Talking innovation with Barrie Whipp, founder of Crimson Tide
Read time: 7 minutes
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We spoke with Barrie Whipp
, founder of smart mobile working solution Crimson Tide
, about innovation, growth and the power of investment in steering his business into the future.
Hi Barrie, tell us how Crimson Tide came into being?
I founded Crimson Tide 25 years ago, we worked in my garage. We were what I call a ‘jobbing IT company’ – we did some support and maintenance, a bit of software and some database work. However, in 2004 I had the idea that businesses would start to use smartphones to actually get their job done. At the time, I had a Compaq iPAQ – which was like a pocket PC– and a Nokia 63 series phone. I could Bluetooth one to the other and just about send a little data over 2G. But I could see, that in time, people would be moving increasingly towards using digital assistants for the majority of their work.
We went to the AiM market of the LondonStock Exchange in 2006. In the early days, nobody really understood what we were doing. It sounds ridiculous now, but back then those really simple things like getting emails on your phone were a bit like rocket science. You could say we’re a 15-year overnight sensation, because for a long time people didn't know what we did, or couldn't see how online data could benefit them, whereas today those people expect to do things like manage remote servers from their mobile.
Our services now operate under our new brand, mpro5 – a subscription-based service where people can get their jobs done on their smartphone, tablet or laptop, and synchronise that data with a completely configurable management platform.
Industry: Information Technology & Services
HQ: Tunbridge Wells, Kent
Size: 51-200 employees
Ownership: Public Company
Sub-sector: Software, Hardware & Developers
What has your company growth looked like over time?
We've gone from having only a handful of employees in 1996, those being myself and a couple of friends, to now having 40 people on the payroll. Our first true employee joined in 1997, and he is still with me! We’re aiming to take our workforce up to 60 in the next year or two.
When it comes to turnover, our headline number is deceptive. That’s because we run a three-year plus subscription model, where our typical client can be paying between £10,000 and £30,000 per month. This means our growth is locked in over a longer period. We have learned to be patient with our growth, rather than get too excited in the year when a subscription deal is signed.
What role has investment and fundraising played in your journey?
Our initial raise in 2006 was a very small amount of money. I suspect we were one of the smallest ever raises on the AIM market. I think after expenses, we got about £600,000. But critically, we made it last and didn’t go back to the market too early. Beyond that, apart from a few small placings with a hedge fund, we decided to wait until we’d reached a size where we could really leverage the funding.
Our time came this year, and we've just succeeded in raising around £6 million on the London Stock Exchange, with well known, respected, investment funds, which we can now invest in enhancing our software, hiring some more developers to help us expand our product offering, and have the confidence to move into overseas markets. We can also spend on marketing, which is something we’ve never really got right. It’s a really exciting time for us.
"The biggest difference the additional funding is making, is confidence. With some cash in the bank, we can have the confidence to try some new things without too much fear of failure."
We can test out those things that we always thought would succeed, but that we couldn’t afford to take a chance with in the past. Some of our ideas are very exciting and include expansion of our service to the trade and healthcare markets.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced since starting the business?
I think the balance between profit and growth. There are many companies, private and public, that obsess about growth, and that's popular with some members of the investment community – but we are not huge fans of growth for growth sake. We've always been a little too conservative for our own good, because we like to see when we are going to make a profit from our investment. That's how we ran the business before we had that six million funding, but we’re aware that we’re now going to have to go through a year or two of forsaking profit, because we've now got to invest that funding in order to grow. That’ll be unusual for us, but we are very excited with the opportunity in front of us.
How have you tackled the pandemic situation over the past year?
We were one of the first adopters of cloud technology, in the form of Microsoft Azure. We have an enterprise agreement and work on fully remote devices – there’s not a desktop or server in our office when everyone goes home. As far as office equipment, we have two TVs and a printer, and that's it, apart from the coffee machine! We've always been cloud-based and all of our team previously worked at home on Tuesdays anyway. That was a policy decision we made pre-pandemic. So, as far as operating the business is concerned, nothing really changed.
As far as our clients are concerned, we did have a few that were impacted. Clients in newspaper delivery, or in horse racing, for example, to whom we offered payment holidays. But then on the flip side, we also work for a lot of supermarkets, and their business has been very good. We haven't had to take advantage of COVID-loan schemes. So in a terrible circumstance, the last year has been real proof in the strength of our operating model and we've come through it fairly well.
Have you had more interest in your service as a result of the pandemic?
Definitely. The world will never go back to being the same as pre-COVID, particularly when it comes to the adoption of working from home arrangements. Of course, I think people will go back to offices, but I don't think there will be such an obsession with people coming in 9 to 5.30 every day of the week, every week of the year. And that, in itself, will have a huge and accumulative impact on how businesses manage their everyday data operations. I also think there’s an increasing understanding of what apps can do. Our focus has always been on making our service as good as possible for businesses, large and small. I think that COVID has definitely increased awareness of what our kind of technology can offer in terms of all of the types of logging, auditing and monitoring that we provide in our monthly subscription service.
What would expanding overseas look like for your business? Would that be a physical expansion?
There won’t be too much of a physical set up, and I think that’s another effect of the pandemic. In the old days, the idea of setting up links overseas would have you thinking about how much the office is going to cost, how many people you need to hire to run it, whether you need to embed someone from HQ in that country and so on. But we don’t need to think that way. We actually already have employees in Ireland, Dubai, North America and Canada, for example, though none of them work in a designated space that’s owned by us. I don't think I envisage us ever having fixed offices overseas.
What are the main challenges facing your sector at the moment?
The main challenge I see is getting people to make decisions. I think a lot of companies struggle to make the leap that a single mobile app can really solve many of their day-to-day problems. Of course, the great thing is that we’re not just an app, but an app platform. This means we can change the application, change the website and change the reporting to be completely responsive to individual business needs. And with many of these changes being made within the database rather than the code, this is all really quick to implement. I think that’s why if you look at our sales cycle, our initial cycle can be quite long, factoring in that we're asking businesses to sign up for a long-term subscription. That said, when they're with us, they tend to stay with us for a very long time as they realise that we are a full service company with committed staff who form relationships with the customer.
What advice would you have for other founding businesses or individuals looking to build a tech company?
You have to be tough. I like the word ‘indefatigable’. It means “persisting tirelessly”, or not giving up. You have to use that old adage of what doesn't kill you, teaches you something and helps you navigate a different route. Profit is always good, growth is not always good and cash will always be king. A pound of cash is usually worth a pound of cash. You've just got to be tough and keep marching on. I've been through phases in this business where I've had to put more money in, and phases in this business where I can take a little bit more out. You've got to believe in what you do and just keep doing it. And finally, you have to get great people to help you.
"Our business still has elements of a family business, our staff share their values of partnership, dynamism, teamwork and trust. Like our customers, our staff tend to stay with us for a very long time."
What do you feel has been your biggest success as a business so far?
I have seen a video of ships turning up at African ports with fake medical boxes, leaflets and medicine bottles. Some guys on the quayside then filled those bottles up with a solution of molasses and water, and they’re sold in street markets as anti-malarials. People, particularly children, die from malaria because they thought they were taking the right drugs. They were taking counterfeits. With mpro5, we've allowed clinicians in some countries to use a smartphone to scan the QR barcode on the box. Our system then has access to local and global databases that will tell that clinician whether that drug is a fake. The World Health Organisation (WHO) have used this to check anti-malarials and contraceptive pills in Africa and Asia. When you start a business, you might have some grand dreams, but when your application helps save lives, that's what makes it all worthwhile. Always have a dream.