Behind every thriving company is a spearhead that’s constantly pushing the business forward. Today I sit down with Chris Dunning, founder and CEO of TechQuarters as we take a trip down memory lane.
Hi Chris, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
Over the last 20 years I have worked in many different departments from operations to sales and marketing, which have really given me the necessary skills to manage, grow and turnaround enterprises. But I always enjoyed being in sales and marketing in the world of IT especially consultative side.
I setup TechQuarters from my second bedroom in Wimbledon, London, some 4 years ago in May 2010. I had been working in IT Services since the early 90’s and started looking into the Cloud Computing market. I quickly noticed that the market was expected to grow from $50 Billion to $147 Billion worldwide by 2014 and decided I wanted a small piece of that.
My interest in new emerging technologies, coupled with 15 years in the IT services sector, and having run 3 other businesses, some successful, some as entrepreneurial learning experiences, gave me the perfect grounding for setting up TechQuarters and knowledge to grow it into something special.
Before embarking on TechQuarters, I had grown another IT Support business, as Business Development Director, to 150 engineers and a 600 strong customer base in the SME sector. I then setup my own Sales and Marketing agency, which led me into an exciting role as the MD at a chain of luxury hotels. But I still had a burning desire to start my own and run my own IT business, was the reason why TechQuarters was born - the rest is history.
Tell me how you initially got into business?
From an early age the prospect of business excited me. After studying at Nottingham Trent University and gaining BSc in Business studies in Industry, followed by a Marketing member level qualification with the institute of Marketing (MCIM), I was ready plunge into the business world.
I started out as a Marketing Manager at Atlas Copco (selling power tools) back in 1992, everybody has to start somewhere! I then moved onto becoming a consultant at CASM for 3 years, during this time I did a rollout of a new CRM system to Volkswagen Financial Services. The skills learned as a CRM Consultant giving me both technical, business analyst and project management skills,
I then moved into the IT Sector working for Connect Support Services and then EDS, then back to Connect, as an IT Consultant. This is where I discovered my real passion for IT. I worked as a techie, a site leader, an account manager, Sales & Marketing Director and General Manager. I did this for 12 years and managed to grow the business from 3 employees to 100, signing up 500 new customers and achieving a turnover growth of 5M. Being an integral part of this growth over the years, gave me a wealth of experience dealing in all areas of the business.
I moved on from Connect in 2007 to set up my own sales and marketing agency. During the first year I was recruited as the MD of a hotel chain ‘Think Apartments’. During this time, I started to investigate the Cloud Computing market and left there to run my own business
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
I have learnt a lot since starting TechQuarters. Looking back, I can see how my leadership and management skills have changed and improved. It was a lot simpler when I had 1 technical and 1 sales person but as you grow, you have to nurture talent, provide progression and train staff whilst keeping an eye on all areas. I have definitely learnt more about providing leadership for all of the different teams.
One of the hardest things of starting TechQuarters, I found was the constant uncertainty of the demand for our services and solution. Given that we entered Cloud technologies very early in the process, could have gone either way – either people would avoid the uncertainty, or they would look at it and see the benefits in the Cloud – thankfully it was the latter.
What is TechQuarters? And what are you trying to solve with it?
TechQuarters was created to plug the hole in IT Market between traditional MSP’s and cloud hosting providers. Most MSP’s were still focusing at on premise infrastructure, without utilising cloud technology, we showing our clients how to leverage the cloud to create affordable, durable and hyper-productive ways to get the most out of their IT.
We still provide the traditional support model for our clients, so they still have that safety net of certified professionals looking after their IT- but at cut down prices as cloud technology is easier and simpler to support.
How have you been able to fund it so far?
The majority of the financing for TechQuarters came from self-funding. I have my own separate property investment business which has allowed me to earn enough money to invest into TechQuarters and subsequent to initial funding, the ongoing cash flow has helped to pay for future growth.
What advices would you give to entrepreneurs looking to raise funds for their startups?
First and foremost I would say that you need to get a high paid sales job which will allow you to save enough money to invest into your business. Secondly, it is incredibly important that you get an administrator that will ensure that you will run a profitable business that will grow in a controlled fashion.
When starting a new business as an entrepreneur, I cannot stress enough how important it is that you sell yourself best you can and have a passion for what you are selling, if you do not have a passion for it, how can you expect other people to excited over it?
In terms of funding, I would advise you trying to get funding from your bank first, they will be looking for a profitable steady business model so be sure to have one in place before approaching them. By receiving a loan from the bank, you won’t have to disperse all of your equity to potential business angels or investors.
After that, talk to friends and family you trust, ask them to invest into your business but we sure to do this without having strings attached as you want to be able to control your business until you get to a level that requires large funding which can be acquired through Institutional investments.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
The words I would use to describe the first few months would be: nervous, exciting and eye opening.
In the first 3 months I was an intrepid time, the best way to describe it would be that it was like casting your rod out into the unknown when you are our fishing, and you have no concrete evidence as to whether the adventure is going to be profitable or not. You don’t know for sure what direction it will go into which is scary but incredibly exciting at the same time.
In the first three months of starting TechQuarters, we had no customers whatsoever, but we were talking to quite a few prospects who showed they were interested to our solutions, which gave me confidence to take it to the next level. We acquired our first customer three months into the business, our next stage was all about providing the right service for them.
Looking back, I think that one of the most exciting moments since starting TechQuarters, was when we signed our first customer on-board, this was proof that our company was starting to turn into something and that we had to start providing a service and begin our hard work. Employing our first employee was also an incredibly exciting time, it is a big leap for any entrepreneur when you have to start doubling your salary.
How did you initially get traction?
I started with setting up a website for TechQuarters and did some emailing afterwards. A couple of days after the emails had been sent out, I made sure to follow them up with telephone calls. I then attended sales meetings and secured the first sales contract, this then very quickly led to recruiting a new member of staff to deliver the service.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
I cannot stress enough how important it is to find the mechanism in hiring the right people - hiring them needs to be your number one priority. When it comes to starting a business, you need to be sure that workers gel together, everybody has to be thinking as one and working together, not working on constantly trying to solve problems that are going on in the team.
The second piece of advice that I would offer somebody who is starting their own business, is to start with working from home - save yourself some operational costs – do not spend money where it is not needed, rather spend it on good members of staff and the marketing for the business, which will help you to get some good leads in and your business will flow from there.
Thirdly, listen to your customers. They are the ones that will tell you what services they want from you. It is up to you to be clear on the services that you are providing and that you can sell them to a particular market niche. Do not spend your valuable time you have on a service that you can only sell to one person. Know your customer and do your research. Know who exactly who your customer is and make sure that the service that you sell is a perfect fit for your customer.
Have a really good account system. We use a cloud based account system which is agile, easy-to-use and tracks the money that comes in and goes out of your business. It essential to have a good overview of your finances to make projections to avoid over-spending.
You need to be strategic! Make sure to create a business model for each year. Know what your aims and goals are otherwise you don’t know what you are doing or what you are selling. Set yourself goals and expectations for that year, and know what you want to achieve, and make sure to track that every month.
When you first start out, make sure that you hire people who are flexible. They need to be multi-skilled so that they can manage a number of functions. They need to be able to adapt to the business and the changes it will be undergoing. Once the business grows you can start hiring people for specific roles and functions.
Furthermore, I drive everybody in the business to be selling - everybody looks for opportunities to keep selling our services. We have sales boards in every area of the business, the sales guys highlight sections on the board when they are upselling, which they are rewarded by through commissions and sales. Also, drive for a 20% EBITDA at minimum, this will help cover you for any customer losses.
Entering awards is another crucial way to grow your business. This not only counts for potential customers but also for future employees. Nobody wants to work for the underdog, they want to work for the business that is most successful in the industry.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
The biggest highlight is probably that we have doubled in size every year. It is just amazing to have managed to double in size and to have achieved that goal every year up until now, and with this, managed to build a great team doing it.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the TechQuarters team for 2014?
We have some big plans for TechQuarters in 2014, one of our priorities is to grow our Pure Hybrid Cloud solution. We are pioneering the Hybrid Cloud solution across the SMB sector and we are helping customers to understand the Cloud and how we can help them move there with our hybrid cloud solution, helping to make them more efficient. The Hybrid Cloud allows SMB customers to become more productive and efficient.
TechQuarters are on track to double in size again, we are also well on our way to winning more awards this year. I have been shortlisted for Cloud Personality of the Year award by the UK Cloud Awards and are up against Piers Liney from Dragons Den. We are also hoping to win another Microsoft award. Entering again, we are hopefully expecting to win another one.
We are currently doing a lot of work with Australian companies, due to the fact that we are Cloud-based and are growing our cloud servicing worldwide. We are enhancing our product set, where we are reaching out with a service into the micro of the SME sector with slick processes and fast execution of service. We pull through customers that will grow into a decent profitable midsize business along their customer journey.
We are trying to enable our customers to upgrade their infrastructure without paying large cash upfront using our ‘Total Refresh’ product, which utilises all of the latest software that is completely in sync, works harmoniously and makes the business more efficient.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Hire the right people for your business, treat them well and keep them motivated, this is key to running a successful business.
Know your customer. Do you research, do not start a business if you haven’t got a product that a customer wants. If you think something will work, do your market research and be sure that there is a market for it otherwise keep your money in your pocket.
Have enough capital outlay that will cover you for at least six months, the likely hood is that you won’t get customers on-board before month your three or four month mark.