Leaving the corporate world at the tender age of 23 to forge off on your own is a big step – but for entrepreneur Alistair Crane those early years were all he needed to provide him with the start-up drive.
Young entrepreneurs who have the bit between their teeth are often the most interesting to meet and when I sat down with Alistair Crane he was no different.
The location for our interview was behind Oxford Street in downtown London at the offices of his fast-growing Grapple business. Bucking the trend, Grapple has decided to house itself away from the technology cluster that is Tech City and rather immerse itself in the media soaked surroundings of Soho.
We quickly arrive at the topic of why Crane has decided to reside on the fourth floor of a building overlooking the back of Marks & Spencer – and not in an airy, disused loft space in Shoreditch.
Crane tells me that it was all about giving the business some credibility and locating itself near to the kind of businesses it wanted to be working with. The relevance gained by making the move ‘put the business on rocket fuel’, Crane exclaims. In a funny turn of events, the space Grapple currently resides in was actually the location of one of Crane’s previous employers.
Back in the earlier days of his career, Crane worked for ad-supported mobile phone network Blyk when it occupied the site on Great Marlborough Street.
A chance situation involving the need for a witness signature for a set of tenancy documents meant that Crane was aware of a five-year lease, and when it came time for the entrepreneur to find a home for his new Grapple business the timing worked out and he could think of no better space to use.
Before deciding to set up his own venture, Crane was head of media solutions at NAVTEQ, an electronic maps business which as later acquired by Nokia for a fee of £5 billion. Prior to that he was part of the launch team at Blyk alongside its two Finnish founders Pekka Ala-Pietila (formerly president of Nokia) and Antti Ohrling (ex-chairman of the Contra advertising group).
‘NAVTEQ was massively fascinating as I managed to engineer myself into a mid-management role at a young age and gained quite a lot of responsibility,’ Crane explains.
‘It was my first real taste of being involved with a large corporate and gave me a lot of respect for the rigour involved, but ultimately, I realised that wasn’t where I wanted to be.’
His time spent at Blyk, he tells me, exposed him to what it was like to build something from nothing.
Like many entrepreneurs before him, the ground zero moment for his business came about because of venting his frustrations about a particular issue. An evening of spit-balling at a networking event with a perfect stranger, but eventual business partner, led to Crane deciding that the time was right to forge off on his own.
The stranger on that night in 2006 happened to be Jamie True, a business builder with a track record having previously co-founded ONSHARE and ONSPEED, an internet accelerator with customers including BT and Google. The business eventually listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM) and raised £25 million in doing so.
To solve the problem of corporates wanting, but not getting, greater penetration through mobile devices, True suggested acquiring some existing technology which would allow them to build an application for multiple devices. By purchasing the technology, Crane and True would be able to wrap a business around it and sell the package.
Initially the pair thought that they would be able to acquire the software and then licence it out to another agency. However, as with all aspirational start-ups, it didn’t go entirely to plan.
‘Before I left my job with Nokia I went round to all the friends and contacts I had made and said will you buy into this, and they all said yes,’ Crane explains.
‘We thought we would be making money from day one but they all said no when I went back to them. It was a case of them all being too busy and asking us whether we could just build it for them.’
Crane describes the early days of his Grapple venture as being a bit ‘young and naïve’. But a quick trip back to the drawing board and they realised they could make a business out of turning applications around for clients. From that exercise Grapple was born and the founding team had a business which could develop mobile apps for brands
One of the company’s first clients was Canadian beer brand Molsen. With the team kept at a threadbare level, the welcomed arrival of a crate of Canadian lager was a welcome addition to proceedings and Crane recounts to me the long nights at the office they spent sipping suds and fulfilling briefs.
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Chief among the early struggles for Grapple was the issue of credibility. ‘We trade predominantly off of two things here,’ Crane explains, ‘ideas – what we can do for a client – and what we have already provided to clients.
‘In the early days we hadn’t rally done that much so there was a huge barrier in terms of being credible.’
Encouraging the techies and bedroom developers that came to work for Grapple to be a little more professional in terms of appearance was among the changes, and was all about catering to the needs of clients early on, Crane says.
Grapple’s funding story is akin to many of the exciting start-ups that are springing up around the capital and country. Generous help from friends and family was pivotal in helping to get set up and since then a few seed rounds have been enough to fuel growth.
‘Jamie [True] has an established pedigree which has helped with funding, and while he hadn’t previously done mobile, he had done online,’ Crane says.
‘We raised seed at the start and then about 18 months in all of our seed investors came with us through a Series A – which is a somewhat grandiose term as it was just a bit more money to make us bigger quicker.’
However, it’s apparent quite quickly that Crane has built up an extensive list of business contacts and our initial formalities reveal that he plays football on a Sunday with dot.com supremo Brent Hoberman and seems to know most of the entrepreneurs that GrowthBusiness has profiled over the last couple of years on a first name basis.
Grapple’s biggest development to date has involved the acquisition of Toura, a cloud-based content distribution for smartphone and tablet applications located in the US.
Toura itself is a New York-based business which has contracts with companies including ABC Television, Reader’s Digest, Boston Globe and Tribune Interactive. Following the acquisition Grapple will continue to operate Toura from the US where it has an office as well.
In an unprecedented turn of events, Crane and the rest of the Grapple team turned down $10 million (£6.2 million) of seed investment in favour of funding the company themselves. The acquisition was subsequently funded using cash and help from the company’s generous shareholders and Crane is quick to explain why they decided to do it that way.
‘We never viewed taking investment as dilution issue. It is technically, but we thought of it as if you give us one million quid we’ll turn it into five, so we didn’t’ see any offer of cash as a negative thing,’ he tells me.
‘We turned it down for several reasons. One was that we were moving so quickly: so one week we would be thinking do we have enough money, maybe we should reign in a bit and scale aspirations, and the next week a big client would come along and we’d be really busy.’
Crane is also slightly wary about the way venture capital cash lines up against that of the company’s founders and management.
‘Every single word in the contract is adhered to. Your pound and their pound is not the same so it’s important to protect your early friends and family backers,’ he adds.
He is also against the mind-set, for start-ups and fast-growth companies, it is really important to raise money, almost as a way of ‘validating your existence’, he tells me.
Crane feels sorry for the CEOs who have gone off and raised £50 million on £300 million valuations.
‘I’d like the hype to die down about the valuations and need for investment and also think it would be much more healthy for business,’ he adds.
He has no time for ‘blue sky’ thinking entrepreneurs who have decided that they don’t need a revenue model, as they are going to focus on growing the audience and the revenue stream will sort itself out on its own.
Crane actively encourages innovation and new ideas in the workplace, even if they don’t directly link to what Grapple is doing. But he’s firm in his belief, and challenge, that those with an idea must first prove how they are going to make their first £10 or £10,000 before they can think about the mega valuation.
Bringing the topic of conversation back to Grapple’s future, Crane explains the company’s international growth and how he has been clocking up the air miles to places like Russia in the hope of taking the company’s services overseas.
‘Like anything when you do something for the fist time it can be scary, but that for me is when I know there is an opportunity to be successful.
‘I’ve been to Moscow a few times and its been daunting for sure, it’s kind of like Beijing in that it’s a big city where they don’t speak much English. But I think the corruption issue is a thing of the past, especially if you have locals on your side. They actually have a lot of respect for how we run our economies in Western Europe.’
The next year is very much a tipping point for Crane and Grapple. With the business actively looking for acquisition targets, and a number of new market penetrations on the horizon, the young entrepreneur is banking on the trust of the team he has assembled around him.
However he is candid in admitting, ‘It doesn’t really matter what I want, it’s what the rest of the team wants.
‘It also doesn’t matter what we all want as it’s all about what the market wants, and that is what we’ll deliver.’
At a time when mobile penetration is at the forefront of every board meeting and top of the bill at every technology conference, it seems that Grapple is positioned well to ride the wave of on-the-go marketing.