“I could never jump out of a plane,” says Sara Murray, founder and managing director of growing personal-safety business buddi. “It’s too much a loss of control.” Yet her latest great passion – outside of her GPS-tracking and personal-safety product – is piloting helicopters. Solo. After just one flight with an instructor, she was so inspired by the experience that she spent much of last summer shuttling from London to Majorca for weekend lessons, earning her pilot’s qualification by the autumn. “I had a go, and felt a grin across my face. That was it. It’s an addiction,” she explains.
It may seem extraordinary that Murray could take up – and master – such a technical skill so quickly. However, seeing an opportunity, acting on a passion but being firmly in the driver’s seat is entirely in keeping with her entrepreneurial temperament. She points out that being successful in that role is not about being a gambler or an indiscriminate risk-taker – it’s about being someone who identifies, understands and acts on calculated risk.
For Murray, past calculated risks have included: launching an innovative marketing software solution and working with some of the world’s biggest brands at the age of just 22; seeing and seizing the opportunity to create an early online insurance marketplace in the space of 17 months (and selling it as Confused.com to one of the UK’s largest insurers soon after); and parlaying a personal experience involving her lost child into a unique proposition for the personal-safety industry.
Murray is not one to climb on a bandwagon – she says she can’t see the point of Twitter or Facebook for business or pleasure (“I’m never so busy that I can’t pick up the phone and call my friends”). But she’s quick to create a bandwagon of her own, with the connecting thread of using technology and software – and now supplemented by the experience of creating hardware from scratch, which has been a big learning curve: “It’s taken me four-and-a-half years to get it right.”
While confessing that she’s not keen on the minutiae of managing people, Murray knows the importance of creating a cohesive team and keeping them excited about what they are doing. She does this by exploiting a unique skill for spotting talent, finding a role for it in her organisation and working to create a culture of flexibility and innovation in which this talent is free to flourish.
She also uses these skills in a variety of roles outside her own business – for instance, her work as a founder and mentor at Seedcamp. The programme locates, nurtures and funds future technology entrepreneurs, and “anyone who is anyone in the internet around the world has offered to help out, which is fantastic”, Murray says. There are many other industries for which this type of initiative would be hugely useful, industries where, she believes, leaders must come forward to make this happen.
Uncharacteristically, for a woman who admits she’s easily bored, Murray says she’s ready to settle down and develop buddi over the next decade. Nonetheless, if her helicopter experience is any indication (she says she now intends to “charter a helicopter and go wherever”), she’s likely to spy opportunities along the way, which could well lead Murray and her team into new, exciting and unexpected territory. Expect others to get on board.
What inspired you to set up your first company?
Probably my mother; she had a view that if you had your own business, you were independent, and you could have more time with your children. I say it was a view, because anyone who runs their own business knows the opposite is true. But at least there is a degree of control.
And then there was always a sort of drive to do my own thing. When I was a child, I was known as the World Bank; I always had something on the go. I would walk through golf courses at night, find balls and sell them to the golfers the next day. If you have it in you, you have it in you – I’ve always had it in me.
You’ve described yourself as a control freak. How is this reflected in your management style?
I’m a control freak, but I’m also a great delegator. I find people and say: “you do technology, go do it… If you have an issue, come to me. If not, please get on with it.” Either people rise to it or it doesn’t work out. But I’m clear about it from day one.
I’m not a great manager of people, so I hire people who are very good at it and then let them get on with it. This allows me to be facing out of the business, rather than looking in. If I’m looking in, it’s never going to grow. You have to get people who can look in for you, and then you can look out.
Having said that, communication is key. It is not possible to give too much information to your team. I think you can tell people anything and they can deal with it. If you hide stuff from them, they worry instead of doing the work. The more you tell people about what you are doing, the more they get excited about it and get passionate about following you and being part of your team.
So, despite your hands-off style, people are keen to work with you and invest in your business. Why do you think that is?
I think if you are passionate about building a business, people see that and you become an inspiration to them. And being the inspiration to those people is much more important than the things that you offer them – the classic package stuff. You have to sell them the idea of working with you and your business, before you even talk about what the incentive is for them to do it.
What other ways do you create a great team?
I often create a job around a particular person, rather than saying, “here’s a job description and a role”, and recruiting a great person for that. I say: “Wow, this person’s got quite an unusual skill and it would be great for my organisation.” I create something around that skill so I can get the value out of it. People know I do that – it makes them feel good about being able to deliver those things.
I work very hard at asking them what their drivers are. If the person’s got four children, I’ll be a bit flexible about the times they work and make sure that they have enough funding to be able to afford a nanny – things like that. I also know that tech people hate a fixed job, so I’ll move them around and into new areas, because that keeps them interested and excited.
How important is a strong network to business success?
It’s probably important to anyone, but to me, it’s absolutely crucial. I’m a voracious networker. I have a phenomenal network, and I’ve worked at it and grown it over 20 years. It’s not something that happens overnight. I didn’t know anyone in government a year ago, but I realised it would be useful for buddi and started lobbying. I’m on half-a-dozen forums.
If I’d had my network [when I was starting out], that would have been the best thing. That’s what I’ve tried to do in Seedcamp – to give them a network quickly and early and a way to leapfrog into the next stage.
I am at that stage in my life now where if I need to open a door, I can probably open it. You can’t do that in your twenties and if somebody can help you a bit with that it is amazing as a small business. I spend quite a lot of time reaching out to people – I help a lot of people. And I suppose that it feels good.
You work with a number of boards and panels. Do you think they will really make a difference?
If these had existed when I was starting out, it would have been so useful. My first business was probably the best business I’ve ever had, and I had no idea about how to fund it, or float it. I didn’t have a network. The only people around were the Prince’s Trust, who unfortunately offered too little. Now, for example, there is the Technology Strategy Board, and as I’m sitting on the governing body, I can slowly move it towards thinking about financing small businesses. There is so much that can be done.
What do you hope to achieve in Vince Cable’s Entrepreneurs’ Forum?
There is an awful lot of talk from government, and everyone accepts following the NESTA report that a small number of businesses contribute more to economic growth than the majority, that entrepreneurs are therefore important, and that is great. But what needs to happen now is convert that talk to actual things government does to help SMEs.
The biggest thing that government could do to change the lives of SMEs is to open up procurement on government contracts to SMEs. I will do anything I can to help and encourage that and make it happen.
What are the barriers for SMEs that we most need to sort out?
First, we need the resource requirements to just go for the tender. For an SME, the tendering process may take its whole resource for a year. Or, it can fail at question one, which relates to the balance sheet and those types of questions.
Then there is the risk issue. Despite the fact that our product costs £300, we had to put a bond in place in case any customer made a claim against us, and that was £100,000. We are very lucky. We have great investors, and one of them put £100,000 on account. But lots of SMEs don’t have the cash lying around. So they go through the process, without warning that kind of thing is going to happen, get on the framework, and then can’t fulfil it.
How would you address this?
We need to find ways of simplifying the financial requirements so you don’t have to have a £500bn balance sheet to apply for a decent-sized contract. In America, they force large companies to work with SMEs – they have to be part of the contract – and it seems to work quite well.
One of the biggest factors is funding, and we just don’t have it. I sat at the Small Business Finance Forum and heard bankers say: “The entrepreneurs don’t want it;” and “There is no demand.” Meanwhile, the entrepreneurs are saying: “There’s no supply, so what’s the point?”
Banks are still offering the money they did before, but they’ve changed the terms, so they’re ridiculous. So entrepreneurs are saying, “We’d rather beg, borrow or steal than take that offer.” Government could change that. It could say if a bank offers someone terms, or you’re already in a deal with terms, it’s not allowed to change them dramatically without good reason. I’m not sure what the answer is and Vince Cable is really grappling with that, which I am pleased about.
You can’t force banks to lend to companies they don’t feel comfortable lending to, but you can ease the money out where it’s available – the “friends and family” money that is the start of most businesses. The government could create a scheme that makes it a no-brainer for angels to invest in SMEs, and not only to invest but also to get involved and help them to grow.
You also participated in Lord Davies’ Women in the Boardroom consultation. What message did you want to get across?
I agreed to join because I wanted to ensure that there is a voice against positive discrimination. I disagree with anyone who thinks that there should be a quota – hiring the best person for the job is the right thing to do. I’ve never sat on a board where I thought anything has been added by the fact that I was female. I do get that the boards of businesses with 90 per cent female customers have to understand their customers. But that’s not about the board – it’s about whoever is doing the marketing and choosing what products to put out there. The board is for the financial and legal regulation of the business, and everybody seems to be missing that. I don’t get that at all.
Do you feel that women are now accepted in the business world?
The generation above still thinks that it’s extraordinary to find a woman who wants to run a business, but the generation below believes they are absolutely equal. Among my daughter’s schoolfriends, the girls are often
expected to do much better than the boys, and will be expected to do so in life.
Having said that, our entire tech team is men, and of all the applications we received, maybe 10 per cent were from women and maybe five per cent were British. a lot of girls read sciences, but it’s not assumed that they’ll continue in those careers. Many get pressured into a number of career paths, but entrepreneurship is not one of them.
You support young businesspeople, but who has supported you?
My mentor is John Kay, the economist, author, Financial Times columnist and founder of the Institute of Fiscal Studies. He’s someone I met on a plane 13 years ago. We immediately got talking about business, what works and what doesn’t, partnerships and things. I’ve always gone to him with an issue – recently some really big ones – and he’s said: “you know, Sara, in 1926, Coca-Cola had a similar thing, and they did this, and this is what happened.” So I’ll think, “OK, if that happened to them, it is likely to be what will happen to us,” and make my decision.
In the past year, he’s become more of a friend than a mentor, but I’ll still download. Explaining a problem to him allows me to think about the solution.
If I knew then what I know now, my first company would be a listed, multibillion-pound turnover business. I would have had the ability to do that, which I didn’t have then. But I’m also someone who gets bored. That’s why buddi is so interesting, because it is changing and addressing markets. I can see there is still so much scope for it that it’s going to stay interesting for a very long time.
Is there any particular failure that has taught you a lesson?
I’m very lucky – I’ve had a massive series of small failures, but I haven’t had a spectacularly big one yet. But, to be honest, you make mistakes every day in a business. Losing good people is very tough, and now I’ve got an amazing team – I really appreciate them so I work very hard at keeping them. I’m hopefully not going to make that mistake again.
You are very much the driving force behind buddi. Is it ever a burden?
The other day, I was told my investors are backing my energy – that’s what they’re investing in. It’s a weight on my shoulders, but it’s also exciting. I have that with buddi, that feeling of excitement and something building. And my investors are so supportive. I can call any of them and talk about it.
What are your plans for buddi and how far ahead are you looking?
I know what I’m doing for the next 10 years. At lunch recently, I was getting together a seven-year plan, so that we could get a seven-year contract.
There will be big changes in some of the markets we’re going into, and I want to alter the way things are done and change the market in social care and offender management. In the long term, they will be run by local authorities, and we are in the technology space in that arena. The kind of data that comes from the technology we’re using in the future could be incredibly powerful and change things.
On the social-care side, there’s no one doing what we are doing. In offender management, there are a lot of big players, so it’s a case of working with them rather than attacking them. We are talking to everybody and finding our feet.
What’s the best decision that you have ever made?
It’s probably to start my own company, but that didn’t feel like a decision – it felt like it was obviously going to happen. I’ve never made a decision that felt amazing; I’m waiting to recognise it. It’s like describing what it feels like to be successful. I’ll know it when I’ve got there!
For Sara Murray’s top business tips, click here
For her career in stats, click here