There are many careers that have a path clearly mapped out. Starting your own tech business isn’t one of them.
Nicole Lowe, Head of KPMG’s Emerging Giants Centre of Excellence in the UK, meets two tech founders and finalists in KPMG’s 2021 Tech Innovator competition, to get their startup advice for growing a successful tech business.
When Jamie Burrows, founder, and CEO of Vertical Future, started his business six years ago, he put everything on the line.
To fund his first vertical farm and get some working capital, Burrows secured a £100,000 loan from a high street bank, which put a debenture – or full-floating charge – over all of his assets. That included his home (his only asset), which he shares with his wife and two small children.
“To say I was all in from the get-go is an understatement. I had a family to support, it was stressful, to say the least,” admits Burrows.
Fast forward to today and the leading vertical farming technology and research company is now a revenue-generating operation and the 2021 winner of the London heat of KPMG’s Tech Innovator in the UK competition. And at the start of the year, Vertical Future closed a £22.3million Series A funding round.
“We’ve come a long way from that £100,000 bank loan,” says Burrows. “It’s taken us about five years to both develop our growing expertise and create our own suite of technologies which come together within an end-to-end vertical farming system.
“We’re now selling systems across the world, scaling and have close to 60 staff. I was only confident to start selling our technologies once I was sure we had the people, data, and assets in place to enable us to execute on large-scale infrastructure projects. It’s one thing being able to sell and build a pipeline but delivering on that pipeline is a completely different set of considerations.”
Startup advice: Be prepared to make personal sacrifices
So, having grown the business in just five years what would Burrows’ advice be to others looking to scale their businesses?
“My key pieces of startup advice would be not to procrastinate, be prepared to make many personal sacrifices and remember raising capital is key but the end goal of your business should not simply be an exit. For us, managing cash flow was and still is the biggest challenge. It’s true that cash is king,” Burrows says. “Being part of KPMG’s competition last year helped us to see that all businesses have challenges when looking to grow.”
Burrows adds: “What was really useful was being able to see how others, irrespective of sector, were managing their own businesses. It gave us confidence that we were doing the right things.”
Bruce Elliott, an ecommerce executive and founder of Memory Lane Games, agrees.
“Reaching the national finals as a pre-revenue finalist gave us a lot of confidence that while small, we belonged. We have gone on to expand our B2C business globally and recently signed our first B2B customer,” he says.
Memory Lane Games has created localised digital health apps to improve the quality of life of those living with dementia. Elliott says the opportunity to network with other local tech businesses helped raise Memory Lane Games’ profile. But a key learning was the power of ESG messaging.
The power of ESG
“It was something we had been working on but based on the feedback we received during the regional pitching event, we made ESG a central part of our story when we reached the national finals and later in our investor presentations! It’s one of the hottest corporate trends and getting us ahead of the curve has been a boost to our success. Reaching the national finals, has been a true springboard for us,” Elliott says.
Having held considerable leadership roles in publicly traded and privately held online payments, gaming, blockchain and digital health companies, it was Elliott’s passion for gaming and digital health’s scalable solutions that were instrumental in the formation of Memory Lane Games.
Winner of KPMG’s search for a tech innovator in the North in 2021, the business has had a rollercoaster of a year with over 65,000 downloads of its digital health app for dementia and its games have been played in over 100 countries.
The business has also commenced RCT Clinical Trials and widespread media coverage vaulted the firm briefly to the #2 spot on the “UK iPad Free Health and Fitness” charts in January.
‘KPMG helped us refine our three-minute pitch’
Memory Lane Games has even had time to close a £700,000 seed round. “While we remain passionate about delivering our free localised dementia therapy app in lower-income countries in partnership with national Alzheimer’s Associations, and doing more with British veterans with dementia, we have recently achieved our commercial B2B breakthrough into the international care home sector – that was a real moment for us,” Elliott adds.
“Our elevator pitch, and our business, improved significantly as a result of winning the KPMG competition. Nothing focuses your messaging and presentation skills than having to deliver a three-minute pitch followed by a three-minute grilling by the judges.”
Elliott adds: “Refining our messaging down to just three minutes was a brutal but effective process, which has paid dividends for us, ever since. We didn’t realise at the time what a key milestone entering the KPMG competition was going to be for us. Winning our heat raised our profile and credibility with investors, prospects and healthcare providers, domestically and internationally.”
To find out how the 2022 finalists are disrupting the status quo, register to watch the UK final here.