Small Business Profile: eSay

Networking was the key to getting a software database company off the ground. By Guy Clapperton
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The Independent Online

Sometimes David doesn't so much kill Goliath as start selling him products and services. It can be daunting at first: the larger, established concerns are seen as unapproachable by the little guys. So it seemed for software database company eSAY when it was founded in 2001, but slowly its view has changed. It has now contributed to solving water leaks in its area by selling systems to established market leaders – and has some ideas on how others can do the same.

Dr Moneeb Awan, co-founder, explains that the key to securing this sort of contract has been meeting people on equal terms. "One of the fundamentals of what we do is network – we go to events organised by the Chamber of Commerce and other organisations like that. Through that networking we meet directors who are turning over hundreds of millions, on an equal level." Remembering that just because your service or product might cover thousands of people, you don't need thousands to develop and produce it.

It was at one of these networking events that the team met United Utilities, which supplies a lot of the water for the North of England, who had a lot of field engineers looking for leaks and used an old-fashioned means of reporting them when it found them. "They were finding X number of leaks per week, filling in pieces of paper and then scheduling the repairs. That whole process was ready for technology to take over," says Awan.

A pilot of 30 engineers tried eSay's software, called PinPoint, and the whole organisation of 90 engineers now uses it full-time. "What happens now is that when they switch their device on it has details of the job including directions on how to get there," he says. "They haven't had to go to the office; they're productive immediately." Meanwhile, other engineers are looking for leaks and communicating them to the office immediately through the same devices, so the jobs get raised in real time.

Becoming known to the senior directors was key, believes Awan. "Otherwise you end up writing so many 'dear Sir or Madam' e-mails, most of which will end up in the bin – and which we wouldn't have the resources to follow up anyway!"

He and the two other founders put the company together from a simple wish to stop working for other people. They were software engineers still on a high from the skills demand around the turn of the century. "The technology bubble hadn't quite burst in 1999 and there were people writing cheques for someone with a business plan on the back of an envelope," explains Awan. It wasn't as simple as that, though. "If you've always been an employee, it's quite something to think of going into business. Especially then – now everything in the media's telling you to start your own business, but it wasn't then."

They discussed and researched the business in depth, and one day met a man from Business Link. "He really laid it on the line," says Awan. "He basically said, you lads have never run a business before and you're looking to dot every 'i' and cross every 't'. If you grow your business you can't take that view forward with you." He advised against doing any more research – either they were going to go into business or they weren't. They elected to concentrate on quick wins for six months, forswearing sales to the National Health Service, for which the men had worked before. They took no clients from their previous employer, and set up from scratch in a spare bedroom. "We didn't borrow any money," he confirms.

The organisation has been making money ever since, and in May won an innovative technology prize in the Water Industry Achievement Awards, but has elected to remain small, learning as it went along initially."The best thing we did early on was to take on a bookkeeper so we could find out what we should be doing and shouldn't," he says. He and his colleagues learned to recruit people with the right attitude rather than the right skills, on the grounds that you can teach skills but not attitude. They eventually learned not to take projects on from agencies because by the time you were subcontracted to a subcontractor you'd end up with next to no margin. "It took us six years to really get to know our business."

Staying small – the company still doesn't employ 30 people – has been an advantage; if a client wants to get through to a decision maker the chances are they will, and if something has to change it doesn't have to go through umpteen approvals.

eSAY continues to look at the larger client and is even rewriting its own internal rule book as a result. In spite of the belief that the NHS was too big a client at start-up, there are talks afoot to get it buying software and services within months. Who knows, maybe sometime eSAY will need to employ as many as 30 people after all.