Ever wondered how people get into the global security industry? Michael McCabe tells the story behind how he launched Intelligence Fusion...
After being nominated for the BQ Festival's Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year award, we caught up with Michael McCabe to find out more about Ignition Training and to hear what inspired him to launch the business...
Tell us about your business, what does it do?
10 years ago, business leaders were talking about oversaturated traditional markets, and the need to move to more risky frontier markets, such as Africa, Asia, the Middle East and South America. Fast forward to the present day, there is a global terrorism epidemic and a rise in sophisticated criminal networks, as well as a lack of funds to effectively tackle these issues, meaning traditional markets are now also significantly risky.
Intelligence Fusion is a crowdsourced intelligence platform. What does that mean? We connect people from around the world on one platform, sharing information regarding threats, to provide businesses with the information required to help protect their people and assets, but also to move into frontier markets safely and effectively.
What did you do before you started this business?
Prior to founding Intelligence Fusion in 2015, I was self-employed, providing security consultancy specialising in intelligence and investigative services for global commercial clients. Before this I was the Head of the Analysis and Assessments for Olive Group in Iraq, and prior to that a senior intelligence officer for Aegis Defence Services in Anbar Province. My career, however, started out in British Army Intelligence, where I served in numerous posts in the UK, along with an operational tour to the Middle East.
What inspired you to start up?
Necessity is the mother of invention and that is absolutely the case for Intelligence Fusion. I built the intelligence platform I wanted in Iraq and didn’t have. I could also see that the security situation was going to deteriorate globally. We had already witnessed a significant economic crash in 2008 and instability was spreading from the Middle East to North Africa and Europe.
I speak to clients daily and overwhelmingly the attitude is that the global security situation is on a downward trend, without signs of improvement in the short term. Our mission at Intelligence Fusion is to try and do something about it. As an intelligence analyst, what I can do, is create the most comprehensive global intelligence platform on the market, providing support to both private and public-sector organisations.
Where do you get advice, support or help?
Luckily I received an early introduction to Craig and Norm Peterson of Growth Capital Ventures. Two of my biggest issues starting out were access to finance and professional advice. Both of which Norm and Craig were able to help me with. One of the books they encouraged me to read was ‘The Lean Startup’ by Eric Ries. In the book it states, “We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want."
That was key to how I approached the early days of the company, speaking to everyone I could, getting as much advice as I could and wherever possible getting potential clients to test my platform and give me feedback. If this is done effectively, then you will learn how to solve the customer’s problem. It is then your job to build the product they require.
Finance is one of the most common barriers to starting up. How did you access the finance you needed?
To build that product, I needed access to finance. Via the Growth Funders crowdfunding platform, I raised £22,500 to build the initial version of Intelligence Fusion and test the market. This was raised from a mixture of the crowd and institutional investors.
I had watched Dragon’s Den for years so it was a slightly daunting task to put a business plan, financials and a slide deck together, and then pitch to investors, particularly for an ex-squaddie with no business background. Luckily, various skills I learned in the military, such as conducting intelligence briefs and building presentations helped.
24 months later, we just pitched for another round of funding and raised over £400,000 to build the next iteration of our platform. While crowdfunding can be a long process, it has benefits, such as exposure for your product and the ability to bring in stakeholders who have a vested interest in your company’s success.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
Selling our data feed to one of the largest private intelligence companies in the world. This was a massive confirmation that we are on the correct path. Over the next five years this is a contract worth £200,000+ and it locks us into their business, because it is very difficult to access the same quality and scale of data that we provide.
How do you differentiate your business from others?
By using a completely different business model. Traditionally, the intelligence business model has been either to hire a large in-house team of analysts or to leverage technology to gather global intelligence. By crowdsourcing intelligence, we are looking at the problem differently than our competitors.
Intelligence Fusion has already built up a network of over 200 people, by partnering with universities, who then help to populate the platform with incidents. These incidents are then analysed by experienced intelligence analysts, adding the additional context businesses require to protect people and assets more effectively.
What’s it like to be your own boss?
I currently work seven days per week, starting at 9am and working til gone midnight most nights, with breaks to walk the dog and play with my son. In comparison to my previous roles in Iraq, this is actually an improvement in terms of quality of life. In Iraq I would work similar hours, and didn’t have the opportunity to have a real home life because I was away for nine months of the year. Although I was paid well and that payment was regular, there is a real difference in creating something that is your own. You don’t mind working the 16 hour days because you are driving forward your dream. When I made my first major sale, I had the satisfaction of knowing that was down to my vision and my team’s hard work and dedication.
Where do you see your business in five years time?
Intelligence Fusion is not a lifestyle business. It is a business being scaled to be sold to a large private security, consultancy or publishing company. If you raise investment, you must have an exit. Ideally, we will scale the business to a point where we are acquired and my family and I will be rewarded for all our years of hard work and sacrifice.
In addition, it would be nice if I was kept on to run the business, because I really feel Intelligence Fusion can play a major role in helping to mitigate the global insecurity we are currently witnessing. Last year we produced two reports for the National Crime Agency, which were really well received and I feel provided additional validation to the crowdsourced intelligence method.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
The biggest thing is to have the right idea and vision from the outset. If your concept is poor, everything that follows will be a waste of time. Do your market research, speak to prospective customers before you have even spent any money. Once you have an idea, test it. Test it straight away and keep testing it and never stop trying to improve it. You cannot sit on your laurels, you must have an attitude of constant development, because once you get traction in your sector, you need to keep ahead of the competition.
One of the biggest issues you will face is changing your concept or adapting your idea because of feedback. There is a phrase, ‘a camel is a horse designed by a committee’. I would say, listen to feedback, absolutely, but also sometimes go with your gut feeling. If you are the subject matter expert, sometimes your decision will help create the horse and not the camel. If you go with your gut though, keep testing, because those conversations and metrics will prove that you were right or wrong.
Also find a mentor. They don’t have to work in the same sector as you and sometimes it can be beneficial if they don’t. The early days of being an entrepreneur are very lonely, so if you can find a sounding board to speak to once a month, that will help massively. I am more than happy to speak to any aspiring entrepreneurs because I know how daunting it can be but also how rewarding it is when your idea develops.
In addition to speaking to people, read. Even just start with a book like The Lean Startup. Reading is a cheap way of improving your knowledge on a wide variety of skills you will need to be successful. As an example I taught myself basic website building skills, as well as Adobe Photshop and Premiere Pro using books and tutorials, because tools like these will help keep your start-up costs down.