borwell snatches opportunity from the jaws of defeat

Steve Borwell-Fox used to work for a small team within a larger consulting firm drumming-up over £1m worth of business. Now, he has launched a software company selling systems across the globe with a team of 17. He told BQ how he got into business.

At his previous job, the directors weren’t really focussed on the market Steve’s team operated in and when they suggested they were closing the office, Steve decided to set up on his own.

The whole team were offered jobs with a local defence supplier, but Steve decided to jump at the opportunity to go it alone, and borwell Limited was launched.

Steve told BQ: “After setting up, we immediately won a six month contract with the MoD, but on the agreement that I would only work 3-4 days per week. 

“With the remaining time I networked with private sector businesses, and won several software projects for local engineering and advanced manufacturing companies.

“With the MoD contract extended several times and several private sectors contracts too, I took on two software engineers and within 10 months and moved into a 350sq ft office. This was in 2007, at the beginning of the recession.

“The business thrived from 2008 onwards, and now occupies 2,000sq ft of space, and employs 17 skilled, motivated and highly valued staff.”

borwell builds software solutions and provides integration services for clients across the world which includes bespoke software, systems, databases, web applications and social media integration.

The business was completely self-funded.  Since then no capital has been borrowed or raised.

He said: “This may change as a step-change in growth may need an injection of capital to finance the investment in people, systems and office space.”

Talking about how he sought support, Steve added: “Our directors have a NED, an experienced Chartered accountant from the accountancy practice that we use, who acts as a part-time FD.

“The business is a pro-active member of the Herefordshire and Worcestershire Chamber of Commerce, and Andrea is currently the vice president of the Worcestershire element of the chamber.

“I applied for a place on the first Birmingham Cohort of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Programme, with Aston Business School. 

“I was awarded a place in October 2011, and have benefited massively from the programme, which took place until March 2012. 

“Since then, Goldman Sachs and Aston Business School have run many Alumni events, and I continue to meet with my growth coach.

“The directors have an extensive peer network in Worcestershire, and often seek advice and guidance from these other business owners.”

Steve highlighted the increasing skills gap as one of the biggest challenges to his business so far as he struggles to find the right talent.

He said: “Recruitingand retaining staff has been our biggest challenge to date.  We have noticed that since around 2010, graduates just don’t cut the mustard. 

“Their skillsare nowhere near what they used to be. The apprenticeship scheme, coupled with recruiting a select few talented graduates, is our current strategy.”

Going forward, Steve is hoping to open a satellite office in either Birmingham or London to help the business grow in its target markets.

He said: “This will be a ‘BD’ hub, with most of the delivery team being headquartered in Worcestershire. Challenges and opportunities prevail.

“Another idea is to develop a software product. We’ve had success with one product, and failure with another.

“I think we will spot a niche and with the right client or partner, we will eventually produce a software application that sells world-wide.  We’re looking at IoT with a very sharp focus on one particular aspect of it.”

When initially getting the business off the ground, Steve highlighted the freedom of being a start-up as one of the best things about being an entrepreneur.

Steve said: “The best thing is that there are no rules, no constraints.  The worst thing is that there are no rules and no constraints!

“ You have to develop the business from a start-up by writing up policies, processes and procedures and setup systems and governance. 

“What we’ve done is kept the business agile and fluid.  I call us a ‘mature start-up’.  We have a culture of innovation and keeping things fresh. 

“Each year we revitalise an area of the business, and write new business objectives.  This keeps business life fun and interesting too.”

Speaking about how he made his initial business plan stand out from other software developers, Steve pointed to his niche market of operating in the defence industry.

He said: “Many businesses write software.  But how many help the Royal Navy capture pirates in the Indian Ocean, or help the RAF fly safely over areas of conflict? 

“The way I run the business is all about my approach to people.  I have distilled all the good practices into borwell, and avoided repeating all the bad practices he has seen with his previous employers. 

“The client is at the heart of all decisions. The directors are very honest and ethical in all aspects of the life. My phrase is “the only way is ethics!””

“In a year’s time I see the company probably with at least two more apprentices, two existing staff promoted to project leader running new projects, aplacement student, an office in Birmingham and a shared office with other partner businesses in London.”

BQ will continue to follow Steve’s journey as he expands with borwell.