David Burden, founder and managing director of virtual reality firm Daden Limited
David Burden, founder and managing director of virtual reality firm Daden Limited, tells BQ how his time in the British Army helped him become the successful business leader he is today...
What is it the company does?
Daden specialises in delivering immersive 3D and virtual reality solutions for education, training and data visualisation to public and private sector clients.
What does your role involve?
It’s my job to give direction to the business, and manage the business development and commercial side of the operation. I’ve got a great team of developers and keeping them fed with innovative, interesting and challenging projects is a challenge in itself. Since we’ve always dealt with emerging technologies (we’ve been doing 3D, AI and chatbots for over a decade) a lot of my time is taken up with educating the market, building collaborations, and trying to work out where the market is going next so we can leverage the significant expertise and goodwill that we’ve built up over the years.
Give us a brief timeline of your career so far – where did you start, how did you move on?
I started in the British Army, as an officer in the Royal Corps of Signals, providing communications for headquarters in the field in Northern Ireland and Germany. Highlights included learning how to move trucks and landrovers by helicopter, and providing communications for John Blashford-Snells Operation Raleigh.
I left the Army in 1990, and ended up at Severn Trent plc managing their radio system, but I then moved across to the commercial side (soldiers are meant to be good at talking to people) and ended up as marketing director of Severn Trent System – their £80m global IT business.
In 2004 I got the chance to take redundancy when Severn Trent moved out of the IT business so I took the chance to strike out on my own and set up Daden Limited – initially as my personal consulting vehicle, but always with the aim of identifying some interesting emerging technology and then running with that – and that’s what happened with chatbots and virtual worlds – and now virtual reality.
What do you believe makes a great leader?
To be a great leader you need vision – otherwise your just a good manager. And along with that you need to be open to taking risks, going places first and setting the example – and in the Army you were always expected to lead from the front! You also then need to be able to inspire people – both the build confidence and trust, and to communicate and realise your vision.
What has been your biggest challenge in your current position?
Managing day-to-day cashflow. We’ve always been a feast-or-famine type business driven by project work, and that can have real problems as clients (including R&D financing organisations) get slower and slower at paying. That’s one of the reasons why we’re trying to move to a product/service type model – facilitated by some InnovateUK funding – but that then brings the new challenges of getting heard above the noise as we try and sell more pro-actively and to a wider market rather than relying on existing clients and word-of-mouth.
How do you alleviate the stress that comes with your job?
Two main ways. I love the outdoors and anywhere I can go to just walk and walk is fine – I belong to a Mountaineering club that has huts in Snowdonia, the Lakes and the Peak District, and my wife and I are slowly making our way around the South West Coast Path. Then on a more day-to-day basis I paint toy soldiers and play wargames – both a legacy of my time in the Army but also a very different form of simulation and game mechanics.
When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A soldier – so I guess I succeeded in that. After that an astronaut – I can do that virtually now, but my wife looks aghast when I say I’d sign up for a one-way trip to Mars!
Any pet hates in the workplace? What do you do about them?
Not really – we run a pity relaxed ship – it was hard getting used to the way that young developers appear to be able to manage to code and watch YouTube at the same time – but they come up with the goods.
Out on the road it’s the absence of ubiquitous free single-sign-on wifi – and the hoops that you have to jump through in hotels, cafes, conference venues and the like to get onto what wi-fi they have.
Where do you see the company in five years’ time?
Increasingly the business is coalescing around a couple of main strands – the immersive learning and training service with Fieldscapes and Trainingscapes, and the 3D immersive data visualisation product Datascape. Chatbots keep trying to muscle in too – every time we take them off the web site more people start asking for them!
So I guess I’d like to see each of those strands as successful divisions in their own right, selling services and products globally, and bringing the benefits of these technologies at an affordable cost to anyone who wants them. Oh, and open an office on Mars of course!
What advice would you give to an aspiring business leader?
Try and get a good knowledge of the whole business – every role in it and what it means. Coming out of the Army I did the equivalent of an MBA so that I could fill in the commercial, marketing and financial gaps in my knowledge, and one of the whole tag lines for the military is being professional amateurs – we can turn our hand to almost anything but in a professional way.
When I was at Severn Trent, and we were trying to broaden the executives understanding of the business, I spent time shadowing someone on the call centre, joined a night shift in the data centre, things like that. I think it’s important to try and understand that whole breadth of what a business does, and what it means to the people who are involved in it – getting under its skin so you know how best to manage and lead it.
What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?
To find a sales guy to team with. In fact, I almost did that twice but it just didn’t work out. But if you can build a good dyad of a technologist and a good business developer then I reckon you’re half way there! That, and it’s going to be a long journey!