As global connectivity increases and degrees of separation shrink, opportunities for enterprise arise that would have been inconceivable just 15 years ago - but the fundamentals of good business practice remain steady. As Gary Turner, speaker at Startup Summit 2019, shows, starting up in business is a marriage of passion, research, getting the numbers right - and knowing when to jump.
Gary is Co-founder and Managing Director of Xero Accounting Software and is responsible for operations across the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Xero provides cloud-based accounting software for small and medium-sized businesses: those who most need that financial acumen to survive and thrive.
Glasgow-born Gary has transformed his career from product management to running a thriving global business in just ten years. Unsurprisingly, it is one full of twists, turns and lessons learned. This month, he returns to Scotland to tell that story at FutureX's Startup Summit.
When the lightbulb appears above our heads with a genius business idea, it can be easy to get carried away with the passion and big picture. Entrepreneurs must turn their mind to the fundamentals that make the company viable: no matter how shiny the car, it won't run without the engine and a set of wheels.
"Of course there needs to be a passion for a startup idea," says Gary. "However, the Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburgs of this world make up a tiny percentage. The idea, the spark – they're all vital, but there is a huge amount of research involved and a great deal of slog.
"Passion will take a startup a long way, but everyone knows that the failure rate is disappointing. To survive, having the right people and always being on top of finances is crucial."
Gary's desire to help small businesses runs deeper than his professional ambitions. Growing up in Glasgow, he felt the effect his father's company going under had on his family. Business is rewarding, but takes work: at its heart is preparing for every bump in the road. Entrepreneurs must be confident the company has the resources it needs to reinforce the big idea.
"Many startups are impoverished in terms of tech," Gary says. "What they need is reliable and affordable software that is accessible and allows them to concentrate on building the business."
Entrepreneurship is a road of learning and iteration, and failure should be embraced rather than feared. "Many successful business people don't succeed the first time around. The important thing is learning from those failures. Could anything have been done differently?" Finance and cash flow problems, in particular, are where many businesses fail, so having access to affordable tech to help manage the numbers is crucial.
The advent of the internet and connectivity has allowed businesses such as Xero to thrive. Xero has its origins in New Zealand and is made possible by cloud computing, allowing customers to access the accounting service anywhere, at any time, and on any device.
"You need passion but to survive, having the right people and always being on top of finances is crucial."
When Gary came into Xero in 2009, its UK presence was restricted to a three-person startup. So why would he, then product group director for Microsoft Dynamics and a man with a list of high-profile roles in accounting software, decide to make this move?
"At the time, there was some surprise, but it was a move that absolutely gelled with my thinking at that moment.
"Around 2001, most people were using the internet to send pictures to their granny in Australia or to buy books from Amazon. We hadn't scratched the surface when it came to realising its business potential.
"It was clear that the internet was going to affect business in a way that we could never have predicted. I did a lot of research, and it was clear that I had to change my thinking about the application of technology. I started a blog to share my thoughts about these changes and how business needed to be ready and almost relearn everything they already knew."
Gary wasn't aware that on the other side of the world, in New Zealand, a man called Rod Drury was doing the same thing.
Drury approached Gary through LinkedIn about bringing Xero to the UK. Gary saw that, although Drury was working from a small island in the middle of the South Pacific, this was an idea that would operate globally through the rapidly developing technology dubbed ‘the cloud’. From the beginning, Xero's vision was to go global as soon as possible.
"When Drury approached me, I was on the same page," says Gary. "Through my blog and research, I knew what a company like Xero could do for small businesses. To me, it wasn't a risk at all."
"Small business represents two-thirds of employment in the private sector, so you can see how helping small business has a massive knock-on effect," adds Gary.
By this point in his career, Gary was more than equipped to take that three-person startup to the UK and develop its visibility and growth. With senior roles at companies such as Microsoft and Pegasus Software under his belt, he had the broad base of management skills required.
Xero now supports close to two million small businesses worldwide, with almost half a million users in the UK alone - and the numbers rising by 100,000 each year. With bases in Milton Keynes and London, it will be opening a third base in Manchester before the end of the year. The company’s annual revenues are around £50 million.
So is it more challenging to get to that position, or to maintain it? At this stage, many companies would be looking over their shoulder for those trying to move in on their territory, but Gary is still looking forward.
"We're not nearly there yet. Perhaps we're at the end of the beginning. I'm looking at having a million customers in the UK, so ask me that question again in five years."
If you're looking for that push to take a leap into business, Gary will show you the springboard. Don't miss Gary and the lineup of inspiring speakers at SUS19, Wednesday, October the 30th at the Assembly Rooms!
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