build Bots, said: “I have long believed that the public sector, especially central government, can be the catalyst for innovation and change. Contrary to belief the public sector environment is extremely fast moving and the challenges constantly mounting from the demands being made. But in order to take advantage and benefit from such innovations, government needs to be brave and buy the offerings the SME market has to offer. It is the SME market that often, in the face of great adversity, will try to solve problems that the larger software vendors do not necessarily see as priority. We have to constantly encourage and educate the buyers in government to look at what is coming.”

And Pamela Cook, CEO at Infotech and panel member of HM Government SME, commented: “Whilst not every solution is ‘GovTech’, it is one of the biggest growth markets and possibly the hotbed of future innovation for the private sector. A reversal for what for many years has been private sector advances influencing the public sector.”

Follow the money…

Time will tell if my observations are right, but by judging how much business angel, private equity and VC money is now focussing on the ‘enterprise’ and B2B applications, rather than having to deal with ‘fickle’ consumers in the B2C market, the new decade will see an influx of start-ups and niche SaaS solutions focussed on the employee and industry vertical solutions. At the extreme, by the time this new decade ends, we probably won’t be talking about ERP platforms anymore and the very acronym could be finally consigned to the history books. Paul – you might need to rename the magazine by then!   

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer, companies I invest in or am associated with. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This article is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published on February 6, 2020

Competing and Winning in the Public Sector – A Dark Art?

The start of a new decade and we have a new Government with some serious change ahead driven primarily on two fronts – Brexit and the need to revisit and re-invest in our much discarded public services after years of austerity, with Health, Justice, Immigration and Defence leading, whilst one should never discount the importance and contribution of all the other departments across Whitehall and of course local government.

While the fog of change slowly lifts, one thing that is clear is that our new Government, which I personally believe is now in situ for the next 10 years, cannot deliver its promised vision without help. That help comes from the myriad of suppliers, small, medium and large, that exist in the various supply chains of the private sector. Exciting? Absolutely! As a Champion of SME’s, who contribute 80% of the British GDP and fuel our economy, the question however is “how do I access that opportunity?”

Navigating Public Sector procurements in such a way that you are successful can seem to be a ‘dark art’ whose secrets are known only by a few. However, the reality is that really isn’t the case but you do need to know the rules of the game (both written and unwritten) and how the game is played. Ultimately Suppliers are businesses and need to be profitable to grow, and that means you need to win; but like any game you are going to have to accept that losing is part of it.

This blog aims to provide some insight, based upon my own experience, into this so-called dark art and hopefully encourage the myriad of great British SME’s to become involved. But be warned; working in the Public Sector is a series of paradoxes simultaneously being the most rewarding and frustrating experience one can imagine.

Rules of the Game

Let’s start with the basics. Public Sector procurement is based upon the concept and the surrounding rules of open and fair competition. This means that Procurement and tendering should be conducted in a fair, open and transparent manner. The most important and broadly accepted principle underlying a modern procurement system is open competition – unrestricted, universal access to the market. Translated it means that there is a level playing field for all and anyone can play.

The other key watch word here is ‘transparency’. In a public procurement this means that information on the public procurement process must be available to everyone: contractors, suppliers, service providers and the public at large, unless there are valid and legal reasons to keep certain information confidential.

Behind these concepts is an entire system of procedures and protocols enshrined in European Law (hopefully in time we will dump some of this unnecessary bureaucracy), that Public Sector Procurement Officers, known as ‘The Authority’ (the “Buyer”) will follow. Unfortunately, at times, they also hide behind them.

Public Sector procurement can be viewed as anything but ‘open and fair’ but you cannot beat the system. What you do need to understand is how to roll with it. This also involves knowing when not to play.

So how do you play the game?

The ‘leg work’ needs to be done BEFORE any procurement ever arrives.  Believe it or not the Public Sector isn’t going to come running to you, you need to go to it. You need to get known and you need to build relationships that allow you to influence and shape people’s thinking. Here’s my checklist…

1.   Be Match Fit –– Is your company ‘match fit’ to play the game in the first place.  What do I mean by this? Is all the company paperwork all up-to-date and filed with Companies House? Insurance all in place? Are you all up-to-date with HMRC? Do all employees and contractors have contracts? Will the company stand-up to basic financial scrutiny? If not, you will fall during basic due diligence 

2.    Understand the Industry (Macro View) – A lot of this can be achieved by just surfing the internet and the industries the Organisation touches. It’s important to know Central or Local Government policy, the Public Sector is the execution vehicle for policy. Educate yourself so when you do meet the department you can have a relevant intelligent conversation. A classic example of this is HM Government’s policy that £1 in every £3 should go to SME’s. Know this and use it to your advantage – nothing like reminding Procurement Officers of government policy     

3.    Understand the Organisation’s Challenges (Micro View) – Understand the organisation you are selling to in terms of what they actually do? Find out what is important to them and learn how to sell to them.  In Central Government every department is different, and no one size fits all, this is due to ‘departmental sovereignty’ where every department effectively has autonomy over its own business operations

4.    Understand the Players and Find your Champions – Meet the players and understand which roles they play – are they an influencer, the end user, the decision maker, the referee (Procurement Officer), the negotiator? It is vitally important you gain insight and understanding as to who’s who in a department and build support from within. You need to get to the ‘C’ suite, create advocates and find champions. You can’t do this during a live procurement, but you can do it before hand

5.    Understand the Politics – This is the Public Sector there is always politics; if what you are proposing is in the wrong direction of travel you are not going to be successful.  Getting access to people is never easy but it is possible. You have to build relationships inside the organisation to understand the political agenda. Remember Public Sector, especially Central Government is a very fast paced moving environment, so you need to stay on top of the political map

6.    Build and Maintain Relationships – Building and maintaining relationships is hard work, and it is also a two-way street.  However, working the Public Sector is always about playing the long game.  People do appreciate you being around and offering opinion and advice, especially when there is no commercial contract in the immediate offering, but later, one day down the line there will be.  Remember People buy from people

7.    Procurement Channels – Understanding the procurement channel and the type of procurement that will be used to buy is absolutely critical.  Get familiar with the different procurement frameworks and avenues.  You have to get on the frameworks, which is time consuming and costly. But this is the investment you have to make in the sector.  One piece of advice –  if you see a procurement titled “OJEU Competitive Dialogue” – stay well clear; this is where the Authority will undertake market testing, make you jump through a number of hoops and have you run around all for no contract to be awarded.  These types of procurements are only for those with very deep pockets and they carry the highest risk profile 

8.    Supply Chain Channels – Public Sector is an ecosystem of Suppliers of all shapes and sizes. Certain engagements are too big for an SME, and Public Sector buyers always look to larger suppliers not only for their skills and capabilities but also to take on the commercial risk.  Such engagements quite often require such Suppliers to use their SME’s in their supply chain.  This is looked upon favourably as they are seen as brining the very best the market can offer to the table, and also solves the headache of HM Government having to run multiple complex procurements. So, get into the larger Suppliers supply chain. Fully accept this is not easy or straight forward, but HM Government usually lends a hand by introducing SME’s to the larger Suppliers as part of the procurement cycle

9.    Educate the Buyer – Influence the Procurement – Every contract that is issued is going to go through a procurement cycle, therefore the trick is to shape the procurement in advance of it formally commencing.  This is achieved by investing your time in educating the buyer in your services and how you can solve their pain points before the procurement commences.  Responding to an RFP or an ITT that is ‘cold’ reduces the chances of success; the reason being that someone else has already shaped the conversation 

10.  Read the Procurement– When the Procurement is issued make sure you READ IT CAREFULLY and respond exactly how you are being asked to.  Failure to do so makes you non-compliant, and you strike out immediately!

11.  Know Your Competition – The competition are important pieces on the chess board. Who is the incumbent supplier? how much does the department spend and with who? (this information is in the public domain) Who are you competing against? Why would you win over them? 

12.  Procurement Scoring and Gamification Theory – Find out who your competitors are and gamify the various scenarios and outcomes.  From this intelligence you can position yourself accordingly.  It is an important exercise to undertake and remember to do it as early as possible as this helps you qualify the opportunity

13.  Understand the Risks Involved and Negotiate – Dealing with the Public Sector is not without risk, and every contract regardless of size, you will find the Authority offsetting their interpretation of the risk onto the Supplier.  This can come in many forms, some of them appear utterly ridiculous from an SME perspective, but understand what you are signing. It’s not in the interests of the Public Sector to bankrupt you, but equally in signing a contract you are taking on the responsibility of delivery.  There is always a negotiation to be had

14.  Get Known, in-fact Get Famous! – You need ‘profile’.  You need to get known (for the right reasons!).  Remember, regardless of how long you have played the game, Public Sector officials “churn” in their roles as much as the Private Sector, so you constantly have to reintroduce yourself and also remember you are only as good as your last project!

Knowing when not to play – Qualify Hard!

Now this is going to be controversial as no one will acknowledge this happens.  However, the reality is it does happen, and you are going to come across the following scenarios when you have played the game long enough. 

From the start of any formal procurement cycle you have to work out quickly as possible if the Authority has already made its decision and is looking for formal legal endorsement through the procurement.  If they are you don’t want to play, as all you are doing is making up the numbers and enforcing that the procurement was legitimate as you competed but lost. As soon as the procurement is issued the game begins as you have to flush out what is really happening.

You do this by qualifying hard through intelligence gathering from any source available.  A word of advice always triangulate intelligence from three sources, so you know on what basis you are making your decision to participate or not. 

Participating and competing is expensive, especially if you are an SME, so you have to know (1) that the playing field is truly level (2) if the procurement has been significantly shaped by someone already and who that someone is (3) do you still have an advantage over the competition that makes your proposition compelling that will get you the chequered flag.

Signs to look out for include, but not limited to:

To a degree this is where experience and gut feel come into play.  The old saying “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck” meaning if you feel for whatever reason the procurement doesn’t ‘look’ right, then gracefully qualify out explaining your reasons for doing so politely.

Dealing with Losing, Feedback & Challenge

Try not to get upset.  As someone once said “it’s just business”. Personally, I do get upset especially when the outcome is non-comprehendible and seems to defy logic. We only ever get upset over things we care about, and no-one plays to lose, so if you don’t get upset your probably in the wrong game, but learn to let it go. What is important is to understand why you have lost and have the ability to look at how you approached every aspect of the procurement.

Public Sector is about transparency so you should always seek feedback on procurements you lose and also why you have won. However, a constant source of frustration, which I personally frown upon, is when no feedback is ever forthcoming.  Public Sector officials don’t like criticism or challenge however it is very poor form when a Supplier has made significant investment in a procurement not to be given the courtesy of any feedback. If you do see poor procurement practice then do challenge it, but always do this constructively and if necessary, bring it to the attention of the Crown Commercial Service. It’s the only way the whole system ever gets better.

Dark Art demystified

There really is no magic formula, and sometimes it does feel like a complete lottery.  However, you can increase the odds of winning and just like ‘Blackjack’ you only need a small percentage to be in your favour for the house not to win.  You get nothing for coming second, so in summary…

1.    Try and meet the Authority before any procurement begins, introduce yourselves to them and get them to remember you, and if possible, shape their thinking in advance – no one ever got shot for being the solution to someone’s problem

2.    When the procurement arrives qualify the opportunity hard!

3.    Remember, most procurement competitions have been influenced before they are released as they have been shaped by someone.  If that someone isn’t you, then you are on the outside

4.    Do your homework – Policy, department, stakeholders, politics, pain points, killer proposition, competition

5.    You can’t control the competition or what others will do, but you can control yourself – so if you do decide to play focus on you and play your game not someone else’s

6.    If you lose, understand why you have lost.  Ask the question – Should you have played in the first place?

7.    Finally always trust your gut! and apply the “Duck Test”

I hope this blog helps demystify the misnomer that Public Sector procurement is a dark art. SME’s have a fantastic amount to offer the Public Sector, but you still have to win contracts through formal procurements. Hopefully this blog will make you a better player, wishing everyone every success in their endeavours.  Look forward to the comments as always… 

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions and views expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published on January 1, 2020

A New Decade – Ask Yourself Are you a Tiger?

I start the new decade as I ended the last. Ask yourself one question are you a tiger? – which way will you go?

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favourite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?” Colonel ’60 second’ Boyd.

Nothing else to be said here…no advice from me or anyone else will help you, but always be true to yourself.

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published on December 23, 2019

The Value of Mentors

Last thoughts of the year and time to close out the decade and what a decade it has been! This blog is going to be more than a little self-indulgent but hopefully those that read it will draw something from it. So, with a little reminiscing of the early days I want to highlight the positive influence mentors can bring and also say thank you to those that have supported me throughout my career.

I started my career in 1987 at Lloyds Bank at the bottom run of the ladder, in-fact I was in a basement by Blackfriars Bridge on the banks of the River Thames, so you couldn’t get much lower. I never envisaged that one day I would run my own business.

That journey from a lowly “Input / Output Operator” (Yes, that really was my job title) printing bank statements on IBM 3800 laser printers and loading magnetic tapes on an IBM 3420’s tape drive (there the ones you see in the old NASA films) to Chief Executive would never have been possible without those individuals who saw something in me and then took it upon themselves to invest their time into developing me.

My “overnight success” only took 15 years to shape me into an Entrepreneur, and then a further 17 years making a myriad of mistakes and three start-ups until a successful exit.


Throughout my career I have never gone out and looked for a mentor but for some reason circumstance and serendipity have played a part where they have always found me. Yes, some of them were my Managers, but Managers are not necessarily mentors. There is a big difference here. Also, some of them only stay with you for short periods of time, maybe six months to a year, others I can’t get rid of 33 years later! (Big Smile) and have become dear friends.

I have all the academic and professional letters after my name courtesy of seven years of study at night school. Whilst I had my thinking opened through academia it is not this that has got me where I am today, but a combination of personal drive and ambition intrinsically linked to those individuals who were prepared, without asking, to give up their time to listen, to guide, to question and make me think about what I was doing and how I was doing it that has had the real impact on my career. Not only have they made me a better professional but they made me a better person.

Metaphorically, my mentors have come in all shapes and sizes. It would also be fair to say that some of them weren’t even knowingly mentoring me. However, ALL of my mentors have had one thing in common in that they simply wanted to see me succeed.

Raw Material – A Complete Lack of People Skills

In 1987 I was straight out of school and didn’t have a clue about anything except, I didn’t want to go to university and I wanted to work. I did however have a talent for computing and from the start I had a natural grasp on what an IBM mainframe was doing. I can’t tell you why I could do this, I just could. My brain was a constant sponge hungry for knowledge, and I had an ability to learn at pace. This caused its only set of problems, as though I have always been a grafter my people skills were completely undeveloped and my ability to frankly upset people who had been in the job for many years was un-precedented (another natural talent). 

For all my technical talent I struggled to communicate with my peers let alone those senior to me. In-fact I developed a rather unhealthy lack of respect for those who just couldn’t keep up. It is probably this why I still cringe today when I watch “The Apprentice” (love that programme, always wonder how I would get on?) as I see myself from 1987. 

On reflection this fundamental flaw in my DNA was actually my greatest strength – an ability not to follow the crowd, not to accept the status quo, always searching for a better way of doing something through an enquiring mind are the very foundations you need as an entrepreneur. I just didn’t know it then. 

However, this “raw material” needed to be focused, channelled constructively and developed in the right direction to create much needed experience and learning opportunities. I was lucky I had the right people around me that were prepared to knock me into shape.      

Highs and Lows 

I have had many ups and downs over my career. The highs have been incredible, the lows have been so deep at times it would be a lie if I said I didn’t think I wasn’t going to be able to climb out of the various holes I found myself in. 

This brings me nicely to a story that has always resonated with me from the “West Wing”, (for those that don’t know the West Wing, check it out, it was the best political drama every produced). There is a scene from the episode titled “Bartlet for America” where Leo McGary, the White House Chief of Staff tells Josh Lynaham, one of the President’s Senior Advisor’s the following story…

“This guy’s walking down the street when he falls in a hole. The walls are so steep he can’t get out.

A doctor passes by and the guy shouts up, ‘Hey you. Can you help me out?’ The doctor writes a prescription, throws it down in the hole and moves on.

Then a priest comes along and the guy shouts up, ‘Father, I’m down in this hole can you help me out?’ The priest writes out a prayer, throws it down in the hole and moves on

Then a friend walks by, ‘Hey, Joe, it’s me can you help me out?’ And the friend jumps in the hole. Our guy says, ‘Are you stupid? Now we’re both down here.’ The friend says, ‘Yeah, but I’ve been down here before and I know the way out.'”

Now you have to dig yourself out of the hole, but it helps when you have someone who tells you where to dig and shows you how. That’s the value of what mentorship is all about.

What to look for in a Mentor

I don’t believe a mentor takes you to the next level that’s something you have do yourself. However, their advice and guidance can give you the focus and direction that definitely helps you raise your game if you are prepared to listen and learn. 

To My Mentors Throughout the Years 

I am today without these people being in my life. So indulge me here please… 

Mum & Dad – for instilling my work ethic in me, and the values embedded into all their three children of “Always treat people how you expect to be treated”; “Always be true to yourself and don’t just follow the crowd”; and “No one ever owes you anything in life

Ian Cohen & Chris Hunter – who took an 18-year old boy who had a lot of potential but didn’t know his arse from his elbow and got him to calm down and to focus. They still guide my career even now and I still go to them for advice, 33 years later – can you believe that???

Barry Coleman – my friend and my first Manager who actually understood me and built upon the on-going work in-progress. Never ever afraid to pull me up when he had to and was never phased by giving me a real wake-up call when I got too big for my boots 

John Downey – the man who not only introduced me to project management psychology and how to play the corporate politics “power game” to one’s advantage to get things done, but also taught me there was more to life than just work. Albeit it took me years to master this but his impact on me was enormous, and I am forever grateful for his tutelage

Julie Winterburn – who spent hours listening to me, even when my first girlfriend left me (ah!) and told me on more than one occasion to get a grip! “If you want it, go make it happen!”. One of the very best managers I have ever met

Lance Alexander – for giving me a chance when I didn’t tick all the boxes and someone that always believed in me from the first moment we met. (That was a blast!). One of the pivotal moments in my career joining a small expanding entrepreneurial company – “The HUON Corporation”. Absolutely loved it and my first real steps after 8 years in the corporate environment into what business was really about 

Mike Freeman – “Mentor of Mentors”. The nicest man I have ever met. A man of such great experience and someone who would always give up his time to talk, coach and encourage you even late on a Friday afternoon on a customer site in deepest Scotland missing his plane home. One of the greatest lessons I remembered him teaching me after a really difficult horrible week, when even we had clashed over something to the point of a complete relationship breakdown, “Never go home on a Friday upset, it’s just work, you disagree with people but you’re a professional and you have done your job, so shake hands have a drink and go home to your family”. Come Monday we were best of friends again and ready to take on the world. Synopsis “Learn to let it go, no point holding a grudge, life is just too shortand you are always stronger together”. I and others miss him massively; a truly wonderful human being – RIP Mike. 

Gillian Baker – “Mark, you’re the most unemployable person I know”; enough said, but when it comes from the Lady that broke the glass ceiling in IBM in the early 1990’s and acknowledged as one of the best marketeers in the software industry you can only smile. When Gillian talks to me, I always shut up and listen

Jenny Hedge – Forever grateful for teaching me everything about how Central Government and the Civil Service works – 3 years of daily masterclasses. Best Public Sector education ever. Some-one who became a true friend as we built one of the first (and the very best!) Government Shared Service Centres for HM Prison Service. The “Phoenix Programme” made me famous and was the birth of Certus! (PS: I swear my legs are still bruised from all the kicks under the table at meetings)

Tim Warner – We have worked together for 15 years and the voice of reason behind Certus. Yin to my Yang; I could never have done it on my own. Someone I still constantly go to get his calming perspective. Also, the person I have to thank for improving my English grammar and introduced to me to Latin. (I am fully expecting he will point out every flaw in this blog)

Debra Lilley – For getting my attention and for my constant education in Oracle Product Development strategy and its impact on our company. I have absolutely adored working with her over the years and Certus was so much a better company when she came onboard. One of the very best decisions we ever made.

Richard Haycock – for trusting me to pioneer Oracle SaaS Cloud in UK&I; for giving us focus, direction and encouragement with the Oracle sales teams in the early days. The man who told me directly “Face it, you’re an entrepreneur, stop bitching about it, just accept it and get on with it”. I left his office on more than one occasion with my tail between my legs

Mark Robinson – “The Entrepreneurs Mentor”; the “masterclasses” over dinner and several bottles of red will never to be forgotten during the Certus journey. Absolutely phenomenal insight

And Mr Peter Jenkins (“Uncle Albert”) for making me the sales-person I am today! The difference he made to my personal conversion rates was truly remarkable. Imagine going into every opportunity knowing, regardless of competition, you had a 50:50 chance of winning. Unreal  

Finally, a massive shout out again to Tim Warner, Rob English, Mary Thethi, Ian Carline, Richard Atkins – my brothers and sister in arms. We took on the world and in our own way and changed it in our space forever. Not many people can say they did what we did with Certus. You were the very best travelling companions anyone could have. Thank you.

Last but not least, my wife Natalie. Is she a mentor? absolutely she is as she keeps my feet firmly planted on the ground at all times and as she says I may have been a CEO (now a “Was a”) but not in this house – “it’s bin day and the cat litter needs changing!”

Time to Ride the Elevator

If your lucky to do well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down” – Kevin Spacey

I find my career is now also changing unexpectedly. Ironically since the sale of Certus, opportunities I wasn’t even looking for or I would have thought I was qualified for are appearing. Also, things I never even thought of doing are materialising not just in business but in my personal life. I am dabbling with the idea of going back to night school to bring my education up to date; I seem to have developed a healthy (or unhealthy depending on your point of view) interest in Politics and Political Science. I guess 15 years of working in Central Government has rubbed off on me and my passion for classic cars and planes has never left me. 

In the business world I now find myself in a small gene pool of those Entrepreneurs that have undertaken a successful exit of a business. I remember many years ago talking to a number of similar people whose ranks I have now joined listening to them say “I would never do it again”. I don’t seem to be in that club for some reason. Only now have I really begun to understand that it is also my responsibility to contribute and give back to the next generation, i.e. send that elevator back down.

No-one can ever make it on their own, so seek out those that have gone before you, meet them and really listen to them opening your mind to new perspectives. Diana Ross said, “You know, you do need mentors, but in the end, you really just need to believe in yourself”. 

My own advice to people is always this “Believe in yourself and Go be Brilliant!’. Serendipity played a large part in meeting people who really helped me. But I am a firm believer in that you create your own luck so go seek out those who can help you. 

As for me turning 51 I suddenly feel I have only just got started. My gut is telling me that the next decade is just going to be fantastic both in business and personal growth.

So, for now I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I will see you on the other side. 

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published on December 19, 2019

Fool’s Gold – “Best of Breed” – Part II

In Part I, I raised the spectre of the return of a “Best of Breed” strategy for slicing and dicing up the Back Office corporate Finance and HR systems and outlined the drivers for this behaviour.

The questions I pose too anyone thinking of doing this are: Knowing the benefits of Finance and HR working together why would you separate them? What are you really achieving by having multiple Cloud platforms for the Back Office? Why go to the expense of doing this? Are you really better and have deeper pockets than that of the Silicon Valley fuelled Research & Development (R&D) investment that has taken place over the past 15 years?

Powerhouse of R&D Investment 

Oracle, SAP, Workday, Unit 4, Infor, FinancialForce et al collectively invest billions of dollars a year in R&D. Oracle’s R&D budget in SaaS applications is quoted to be around $6 Billion a year! Where does it all go?

Engineering world class software is a capital expensive business and it is fuelled by R&D. It starts off with an abundance of initiatives that over time are whittled down into the final product. Constant iteration against a moving marketplace can easily mean investments can become sunk costs and write-offs as the sands move under you. Software engineering is a high-risk poker game. The rewards can be massive, but the risks required to be undertaken are equally substantial. It all requires money and lots of it and that’s why Venture Capitalists and Private Equity exist in the first place. It is also a game played by experts with a lifetime of experience.

So why do Organisations and the Users of these systems now consider that their new world Enterprise Structure should consist of multiple Back Office platforms? In effect re-engineering and undoing all the benefits and learnings that has been derived from the billions of R&D investments undertaken. If you pursue a strategy of breaking up the Back Office across multiple platforms hosting multiple SaaS applications just why do you think you can do it better? and what business benefit are you really delivering?

The power of SaaS Cloud applications is in the intrinsic value that is created in terms of operational insight of bringing Finance and HR together in a single fully integrated instance. One data model providing the foundation for technologies like adaptive intelligence and machine learning for many years to come. The R&D at great investment has already been undertaken bringing together the very best talent across the world including, but not limited to: the most current thinking of subject matter intellectuals and thought leaders; behavioural scientists; data scientists; creatives; and the very best software designers.

No organisation, private or public sector has the money, time or experience to pull together what the major software vendors have achieved in regard to Back Office SaaS applications, let alone keep pace with the underlying forward investment required to continuously drive innovation. Their sole focus should be on front of house and their business.

Fool’s Gold – Challenges of a Best of Breed Cloud Strategy for the Back Office

Not one of the Tier 1 Software Vendor powerhouses I know would openly endorse multi-platforms for the core enterprise applications (HR & Finance). The challenges you open yourself up to include, but not limited to:

·       Barrier to Entry for Technology Innovation – Technologies like AI and Machine Learning are embedded in the applications and work off a single aggregated data model as they are data driven not process driven. Split the data model up and potentially you can’t necessarily make full use of this type of innovation that comes with the platform. The Software Vendors are always building for tomorrow and not for today so you won’t be able to keep up 

·       Continued Investment to Stay Current – One of the biggest benefits of SaaS is the ability to constantly stay current on the latest release of software. To replace Back Office functionality with microservices means you are going to have to replicate similar types of on-going investment. Do you really have the finances and the investment capability to continually do this?

·       Reduced Negotiating Power – SaaS vendors love to do commercial deals on bulk of modules and volume. By not selecting one Vendor for the core product suite, you are at risk of losing significant commercial discounts and your negotiating position becomes weaker

·       Higher Implementation Costs – Now you have multiple Cloud platforms to implement and then integrate. The costs include but not limited to are significant everything from contracting, commissioning, mobilising Consultants with different skill sets to implement, and then on-going support. You lose economies of scale in terms of cost

·       Multiple Patching Cadences – Multiple SaaS packages from different vendors will be on different patching schedules; trying to get these to align throughout the year is not realistically possible. The risk is constant that one side of the two systems (possibly more) is going to change and something is going to break. You are going to be in constant state of regression testing 

·       Consistency of UX is lost / Accessibility Impacted – Multiple SaaS packages from multiple vendors means by default multiple UX. Accessibility is also significantly impacted which will result in compromises through off system work-arounds. Consequently, to regain consistency another layer of the enterprise potentially, though not required, would need to be added

·       Integration or Interfaces or both – Open systems aside. Are you integrating the data, or just building point-to-point or a middleware enterprise service bus? Regardless, data models and interface technology changes; these all require ongoing support. It doesn’t take much for either to stop working  

·       Disaggregated Data Model – Instead of a single data model, we have data replicated all over the enterprise. This naturally needs to be constantly synchronised and in all probability in real time 

·       Increased Security Risk Profile – Integration and Interfaces require security. Transferring data between platforms naturally introduces greater risk of data loss. Neither SaaS vendor is going to take responsibility for the data while it is being transferred; that’s for you to take responsibility for 

·       Increased Support Costs – More products, more integrations, more knowledge, different skills required both inside and outside the tent and also the cost of managing multiple vendors and contracts

The bottom line is your total cost of ownership is going to be significantly higher over the long run. Welcome to the 90’s!

Where does Best of Breed Make Sense?

Now there is a place for integration of SaaS application platforms that can leverage huge benefits and that area is in Organisations connecting their Front Office to the Back Office. This is where integration and use of open systems architecture comes into play – at the macro level, not at the functional module micro level in the Back Office.

There are Software Vendors that have laser like focus and have transformed software development for the Front Office from a customer experience perspective. One stands head and shoulders above the rest and that is Salesforce – the blueprint for Cloud in terms of product but also as a service organisation. Being a platform itself it has enabled a myriad of specialist SME’s to bring highly innovative products to the market that should not be ignored! SME’s are the powerhouse of innovation, especially in the United Kingdom. (Definitely a blog for another day)

Personally, I think Oracle still have much to do in the CX area and this is becoming an area of greater focus for them. CX encompasses a whole host of different products usually acquired through acquisition. It is only matter with time with Oracle before they get this right.

However, one to look out for is the company “Service Now”. Once merely the domain of the IT Helpdesk, it already is and looking further to extend a suite of “vertical experiences” over the top of other platforms. Personally, I have high expectations for Service Now. 

Finally, the “Qualtrics” acquisition by SAP could be their saving grace and a potential game changer here as this is key to their future strategy of delivering “experiences”. However initial reaction to their “X” (eXperience) and “O” (Operational) data strategy has not been overly positive.

What Should You do?

(1)   Decide upon a single core platform for all the core back office business functionality and stick with that platform vendor for better or for worse 

(2)   Use your single core platform Open Systems Architecture that is rich in API’s to extend the functionality by creating bespoke microservices that provide services that are specific to the Organisation but are not delivered by the core platforms functional modules. (Look to host these as a Platform as a Service, preferably on the same infrastructure supporting SaaS)

(3)   Collaborate with your chosen platform Software Vendor to continually raise the bar and help them become an even better delivery partner than they are today. Cloud isn’t just about product its about customer service. You will ultimately benefit from this

(4)   Leverage new core SaaS innovation as and when it arrives looking as to how this can positively impact on your business operation and then make sure you implement it and use it (so many don’t and this becomes missed opportunity)

(5)   Consider a Best of Breed strategy for the Front Office; looking to take advantage of those Software Vendors that have innovated in this area (especially SME’s) or the further build of local specific microservices that reflect your offerings with a view if connecting to the Back Office and driving value end-to-end across the enterprise delivering superior customer and employee experiences

Fool’s Gold 

Regardless of platform preference for those that proceed with the approach of splitting up an already fully integrated back office suite of HR & Finance SaaS applications on a single platform need to be challenged. 

It doesn’t take much to look into the crystal ball, roll forward the clock five years and listen to the noise around “total cost of ownership”; the unreliability of the integrations; the cost of managing all the integrations; the size of the internal Information Technology department; and then for the penny to drop and those Organisations starting to strategically retire such applications and finally move to a single core platform. For me this is and always will be simply “Fool’s Gold”.

So, if you have made it through to the end of these two blogs – thank you and congratulations as I have probably just saved you somewhere between £250-500K and 3-6 months in expensive Consultancy fees to point out the same findings. (Nice work if you can get it though). Cheques in the post are still always kindly accepted. 

I very much look forward to people’s opinions and the ongoing discussion, but as I stated in Part I, the answers to many of today’s problems can usually be found in the past.

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.

Published on December 17, 2019

Fool’s Gold – “Best of Breed” – Part I

You can probably guess from the title that I am not a fan of the recent emergence of “Best of Breed” as a strategy for separating out the individual functional components of ERP and HCM SaaS Cloud platforms for the Back Office.

As my thoughts became written-word I took the decision to split this blog into two parts to keep readers focused. Part I looks at the business drivers where Part II the implications and reality of undertaking such a strategy. Yes, this has a heavy Oracle Cloud slant to it and for good reason, however I have commented on the wider market throughout. I want to stress from the outset that I am not talking about the Front Office where equally brilliant innovation can be found amongst both the Tier 1 and Tier 2 SME market providers for niche solutions that can add tremendous value to a business and can be integrated into the Back Office.

Many will disagree with my views but I genuinely hope many will also find them useful and gain some insight from my observations and arguments which is built upon my 30+ years’ experience as a practitioner who lived through the first generation of on-premise “Best of Breed”; has been involved in 40+ Oracle SaaS Cloud implementations as well being a former Chief Executive who was responsible for the vision, strategy and ultimately the successful exit of the UK’s premier Oracle Cloud professional services company.

Urban Myths and Missed Opportunity

Over three years ago I published a series of blogs titled “The Urban Myths of Oracle Cloud Implementations” ( Technology innovation has advanced relentlessly to the extent that I honestly struggle to understand Organisations that are still “dithering” about moving to the Cloud. The costs involved in making and justifying the many known benefits for what is a “no-brainer” decision too many is just perplexing to me. Add this to the opportunity cost of delay itself or just doing nothing and the missed opportunity in terms of return on investment, both tangible and intangible, becomes eye-watering.

Since then, Oracle Cloud has accelerated in its maturity and functionality across the organisation’s Back Office. Whilst the offering still isn’t perfect (what product ever is?), it’s become THE platform play for combining Finance and HR onto a single data model providing operational insight; possessing a rich depth of business functionality; and become an engine for the constant delivery of technology innovation that makes use of new technologies like Adaptive Intelligence (AI) (a subset of Artificial Intelligence) and Machine Learning (ML) that are already embedded into the platform. 

Oracle’s strategy of re-architecting the “Fusion” products for the Cloud a decade ago is now paying off big time. Acknowledged as being late to the Cloud, Oracle Product Development has now created so much momentum it has pushed itself to the front of the pack in the on-going Tier 1 “Cloud Wars” for the Back Office. This is now universally recognised, with even the likes of the mighty Gartner and Forrester (who Oracle have never had the easiest of relationships with) acknowledging this through their magic quadrant analysis.

Missed Opportunity? Not On My Watch

People will argue I am naturally biased because of my own rich Oracle heritage. But anyone who knows me well will also know that my argument is that I always saw “Cloud” purely as a business opportunity and Oracle created the best environment for future commercial success and a healthy long-term return on investment.

I will also tell you quite freely what everyone knows already that SAP is not true Cloud but a suite of products collected through acquisition that are “stuck” together and requires somebody else’s Cloud infrastructure to be installed upon. The core was never re-engineered for the Cloud so SAP is effectively “on-premise” in someone else’s data centre. However, the recent “Qualtrics” acquisition by SAP was an inspired strategic move.

Workday is a great company and truly has a great product for HR but soon as you need to stretch the product across the enterprise it becomes exposed with a lack of breath and depth of functionality. Its financial offerings are not as broad or as deep as Oracle or SAP. Will it catchup? Yes, but it feels like the “Peoplesoft” product development market cycle again and time is against them. Workday continue to develop their HR product in terms of depth and position it from a system of record to a collective set of capabilities. Its Achilles heel is that “experiences” go across an Organisation and finance functions touches every employee in some way so both HR and Finance need to be present. People just don’t work inside functional modules or silos.

The result of all of this is multiple core applications makes the underlying data model disaggregated and you immediately start to compromise on a consistent user experience and accessibility; data mining and insight; and future innovation delivery across the suite becomes much more complex as it is not naturally embedded into the product, not to mention the underlying integration between modules that has to be wired in and maintained. 

The Experience Economy

The fundamental point here is the game has changed and regardless of platform choice we are now in the business of delivering “experiences – a collection of end-to-end capabilities combined togetherover standardised processes ensuring a single record of truth is maintained”. Software Vendors are investing more than ever to innovate at speed and win market share. In doing so tighter integration is required between traditional functional modules as well as a data model that is used by the new technologies like Adaptive Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Employees do not work inside functional modules whatever platform you ultimately select. In-fact with the advances in voice recognition technology the new “UX” is in-fact no “UX” whatsoever. Try doing that effectively on an on-premise system and by the way “putting lipstick on a pig” isn’t the long-term answer either! (See

Graveyard of Acronyms & Phrases

However most recently there has been murmurings across the market of a phrase that I had personally hoped would remain in the graveyard of acronyms and phrases. 

Best of Breed” the first time around in the 90’s was probably the most-costly ill-conceived technical strategy ever created and its possible return is now even more concerning. Promoted at the time to be the universal panacea to all of one’s problems it failed on an epic scale. 

What seems theoretically an idea of merit in taking the best solutions that each of the market software vendors possess and integrate them to deliver the ultimate enterprise Cloud Application SaaS platform in reality I will assure you will quickly become a nightmare! An absolute money pit of despair and frankly “Fool’s Gold” for carving up back office functionality by module as well as possibly creating a barrier to entry for use of new future technology.

History Repeating Itself 

I vividly remember such visions of corporate Best of Breed architecture excellence from a previous generation of leaders with business cases stacked full of healthy ROI for justification.

It was then left to the Technical teams to work out how to get all of this to work. No surprise to any of us that we seemed to spend a lifetime wiring it all together (often with sticky tape and string) to then having to constantly plaster over the cracks. IT departments got bigger as we had to justify keeping this rat’s nest of cobwebs all hanging together as systems were upgraded and interfaces broke. Business got frustrated and hence “IT fails to deliver” became the mantra of the day.

2020 – Roll forward to the start of a new decade and now we seem to be talking about it again. The technology may have changed and we have sexy new architectures and tools: Open Source; PaaS; middleware; integration clouds; advanced transport mechanisms and REST API’s etc… to play with but effectively the conversation appears to be returning to the thinking of 25-30 years ago. So, what’s driving this? 

1.     Market Competition– the thinking that by continually playing Software Vendors off against one another through constant beauty parades prevents monopolies, drives excellence and value for money through competition. Wrong on every count – you cannot manipulate the market as the market adapts accordingly. The tier one SaaS market is already an oligopoly with Oracle, SAP and Workday the only three large scale enterprise solutions in play. Their growth plans are based upon known market behaviours, economics as well as the need for future innovative products

2.     Avoiding Vendor Lock-in – Whilst every SaaS contract has exit clauses and great stress is often put on this during procurement cycles ensuring the customer is not locked in forever into one given platform. The reality is the transition and exit costs are on par with undertaking a new platform implementation. Changing the core SaaS platform on a regular basis (say every 3, even 5 years) is not going to stack up commercially. It is this that locks you into the platform and not the Vendor’s

3.    Procurement Competition Structure – the way procurements are often structured (especially in the Public Sector); it’s still feature function against a scorecard. Completely the opposite way SaaS systems are designed and used in practice. But because business users often see functionality in isolation during a procurement sometimes the prettiest system just wins (fickle!)

4.     Pandering to the Business– “We’re Special”– not really prepared to adopt Cloud processes and adapt business processesaccordingly. Best of Breed can be perceived as a way of providing greater flexibility which in reality it won’t

5.     Build v Buy– There is a real need for the core data held centrally in a Cloud SaaS system to be accessible to feed local satellite systems or “Microservices”. It is these microservices that are specific to the Organisation and used on a daily basis that cannot be delivered through the core SaaS functionality is where local investment and development should reside. However, extending the “build” thinking into the Back Office SaaS domain with moving to a “plug and play” scenario where functionality can just be swapped in and out accordingly at module level is just wrong

Recognise any of these? I am a great studier of history often citing that the answers to many of today’s problems can usually be found in the past. But similarly, the thinking in some quarters of a new generation is obviously skipping these valuable chapters of the book and are unwisely setting their organisations on a course at best can be classed as “lost at sea” or at worse “a train wreck”. 

Look out for Part II where I explain the rationale in further detail and also where “Best of Breed” thinking does have a place.

Disclaimer: This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. In addition, my thoughts and opinions change from time to time and I consider this a necessary consequence of having an open mind. This blog is intended to provide a semi-permanent point in time and as such any thoughts or opinions expressed within out of date posts may not be the same or similar to those that I hold today.