Four men, skilled in finance, sales, skills and technology, came together in a venture called Apadmi. Suzy Jackson explores how the whole became greater than the sum of its parts.
We’re a mobile technology group - we make mobile work,” says Howard Simms, co-founder of Apadmi and CEO of Apadmi Ventures. “Our team of thinkers, developers, designers, UX-ers and inventors work with clients to understand how and where to use mobile to make processes better. And so, innovation is baked into the very heart of the business. But they innovate both for themselves, and on behalf of their clients and partners.
“Our developers, designers and engineers have crafted mobile solutions for clients like the Co-op, Argos, United Utilities and the BBC. Our Labs team explore, discover and develop pioneering technologies, while our Ventures arm seeks out exciting, market-disrupting start-ups, investing time, technological expertise and financial support.”
They – Howard, Garry Partington, Nick Black and Adam Fleming - founded Apadmi in 2009. “The four of us who founded the company had worked together for about ten years, in the earliest days of the mobile industry; we actually built the very first smartphone, over in Warrington.
“So we have a long heritage of building mobile technology solutions. One day we found ourselves made redundant, and it was a very sad day, but we managed to turn that into a positive because two days after that happened, we founded Apadmi.
“We’ve benefitted from the fact we’ve worked together for many years, and we had complimentary skills. One was great with strategy and financials, one was a sales person, one’s deeply technical, and one was very good at people, processes, and delivery. So collectively, we were a very strong core.”
Howard’s specialism was people, and he picked up the phone to the very best of the people they’d worked with in their last company and invited them to join him at Apadmi. “The firm benefitted from the many years we’d all spent together previously.
“The first thing we decided to do was to spread our eggs across many baskets,” he says, explaining that the previous company failed because of the dependency on a single, large client. “We decided to be experts across the whole range of mobile operating systems and server technologies. In essence, we wanted to be able to build mobile from scratch. Those are the skills we wanted in house. So, we built a mobile team, we built a server team, and we built a user experience and design team.”
That put them in a strong position to be able to build any kind of technology software solution. And if you take a look at their client list you’ll see big names like NHS, BBC, AstraZeneca, Range Rover. You’ll have used the technology they created in the BBC iPlayer radio app, the Skyscanner app, British Museums, maybe even on the X Factor!
“We were born with the idea that we would be experts in the creation of mobile technology. We set out our stall to become the best; to set the bar very high, and we’ve kept that bar high. It’s led to us becoming one of, if not the strongest name in the UK for the creation of mobile technology.
“The premise for the business was that we wanted to create a very strong service company,” he continues. They didn’t plan to be enormous, but wanted to be a good size, 50-100 people, and that would allow them to grow their skills, work with great clients, but also spot opportunities.
“Our heritage is firmly rooted in Manchester. We’re always looking for opportunities to invest in new digital companies, helping to grow the tech community.” Some of those companies include:
“Aside from that, we’ve recently taken a second office in The Federation - the digital hub in the heart of Manchester, with Co-op Digital based on the top floor, and many other technology start-ups working here. It’s the perfect creative environment to connect with like-minded individuals and equally innovative businesses.”
Howard feels that the secret to success is that they’ve always been entrepreneurial. “Goal number one – build a brilliant software development company. We’ve achieved that. Goal number two - even from our infancy we’ve always invested in ideas. That’s the entrepreneurial side coming through. We’re not so technical that we don’t consider the business approach and the business need, which is slightly different from many technologists who like to play with tech but don’t look so closely at the business needs.
“So we’ve got a business brain as well as a technology brain, and that’s served us very well,” he says. “Over the years, we’ve built and invested in a number of technology spin outs, and they’ve taken us into a range of different sectors, like market research, football, retail, music, travel, advertising… so alongside Apadmi, a few years ago we formalised an investment model which was basically our equity portfolio, and that’s Apadmi Ventures.”
Apadmi Ventures was born out of the realisation that, as a business, they’re different. They’ve got some ‘almighty’ skills, and because they can create most technology solutions they’re a strong and credible partner for a lot of technology start-ups.
“I remember a few years ago, sitting asking the question ‘what does growth look like for us?’ and it was either more developers and designers delivering more technology solutions, or, because of our skills, more spin outs, more investments, more tech companies being created around us. Because we’ve done a good job in creating the services company, it made sense for us to move into the investment side.
“And with the people we work with and partner with, I think they’d all say they were pleased to have Apadmi on board, from a shareholder’s point of view and a board point of view, because we bring something different to the conversations to be had about how to grow and scale a business.”
Aside from providing customers with high-quality mobile solutions, Apadmi Labs and Apadmi Ventures represent true innovation. Labs has research, development and discovery at its core. Ongoing projects include the development of frameworks that allow SMEs to leverage machine learning techniques to perform personalisation and specialisation in their apps, and wider marketing approach. This is all without the need to collect and maintain personally identifiable information - something which is increasingly regulated (GDPR) and difficult to do.
Ventures provides hands-on investment for technology-based start-ups - be it time, money or expertise.
Some nine years later, all four founders are still involved in the Apadmi Group. “We don’t necessarily work every day together now, because we’re all involved in different areas, but the four of us are still here; we’re still talking, we still go for beers, we still have a laugh and a giggle together! So many people fall out, but we can still have a laugh and take the mickey out of each other, so that’s good.
“It’s nice because we have this strong core, and it makes us stronger than other businesses. You don’t want to duplicate yourself, you want people with complementary skills around you.”
Proud as they are of their Manchester history and heritage, have they ever felt the pull of the bright lights of London? “The quick answer is no. We’re born and bred; raised in Manchester with a strong affinity. Many years ago you might have considered London a lure, but I could suggest that it’s working the other way in some circumstances.
“Quality of life, and affordability, is starting to make people look at living in a city in Manchester, so I wonder if we’re starting to see a tide turning because of Manchester’s ambitions. Now we have a Mayor, devolution, the BBC, lots of indications that it’s perfectly acceptable now to live, and grow your career, in Manchester.
“We’re very happy that we chose to stay here, because something’s happening at the moment. It feels somewhat special to be in Manchester just now, and hopefully this is just the start of it – we can see so much more to come.”
Still a growing business, Apadmi alone employs around 66 people. “Extrapolate out all the businesses we’re invested in,” Howard says, “and across the group it’s more like 120 people.
“We need an army of developers and designers to be coming through constantly. We need university graduates to be staying in Manchester, or migrating to Manchester, because the jobs are there and the culture is growing. You need more people coming through to feed the Northern machine. “
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where the magic sits in Apadmi. “There’s this restlessness attached to us,” Howard explains. “We don’t sit on our laurels and claim that we’ve cracked it; we’re constantly looking at new technologies, at new sectors being created by innovative technology. We’re always playing with new things.
“As a by-product of the investment division I’m now exposed to new ideas in a whole host of sectors, and how technology can be innovative to those sectors. We’re part of a conversation about how technology can innovate. Because we’re super skilled in the world of technology, we can bring innovation to any sector in the form of collaborative conversation.
And because they’re very technical internally, their team are always playing with new technology - and out of that can be born amazing ideas. “We create our own products; we have a real desire to invest more into our own products and take them to market. Again, we’re sector agnostic for the most part, if we think something’s a good idea and can help – or disrupt – an existing sector, then as long as you can take the technology to market, we don’t care what sector it might be.”
At the moment, the team’s putting time into areas like voice technology, machine learning, and IoT.
“We ran a Dragon’s Den style event for our staff, where we invited everyone in the company to choose an idea and pitch it to the founders. At the end of the day, everyone voted on their favourite, and the winning application is being built.
“One of our staff, Tom, his friend’s father had a stroke which left him with ‘locked-in syndrome’ so he struggles to communicate. He can only communicate through blinking. There’s technology that allows him to communicate but it’s very expensive. Tom pitched an idea involving an iPad, which we’ve built and he’s now got ready to demonstrate, using a technology that allows you to use your eyes to select words.
That’s the best use of technology, he muses. “When the technology saves lives or helps people’s quality of life, you’re just delighted to be involved. The biggest solution we’ve ever delivered was for the NHS. In the Donor trust, at the awful moment when someone passes away, the nurses need to be with the family capturing information manually that they later transfer to a terminal. And they were using anything they could lay their hands on and having to leave a grieving family to do their job.
“So, we took paper away from them and gave them iPads, plugged into a cloud solution. It’s capturing data intuitively, which is being uploaded and instantly being made available to the whole healthcare system. And that just feels like a brilliant use of technology to solve a problem.”
Howard often feel like they’re just scratching the surface of their capabilities. “We would say we’re very good at creating technology, and we partner with those who are very good at taking that technology to market. It allows both parties to play their role very well. It feels that although we have achieved a great deal, we’re still at the tip of the iceberg and there is so much more to come…”