Mike Hughes meets two firms working under the same roof - the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre at the University of Huddersfield - in two very different areas of cutting - edge technology.
First, Simon Iwaniszak of Red Kite Games. I was particularly interested when the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was briefly reborn recently, because mine is still on the shelf in my old bedroom at my parents’ home – next to the ZX81.
Getting the ZX81 was a big day for me, with its 1k powerhouse, all you had to do was persuade mum she could watch Emmerdale later, plug it in to the telly and v-e-r-y slowly battle aliens, or whatever it was the ZX81 persuaded you it could take on.
Its successor, the Spectrum, was a stratospheric leap forward, with its soft-touch keys and rainbow stripe across the bottom right of the keyboard – it was the future in my hands. Fast forward (something the ZX81 could never do) a few decades and Simon Iwaniszak is bringing me up to date.
His profile on LinkedIn describes him as ‘managing director at Red Kite Games Limited & entrepreneur’, which sounds like a BQ sort of combination. He has been working in the industry for close to ten years now, starting with a degree in interactive systems and video game design from Bradford University and then joining a games company called Rockstar.
For the non-gamer, Rockstar is about as good as it gets, with the global sensation Grand Theft Auto behind it as well as other chart-topping titles like Red Dead Revolver and Max Payne. “I spent seven years there, learning my trade and working with some great people designing games like the GTA franchise. Getting that experience has been a crucial element of Red Kite’s success and has probably helped attract clients to come and work with us now,” says Iwaniszak.
“I had always had the idea that I would set up my own company, even before I got my interest in gaming. I have quite a big family and some of them are entrepreneurial by nature, so I have always appreciated the challenge of going after something yourself.
“But I didn’t want to just come straight out of university and start a company. I wanted to look around and get some experience.”
That experience could have taken him in a completely different direction, given that he was a player with Oldham Athletic before being released and turning his attention to his other great interest – gaming.
The genesis of Red Kite shows Iwaniszak’s thoughtful and considered approach to setting up as an entrepreneur. No panic, no arrogance, just a balanced strategy: Decide the sector, get the degree, select the right company to start with and then pick the time to leave. But all driven by a confidence that the level of skill and the USP he would be bringing to the table was sufficient to make a mark in the sector.
“I will always see a job through, so I wanted to leave Rockstar in between projects. Not wait for another one to start and then get caught in a two or three year cycle with them.
“A few people had left Rockstar to set up on their own and I could see what they were up to and wanted to do the same. I was clear that I wanted to build my own team and develop my own games, and that has worked well for more than three years now, with gradual expansion to a team of eight people.
“We started when there were four of us, simply by connecting up VPN connections remotely, all working from our homes, through a server I had at my house. Then we got our first contract on a ‘Call of Duty’ title for Activision (the world’s first independent developer and distributor of console games) and agreed we had the resources to get ourselves our first office.”
The Activision deal then extended to a game which Red Kite handled on its own, Pitfall Krave, as part of a promotion for Kellogg’s and the considered approach continued to pay off for Iwaniszak. The blueprint at Red Kite (the name is nothing too obscure - it’s a pub in Wakefield where the team used to discuss working together) is to work with its own core team and bring in other staff when needed, from Iwaniszak’s extensive contacts. That way his vision is kept under close control and the tap of freelance talent can be turned on and off as projects grow and the workload increases.
“We have the foundation now to take a few more risks internally, but I never wanted to just throw a snowball into Hell and hope it was going to survive. I had a methodical approach to taking those risks, but building relationships and knowledge as we grew.
“We have ambition to expand – perhaps to around the 15-staff mark – which will bring its own responsibilties. But I see sleepless nights as part of a boss’s job and it was something I was very aware of when I started.
“I am very transparent with the staff and involve them in everything we do. There has never been any funding needed for the company, it has been largely from my own savings, but it is very much their company.”
He is now passing on some of that philosophy back to the university, mentoring students for eight hours a week, mirroring the effect that his first boss, Gordon Hall of Rockstar, had on him as a guide and advisor.
The success of agile games ventures like Red Kite is helping Yorkshire gain a reputation as the home of a games cluster, with sole trader businesses mixing smoothly with big operations like Rockstar Leeds. Iwaniszak describes the close relationship as a family, with little competition and plenty of collaboration. It’s a reminder of how powerful smaller companies can be when they work together.
Entrepreneurs like Simon Iwaniszak have to have self-belief and a vision, but he is showing that it helps to be part of a multi-player game when you want to hit the high scores.
And also at 3M Buckley Innovation Centre, James Clarkson is building an impressive business to add to an impressive CV.
Entrepreneuers will easily associate themselves with the well-worn metaphor of a swan on a pond – organised and calm on the surface, but under the water the legs are working away at full speed, forcing their way through debris and clutter.
James Clarkson has got the swan part of that sorted – even after opting for a 75% pay cut to follow the dream of running his own company.
Being an entrepreneur sits well with him. He was hugely experienced before he set out on his own and that brings a calmness to our conversation – but all the time those feet are paddling fast.
Clarkson, 42, runs Adventoris, a four-year-old tech firm that has just released its first major product. There is investment behind the set-up which recognises the experience of Clarkson and co-founder Tim Longton, but this is still new territory. The new product is SwiftCloud, a mobile-friendly B2B platform that handles stock and orders.
Stock is all displayed online, customers click what they want, orders are processed and replacement stock fills the space. “If you have lots of companies sending in orders by fax or email, you need people to handle those enquiries and key orders in all day,” Clarkson tells me.
“The Swiftcloud software uploads all the stock so your customers have built-in barcode technology to scan what they need more of and the orders gets sent straight through to the supplier.”
From SMEs not wanting to take on another member of staff to larger groups dealing with hundreds of orders a day, it’s easy to see the appeal. There is also great value in data capture, with individually-tailored offers if you haven’t ordered a particular line for a while and instinctive re-ordering reminders for regular items. Pretty smooth for a Huddersfield lad, whose track record is impressive.
“I studied economics at York and then went to work as a chartered accountant at KPMG in Huddersfield. I qualified there on the Thursday and went into industry on the Friday at a building products firm where I stayed for six years. Then I was group FD with a food manufacturing business for two years until we sold it to Kerry Foods.
Then it was on to Ultralase for two years – again as group FD – and then a building services group in Brighouse called CP Group.” He was at CP Group for six years before selling it in 2011 and completing a 20-year career in finance. Money (tick), success (tick). Job done, you would think.
“The genesis of Adventuris came while I was with CP Group,”he says. “We bought a tile business out of administration which had been dealing with a lot of small firms around the UK. There, a customer would ask for a set of tiles for his kitchen, the shop would ring us to check availability, then put the phone down, take the order from the customer and then ring us back to order them.
“I had been out for a run along the canal at Brighouse and the idea for SwiftCloud came to me. But the recession was hitting and as an SME, we just didn’t have the resources, so the idea stayed where it was.”
Clarkson will readily recommend running for any entrepreneur, because it was after another session that the other lightbulb went on and the option of launching SwiftCloud as part of a standalone company started to take shape.
“That was the genesis moment – in the shower at Brighouse. Tim and I started putting some investment together and Peter Armitage of Key Capital Partners liked what we were doing and put us in touch with some VC contacts. Eventually we had £600,000 behind us in the initial round and moved to the 3M BIC.” So, not the usual path for an entrepreneur.
With all that success behind him, money was not a motivation for James, and he tells me that being his own boss isn’t the main driver either. He just has belief in his product and wants to prove himself – again.
“The safety net has been removed and there have been times when I have been driving home and I’ve thought of having a cushy corporate job on a decent whack with big bonuses – and I have literally had a warm glow in my stomach.
”But I love what I’m doing and I’m passionate about our product... but I look forward to the day when we can get a bit more security in there.” With two young children and Mrs Clarkson taking a part-time job, the pressure is on, but so far James’s belief seems to be marketable.