Tim Mercer started his career in the British Army, and is now CEO of a business communications service. He talks to BQ about how he got into business and what it's like being your own boss.
Tell us about your business, what does it do?
We’ve developed three key product suites – secure network connectivity, voice communications and storage. We’ve not diluted our expertise by dabbling with anything else, as many IT companies do. Instead, we’ve concentrated on utilising future technologies and investing heavily in ground-breaking WebRTC capabilities to deliver robust, compliant, flexible and cost-effective solutions under this very focused umbrella.
Our aim has always been to provide agile business communications services without the ‘baggage’ and corporate restraints typically imposed by competitors. This means our offering is as much about people and services, as it is our tech.
What did you do before you started this business?
Despite 20 years in the telecoms sector (including 10 with Virgin Media) my career didn’t start out on the obvious IT/business path. I began my working life in the British Army and served in both Northern Ireland and the Gulf War. Upon my return I went on the hunt for fame and fortune in London, before returning up North and progressing my career in the data/networks sector.
What inspired you to start up?
My ambitious streak, passion for teamwork and keen interest in ground-breaking technology meant I was perhaps destined to own my own business. And the greater I delved into an apparent market gap, the more I knew I had to make it happen.
How would you describe your business to your grandma?
We help businesses stay truly and securely connected, however large they grow or whatever external challenges they encounter.
Where do you get advice, support or help?
I’ve got two great co-founders, each with their own strengths.
Steve Dempsey is one of the most intelligent cloud specialists I know and a past senior partner at Accenture, and our finance director Jason Sharp who has worked for prestigious brands including Rolls Royce and British Nuclear Fuels. They provide me with the support I need to keep pushing Vapour forward. I also remain in close contact with other knowledgeable and inspirational people I’ve met throughout my career, such as Mark Edwards – a stand-out character who trained me whilst I was at Virgin and has gone on to coach tens of thousands of people worldwide. He is coming to Vapour’s Elland HQ later this month to help my colleagues with their own development.
I’m also quite a big reader so will keep up to date with blogs, books, biographies and TED talks from other people I find inspiring – particularly those who have ‘made it’ from nothing and have become fully-fledged.
Finance is one of the most common barriers to starting up. How did you access the finance you needed?
Finance was definitely something we needed as a start up. I sold everything I had to make this business happen so I certainly took a leap of faith.
At that time, I didn’t have a clue how to secure funding. But which entrepreneur can – hand on heart – profess to know it all? I therefore pushed myself out of my comfort zone and – having received a £1m injection of capital this spring – have now proudly attracted £4m of investment since the company was founded four years ago. This latest cash will fuel additional tech development and enable us to boost our headcount by 20%! We’re creating jobs, not just solutions and turnover!
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
We’ve launched two great new products recently – which I think are both industry firsts – so I suppose I should name drop one of those. But truly, it’s the team we’ve built – however clichéd that sounds. We’ve gone from a three-strong start up to a company that employs 31 people, with plans to create another 10 jobs in the next 12 months, and our sights set on £12m turnover by 2020. This – and our culture – is the achievement I am most proud of. We’re achieving what we set out do.
How do you differentiate your business from others?
The goal, with Vapour, was to deliver incomparable customer service as well as cutting-edge technology. I wanted the most intuitive solutions to be available to businesses regardless of their size, so clients would no longer be shackled by hefty contracts and questionable support standards. That’s why our products and services are now used by local SMEs, national blue-chip brands and supply chain partners elsewhere in the channel.
It was difficult, as a start up, to gain trust from prospective customers – after all, we ask them to put the continuity of their business in our hands. But we gained this trust by highlighting our commitment to service, as well as great tech. It’s certainly our people who help us stand out.
What’s it like to be your own boss?
I couldn’t imagine life any differently now. It’s challenging of course, but it’s a role I relish, especially as I see my colleagues grow and we break new boundaries as a team. I love having the freedom to implement new ideas – from myself and others – and if something doesn’t work, we just adapt again. The responsibility for people’s mortgages took some getting used to though!
Where do you see your business in 5 years’ time?
I would like us to be one of the leading tech firms, with a turnover in the excess of £30m, as well as having a strong, honest team that bolster the delivery of technical and innovative solutions all over the UK.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Bite the bullet and do it! People give themselves an array of excuses as to why they can’t get going, but with this mindset there’ll always be something. If money is the issue, there’s plenty of funding out there if you know where to look. If it’s time, you need to find the time or make the time! Just don’t underestimate the hard work!