If you want a clue to someone's psyche, so the saying goes, take a look at their office. Tidy desk, efficient mind; cluttered desk, busy mind; bright room, fresh ideas; gloomy room, well ... dark moods; a scattering of clothing, they probably live there. So what does one do with all these preconceptions on a first meeting with Kevin Grumble, co-founder of Actinic, which provides e-business software for small and medium-sized enterprises?
Grumble doesn't work in an office. This 43-year-old, who admits to having been the school geek, is a paper millionaire who works in his garden shed, with secateurs and watering can close at hand. 'The shed used to be my workshop. Technical support worked in my garage,' reveals Grumble. 'They have since moved, but I've found the shed to be the perfect place to stay.'
Grumble is a grown-up version of the nerds we've seen in the corners of internet cafes. He earned a double-A in computing but never went to his lessons. He boasts of never having been an employee, but insists he is eminently employable. He calls himself 'a failed Bill Gates' because, as teens, they met selling software off the same stand. Yet he is hardly a failure after floating Actinic in the early summer for pounds 25 million.
With a company growing at a rate of 500% a year, Grumble remains a true entrepreneur, but he's an enigma in many ways. He is the brains behind the outfit, and he hates sloppiness in business more than anything else - although he often can't be bothered with sorting out the details of what he is doing. 'I sometimes say that I come up with the first 80% of an idea and leave it to everyone else to do the next 80%,' he jokes. 'But this is what I am.'
Grumble describes the people around him as 'sweepers'. He explains: 'Every company needs mess creators - and that's what I am. But, equally, they need sweepers to sweep the mess up and turn the ideas into reality.
'To my financiers,' he adds, 'my weakness is not bothering over an odd pounds 10 here and there, but I know that and I'm aware of it, and I have sweepers to deal with details. People who don't realise this run sloppy companies and have unhappy customers.'
It may sound eccentric, but Grumble thrives as the ideas man in the shed, and seems to be fulfilling his allotted destiny. Everyone in the company - 60 employees and growing - undergoes two psychometric tests as part of the recruitment process. Grumble is no exception. 'I'm an ENFP man,' he confesses, revelling in the jargon of the four-scale Myers-Briggs type indicator test. 'Chris Barling, my co-founder, is an ENTJ - so we share an EN (Extrovert/Intuitive). It means our natural tendency is to be creative and then direct our energies into getting other people doing things.' FPs and TJs are Feeling/Perceiving and Thinking/Judging types.
He concedes that such strong belief in this is an unusual business trait, but he adds: 'Have you ever noticed how teachers seem to fit a teacher profile? It sounds silly, but people do seem to self-select themselves to certain jobs.'
Most of his ideas, he says, are not new but come from devouring just about any management book - from classics such as Meredith Belbin's Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail through to the latest Gallup book, Breaking All the Rules, which is currently being used to rewrite his company's handbook. 'You wouldn't expect a doctor not to have read any papers since he qualified, yet with management it seems to be allowed,' he observes.
'Sure, you have to read critically, because people like Tom Peters will run you ragged, but I've always got at least one book on the go because, even if it gives you one idea, it's something you never had before.'
So it's with a fatalistic application of psychometrics that Grumble accepts that he is who he is. 'I'm the sort of person who doesn't wait for things to happen. Belbin calls them 'shaper' entrepreneurs. I realise I can't have a sloppy company but, as an ENFP man, I know I'm more likely to say to financiers: 'Oh, we're only a tenner out.''' With this in mind, his finance director, David Dawson, formerly with United Biscuits, was deliberately recruited as someone who was not like him.
'Actually,' Grumble says with a laugh, 'he is also an ENTJ - which I can't quite believe. An INTJ (Introvert/Intuitive/Thinking/ Judging) would be perfect, but a Scottish accountant is about as good as it gets.'
Grumble's plan now is to strike hard at the more mature American SME market. He is looking to hire a US marketing executive and a UK managing director to allow him to spend even more time in his wooden box, mapping out the way ahead.
'We're a pretty simple company,' he says. 'We sell and develop the modern equivalent of fax machines, selling software that allows SMEs to receive orders and take payments online rather than by fax. Two million SMEs in the UK will keep us going for a while here, but I always need to think ahead.'
And it is the long term he's busy on. His vision is to create a company that will last for 300 years. 'The average life of a public company is supposed to be 30 years,' he observes. 'That's because it doesn't change what it first started doing. I want to grow SMEs into e-businesses, but in 30 years' time, who knows what Actinic will be doing?'
However, desire for longevity and growth doesn't mean world domination a la Bill Gates. 'I'm a Christian as well as an entrepreneur,' Grumble says. 'I, too, want all my competitors to die - don't get me wrong about this - but Gates has also done some despicable things I wouldn't want to copy.'
Running what he calls an ethical company means a different business approach. He has rehired staff that he had previously been obliged to make redundant. And he says his three company values are: family first, don't lie, and have fun.
'I don't hanker after running a Christian company,' he says, 'but I'm not interested in having a rich one with burned-out divorcees. It's wrong for a firm to spend all its time making people useful only to end up killing them. The success of this company will be measured by how many employees are still married.'
For Grumble, however, being an ethical entrepreneur doesn't mean being a pushover. 'Chris Barling and I still decide most things,' he says, 'and I've had one person storm out once because he was part-time and wanted to be full-time.'
And what you won't find in many of the books he reads is his own harsh rule that staff don't do things they can't yet handle if it means endangering a business deal. This may violate the sexy comfort-zone-breaking theories of self-development, but that doesn't cut any ice with Grumble.
'I'm an ideas thief,' he says, 'which means I will pick and choose ideas I like, but I won't pick everything. I'm against the Peter Principle of everyone being managers. I believe in filling people up to their capacities and not beyond. So at the moment, I have a salesperson who will have to hand over a portal development sale to a colleague to close the deal. He got the lead and developed it, but can't yet deal with the negotiation side of finishing it off that experience brings.'
The flip side is that credit is given where credit is due. 'A salesman can earn more than a manager, because I recognise that if you're as good at selling as you are at managing, there is no reason for a difference in pay because both are doing great jobs.'
The fact that Grumble now has shareholders to contend with will not, he says, deflect him from any of his aims. Indeed, the company has had some outside interest ever since venture capitalist 3i took a one-fifth stake in 1997 with an investment to allow Actinic to expand overseas.
'Companies shouldn't change just because they've floated,' he insists. 'I already had support in what I was doing from 3i. It had already bought into my vision. The only thing that has changed is that I've more money to achieve that vision.'
Grumble borrows a bit of history in looking to the future. 'If you take a look at the best-run businesses at the turn of the last century, the likes of Quaker' - note the religious slant again - 'and Cadbury's (also founded by Quakers), they did very well, and continue to do so. There's nothing wrong with a bit of that today.'
All of which makes one wonder whether Gates should seek out his old acquaintance for a bit of inspiration.
HOW TO AVOID BEING SLOPPY
- Sit back, take stock and recognise that all things in your business matter.
- Decide which things you do well and which you don't.
- Now put out of your thoughts the things that are going smoothly.
- Prioritise the things that you aren't doing well, but don't use your list as an excuse to give the lower-priority entries less attention than they might merit.
- Put the right people in charge to make sure that all your company's negative points are being addressed at once.
- Give them a deadline and make sure it's kept.
- Stay involved, but if necessary give them the power to overrule your question 'Does this really matter?'
- Tell them to report back to you, but reserve your right to question whether too much detail is preventing the business from moving forward.
- Make sure they aren't just polishing the warhead when you want to press ahead and launch it.