Chris Barling is co-founder and CEO of e-commerce software provider Actinic, which floated in May 2000. Satisfying investors and stock market requirements took its toll on the company and revenues, and it delisted two years later. It now has a turnover of £1.5 million and claims to be profitable.
Never lose sight of your customers’ needs
Be driven by customer service. Customers are giving you their money and must be better off for it. When we were a public company we lost sight of what our customers wanted, under the pressure of quarterly reporting and the expectations of demanding shareholders and advisers. I wish we’d never deviated from putting customers first as that way you will get the revenue you want. Now we have returned to customer service with a vengeance, with a public forum on the internet where customers can talk to each other about our products and air any complaints they have. We monitor the forum and use the feedback to improve the products. This can be challenging and a bit of a risk, but it’s ultimately worthwhile.
There’s a balance that you have to find when you’re trying to grow your business. In the year before we floated we quadrupled our revenue, and we expected to continue at the same rate, but ended up dropping suddenly by 25 per cent. To those looking to grow their business, I would say, don’t try to rush things, but equally, don’t consider and reconsider everything either. Try to pursue an even growth strategy. Getting this right is an instinct which you develop as you go along although I wouldn’t say anyone can perfect the art.
Monitor the competition
I don’t regret floating the company but I think if we’d done it earlier we could have fared better through the dotcom crash. We really only realised the benefits of floating once we saw some of our competitors doing it. Also, given some different advice and without some technical hold-ups along the way, I reckon we could have floated three months earlier. This would have given us more opportunity to realise our potential with the £25 million that we raised, and perhaps been more established and in a stronger position when the market collapsed.
A contract is worth nothing unless it’s signed and sealed
When we were raising money for the first time, we got contacts and advice from other companies that had raised funds, and we found a business angel willing to invest in us. However, we had a terrible time with due diligence as the lawyers felt our intellectual property was not sufficiently protected and even advised the business angel to pull out because of it! Fortunately, the angel stuck with us but in hindsight, I would have invested more time and money on getting our contracts drawn up and right from day one. It is always worth shopping around for investment too, as one venture capitalist told us the internet was like CB radio – a passing fad.
You can never test enough
In an industry like ours you must make sure the product is up to standard and does exactly what it says on the tin. Before releasing a product we trial it with customers for feedback. We can never get it perfect but if only a small minority of customers are affected by problems, we can concentrate on them rather than fielding complaints all the time. This gives us time to concentrate on moving the business forward. Trying to grow your business when the product is not ready is like starting on a long car journey with the wheels not bolted on properly.