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From bootstrap to acquisition and everything in between
by Prof. Mark K. Smith

The journey of an entrepreneur is a long and complex one. It has ups and downs, extreme highs and extreme lows, and hopefully you have more of the former than the latter, but it is tough, really tough.

Because I have had some modest success in my career (having IPO’d and sold tech companies) I am occasionally asked what makes me successful at growing a business. I tend to have two stock answers: the first is related to personality, and the second, rather less interestingly, is related to evidence. 

So firstly, personality. The odds of growing a company up to and beyond an 8-figure revenue are hideously improbable. In fact, it is vanishingly unlikely. Take 100 embryonic companies in tech with what the founders think is a cracking idea and less than 1 of them (a lot less than 1) will get that big. In fact, when any young, enthusiastic, budding business sort asks me if I think it is a good idea for them to follow this path I always shout ‘NO!’. The thing is, the personality traits that make you more likely to win are also the traits that can make you very difficult to live with. The first trait is relentlessness – the ability to keep going when all around you suggests you will not succeed… you just keep going. ‘The money’s running out’, ‘the deadline is impossible’, ‘the team are revolting’… ‘Pah’ I say, just keep going. The second is positivity – this one is the hardest one of all. Culturally, the British tend to avoid being positive from birth, it really isn’t in our DNA. We are the plucky losers, we are the sardonic sorts charging at the cannons in a futile attempt to win, with the certain expectation to lose. However, positivity is a virus. Display relentless positivity (see what I did there?) and others feed off that and the unlikely becomes probable. And the final trait of a successful entrepreneur, which leads into my second stock answer, is evidence-based. Most businesses fail because the founders have such a passion for their idea that they refuse any negativity towards their ‘precious’. ‘My widget is the best’, ‘my algorithm is smarter than yours’, ‘my plan is the plan that beats all plans’. Well, no it isn’t. Why? Well, because there are around 8 billion of us on planet Earth, each born with a brain and each will have some good ideas in their often, quite long life. Your idea will not be unique. It really won’t. Almost certainly someone, somewhere, will have thought about it as well.

So that leads on to the evidence found in data. The trick with business is to never trust instinct. Instinct is a cruel mistress and it will guide you towards the cliff edge. We live in a world where data is everywhere and proof is a click away - and if not proof, then at least you can dispel your ‘I wonder if’ with a simple cheap survey of a 1,000 people to see if you are on the right side of right.

That's what has made ContactEngine so successful. We didn’t start with Proactive Conversational AI, oh no, we started with live streaming telephone calls from any phone, anywhere in the world, live to the web. But the data told us we were wrong. So we changed. We started to help companies communicate better with their mobile workforce, proactively. But the data told us we were wrong. So we changed. We realised (guess what? Yup, the data told us) that it was communication to customers that really mattered – that was where the gold was – using all channels to start conversations with customers to solve moments of inefficiency, and my goodness there are lots of those.

Then came the really difficult bit. Persuading businesses in a reactive world of comms (where the customer was expected to go to them with their problems to solve) that their own data held the triggers to turn this around and be proactive – reaching out to the customer with communication that let them know what was happening, good and bad, and let them know they cared.

That took us years, and in the last couple of years we won that argument and became the world’s leading proactive communications engine, working with some of the largest brands out there.

But the story does not end there. The ups and downs in business means that proving you are the best in the world at something – where frankly numerous massive software vendors should really have wised up to this years ago, is not an ideal place to be. Think David and Goliath – but where David left his sling shot behind. Not ideal.

So last week it was announced that ContactEngine were acquired by a company called NICE, a company I’ve known and admired for some time. They are data-driven, committed to perfection in customer experience, they are cloud and they are entrepreneurial. They also give us the ability to accelerate rapidly and to really take advantage of our first mover position. What’s more, their relentless positivity shines through.

Now the journey continues. It’s the same team – only with more resources being added by the day – to allow us to continue our plans for world domination in a lovely pro-active conversational kind of way.

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