After observing how inept the debt collection process was during his time at Egg, Chris realised that there was only one thing to do next; it was a no-brainer. He knew he could create something better, something different, a more efficient system and that’s how the story of Collstream started. Created in 2006, the company provides SMS, voice messaging and interactive voice response (IVR) solutions to business, making it simpler and more cost effective to businesses which either need to contact large numbers of customers on a regular basis and / or have a high volume of transactions to process.
Hi Chris, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
I am doing very well thanks.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
I’m 33 years old. I was brought up in Otley, Yorkshire, and from an early age had a strong work ethic, for example I held three jobs at the weekend setting up market stalls, working in a pet shop and cleaning cars.
I was interested in sciences at school and took these at A-level, but I found it quite restrictive and didn’t feel it met my creative potential. I really wanted to get involved, create something and get really enthusiastic about it but the studies and activities I was getting involved in just didn’t grip me to the extent that I had that eureka moment.
One of my first jobs was at the credit card company Capital One and this is where my interest in IT developed, finding ways to automate processes, which led to a position in Egg where I met Ian, my business partner at Collstream.
Ian was in the collections department and this led to conversations about how to improve the debt collection process, particularly how it could be automated. This ultimately led us to thinking that if the business we were working at couldn’t do it then we could or should do it ourselves.
Another trait I have is that of being driven. Wanting to work for myself was something I always wanted to do but finding the idea, the spark, was difficult. Few ideas really gripped me and convinced me to developing it into a business.
How did the idea for Collstream come about?
The idea came about when I was aged 26 in 2005 while working in financial services at Egg and witnessing how inefficient the debt collection process was. SMS had huge potential to contact huge numbers of people. It’s free to receive, customer-focused and interactive. It was almost a no-brainer. The systems and functionality available were very limited and not geared to work for businesses at all – I knew I could build something better that delivered a benefit to businesses, their operations and their customers.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
Seeking finance from the banks was a major headache. We didn’t want money to buy machinery or capital assets. We needed money to recruit people to build the systems and platforms. As this was the case the bank was reluctant to lend us money. Had it been the other way round obtaining finance would have been much simpler.
Thankfully, the way the business has grown, we haven’t needed to take on any debt but in the early stages of the business we had these discussions. Ultimately, not taking on any debt has made us a much stronger business now.
What is Collstream? And what are you trying to solve with it?
Collstream is a specialist in strategic communications providing SMS, voice messaging and interactive voice response (IVR) solutions to business.
We are trying to make communications simpler and more cost effective to businesses which either need to contact large numbers of customers on a regular basis and / or have a high volume of transactions to process. Much of the process of contacting customers can be automated which many businesses don’t always recognise such as messaging customers rather than calling them from a contact centre. This drives down costs by reducing the number of unproductive outbound calls, drives down the cost of printing and sending letters and many other forms of direct communication.
How have you been able to fund it so far?
Ian and I borrowed an initial £10,000 each. Since then funds have come from organic growth and profit.
What advices would you give to entrepreneurs looking to raise funds for their startups?
Question yourself about what you need the money for. Keep costs to a minimum. Can you build the business organically rather than be swamped in debt? Bootstrapping is important.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
I enjoyed the fly-by-the-seat-of-you-pants feeling but as the business gets bigger you tend to lose that. After that more functional and operational issues become important such as getting new clients, the problems of managing finances to ensure delivery, the need to ensure the company remained profitable after six months to ensure its continued existence.
How did you initially get traction?
We were innovators in the use of text messaging for business so we had to go out and sell the concept, get buy-in and convince people of the benefits, at the same time as building the system.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
We try to position ourselves as a progressive business always developing the technology, leading the industry and being the best of breed. We’ve built three platforms (SMS, voice and IVR) to service our clients ourselves rather than outsourcing operational activity to third parties. We have a vision of how we think the industry will develop.
We’ve also gone out of our way to recruit the right people and to find and retain new clients.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
Two awards last year: being finalists in the Deloitte Technology Fast 50 and, personally, the Growing Business Young Guns award.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the Collstream team for 2013?
We have aggressive growth plans which include organic growth and acquisition, entry into foreign markets, new products and platforms.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Keep costs to a minimum
2. Give customers whatever they want or else they’ll go elsewhere (as long as it makes sense)
3. Work every hour God sends