“The harder I worked the luckier I got”: from the bedroom to major VC investment in 8 years
The story so far of We Are Digital…
After 8 months of hard work, 420 documents created specifically for this process, and three 3amers to finish it off last week with six sets of lawyers, I’m pleased (and exhausted) to announce we finally closed a new major £1.5m investment into our company We Are Digital to take us to the next stage, from some of the best social impact VCs and angels in Europe. Formal press release to come, but for now, some founder startup thoughts from the past 8 years, from my bedroom to now….
Almost 8 years ago to the day, I woke up at my mum and dad’s house and spent most of that day taking photos of myself wearing a Peter Jones mask (of Dragon’s Den fame), sticking hairbrained ideas from newspapers up on my wall in my “bedroom office” in the garden, and making bad clipart adverts for the local parish magazine in Sibford Ferris.
After lunch I went off to go flyering in the rain outside church noticeboards for a new business idea I had, to provide home computer tutors to the over 50s: called Silver Training (not very inventive I know). I’d chosen it from a list of about 105 ideas I had whilst travelling around South America for the 12 months prior, chosen from, amongst other things: a high altitude dieting holiday company (you lose your appetite whilst at high altitude places like Bolivia and Peru I realised!), and a website that only sold colourful items (lovecolour.com) – still think that has legs 😊 I’d left a great job in the city at Skillcapital, headhunting people for private equity deals, and had signed on for jobseekers’ allowance at Banbury Job Centre. Thoughts of “what the hell are you doing with your life” came up frequently, not just by me but my friends too, quite rightly!
8 years of serious and ridiculous hard work, excitement, crises, joy and stress later, as of 4pm on Friday we signed a major new £1.5m investment into the company led by some of the best social impact venture capitalists and angels in Europe, providing us some big resources with which to grow the company. We also got a return for our earliest shareholders who backed us when it mattered, and have now exited, Robert Burton Andrew Burton Simon Vetch , Mark Jones, Neil Anderson and Midven VC, who I can’t thank enough for backing a crazy early idea. I’ve learnt so much from you all about how to be a better CEO and founder, how to be honest about hiring for my skillset gaps, and how to accelerate the stuff I’m good at.
That bedroom office desk and tutor service has now grown into team of 30 in Warwick and 27 in Coventry, and we work for housing associations, councils, major banks and central government (the Home Office), providing digital and financial inclusion training nationwide, as well as programme management and outsourcing. In August we move our entire head office to Coventry where we are taking on a new 3000 sq ft floor at Friars House.
I couldn’t be prouder of the team we have who have genuinely made it possible to get here and have slogged it out in the trenches with me for years, often with no chance of surviving (reading that 90% of startups go bust doesn’t help) and crap pay, let’s be honest. The support of my long suffering wife Michelle Adam who has had to put up with more than most and has had some pretty choice nicknames for the company in the dark times (!), my mum and dad who gave me the first £25 advert to advertise in that parish magazine and let me pursue my crazy dreams, and my dad who is still full time in the business after being there from the start when we were two desks at Warwick tech park and our Xmas party was a cheese board on our desks- now in his 70s and still in the biz going strong….
To the investors that have stayed on and continue to back us- Greg Ash Stephen Ash Peter Blackburn Lee Marklew Richard Postins, we also owe this all to you, and to the clients that supported us- too many to mention but you took risks on us and did far more than you will ever know, if you could have seen the behind the scenes, to allow us to survive and grow. Particular mention to Mark Rowe for our first ever housing contract at L and Q when you entrusted a little known business with 3 people with a £10k digital inclusion pilot contract (now we are a major contractor to L and Q having won the £2.4m Pound Advice contract last month), and Sam Scharf at Orbit Homes who entrusted us (and still does) with our major break into the financial inclusion world.
A lot of people write about the fact that starting a business is HARD, but I think this is misunderstood once you get into the detail. Most people think this means hard as in long hours. Of course we work hard, but so do a lot of people. My sister works far longer hours than I do, running a psychiatric hospital. It’s hard as in DIFFICULT. Like really really ridiculously difficult. There aren’t many jobs in the world where your target which your boss holds you to account to is having enough money to pay your staff at month-end. It would be interesting if they did!! That “positive pressure” as I call it is unique to startups and will never leave me. The best analogy I ever thought about was those old video games where you could set difficulty level from easy to hard and there was always a crazy setting at the top where it was so hard you died within about 20 seconds. Yep it’s JUST like that. Genuinely there is so much against you on most days you’re left thinking it’s mostly impossible and you’re just waiting for the guys in white coats to enter your office, drag you out and say “this is the time to put your CV on Reed, cmon Matt, you’ve had fun but don’t be so stupid.”
Some of the hard ones that particularly stand out:
- Running out of money one Christmas in the early days and having a properly depressing board meeting in High Wycombe with the early investors when we wondered what we could do. We decided to go into social housing to utilise our tutor network more, away from the general public. One investor said it was a “red herring” and should be ignored. We are now the leader in community investment support in that space.
- Running out of petrol more times than I can remember as I earned so little I never wanted to fill up the tank. I don’t think my friends even realise this but until about a year ago I started a charity software business on the side all the way through this company journey, to sell something i’d Invented, just to top up my salary. Crazy looking back, but I couldn’t have made it work otherwise. Starting a business to pay for you to run another business- you couldn’t make it up.
- Losing our entire operations team in one weekend, and seeing the emails pour in from projects around the Uk that were just going to the wall left right and centre. I realised the actual meaning of sleeping at the office that weekend.
The often quoted Gary Player phrase “The harder I worked the luckier i got” could not be more valid. And boy we’ve needed luck. One of our biggest ever contracts which ensured the survival of the firm came down to me submitting the tender whilst in France and a crappy internet connection with 30 seconds on the procurement portal to go…I don’t want to think about what would’ve happened if that hadn’t got through!
We are as ambitious as ever going forward and I genuinely think we can scale to anything. 100 people and £10m turnover is the next goal. Let’s see how we go! Excited for the next five years.