Why I turned down £2 million

At a critical time in her business' development, Ali Gill turned down a £2 million offer of investment. But for the former Olympic rower, this situation provided her with just the incentive to accelerate growth.

In 1996, Ali Gill broke the world record in the Great Britain women’s eight. A few weeks later, the crew failed to make the Olympic final in Atlanta. It was a soul-destroying experience for Gill.

‘We should definitely have had a medal,’ she says, ‘but as a crew we never really had a strong bond. We were held together by performance, rather than getting on and working with each other. Once we broke the world record, we never worked out how to take it to the next step. Once it started to go badly, it was a crew that ate itself up.’

She adds: ‘In the eight, we had exceptionally good leadership, but appalling management. When you are working with peak performers, they think they know what they are doing. You need really strong characters to create a sense of direction.’

Looking back, Gill wonders whether she could have done more. ‘I had been on the team for some time. I’m not saying that I could have turned it round, but I didn’t have those difficult conversations to get the support needed to make a change.’

Peak performance

Gill had no intention of repeating such an experience in her professional life. As a psychologist, she specialises in getting the best out of people. By the late 90s she was earning six figures advising investment banks on leadership development, but was surprised at how little use was being made of technology in managing talent. So in 2000 she teamed up with fellow rower, Steve Bicknell, to create Getfeedback. The idea was to combine his online expertise with her HR skills to help put the right people in the right jobs and to develop them properly.

Both she and Bicknell gave up their jobs, put in £50,000 and spent a year building a system for managing talent. With skills from opposite ends of the spectrum, they proved to be a perfect mix. And after starting out as acquaintances, they also became life partners during the course of the year.

Turning down £2 million

They then reached a critical point. ‘We realised we were actually competing against giants who had been in business for a quarter of a century with large-scale backing,’ says Gill. ‘We knew we were a long way up the curve. Was it worth selling what we had? Or should we find an investor? Or should we stick it out and grow organically?’

As they soon found out, they were too late to sell the technology, as competitors were starting to invest in their own systems. They did have three offers from private investors and venture capitalists, looking to put £2 million into the business. But the conditions were steep.

‘We would have had to give up 70 per cent of the equity and sign into the business for five years. It was a tough call. We were sitting on a year’s worth of business and our pipeline was probably about £250,000. We knew we had good technology and a good product, but we were a long way off having a business,’ recalls Gill.

Both she and Bicknell considered what the injection of cash could bring to the business, and also wrestled with their commitment.

‘We looked at each other and did the maths. If we really believed in what we had, we could actually have a business of significant value. That was our big decision. We chose to go on our own, although I was probably more attracted to the £2 million than Steve. I thought with that kind of money we could move so much faster.’

Doubling the stakes

Turning down the offer of investment meant both Gill and Bicknell had to find the money somewhere else – namely their own pockets. Making the company a success was now even more important, as they had both made a significant personal and financial commitment.

To ramp up the business, they put in another £200,000. Within weeks, due largely to their utter conviction that the business would work, their decision paid off. They secured a £250,000 contract with risk management consultants AON, which was followed by £500,000 of work with telecoms business Energis.

But this commitment was not without its drawbacks. The trouble was that Gill found herself completely absorbed in these projects. ‘I was the senior partner leading the charge. No-one was managing the business. Big projects took up all our capacity.’

By mid-2003 Gill resolved to step back from being the lead generator of new business. ‘When you have done sports at an extremely high level, you know what it is to put yourself on the line. You cannot do an Olympic sport without pushing yourself to the edge of all reason. You have a never-say-die attitude. Steve is the same, if not worse.’

Raising the bar

As well as being inspiring, this attitude can be daunting. ‘We have had casualties along the way. We set a bar that is hard to meet on a day-by-day basis. You have to accept that not everyone will go the extra mile. Their working life might not be their number one goal.’

Although both Gill and Bicknell know the brand inside out, they found it hard to articulate it in a way that others could implement. To guide them through the process, they hired one of their own psychologists. ‘It was three months of torture,’ admits Gill.

By March last year, they were happy enough with the results to switch off their mobiles and take a two-week skiing holiday together. All was well on their return, until two months later, when it emerged how upset a client was about a missed deadline. A more formal review of projects has now been introduced. ‘Everyone now has access to information in a way that is non-threatening,’ says Gill. ‘We might have lost some business, but we did have a holiday.’

Maintaining momentum

Getfeedback is now growing at a rate of 30 per cent a year and sales have reached £2 million with margins of 25 per cent. Gill wants to maintain this momentum up to the £5 million mark. Her view is that high performance is infectious. Once you see people around you doing well, then you know it can be done. For the Great Britain women’s eight in 1996, the trouble was that no-one had performed at such a high level before.

Four years later at the Sydney Olympics, some members from the Atlanta eight went on to win Britain’s first women’s rowing medal in the fours. ‘Until you reach that pinnacle, everyone has their own view of how to achieve it. Once someone does it, you have a much clearer picture of what to do,’ believes Gill.

Marc Barber

Marc Barber

Marc was editor of GrowthBusiness from 2006 to 2010. He specialised in writing about entrepreneurs, private equity and venture capital, mid-market M&A, small caps and high-growth businesses.

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