It’s much more fashionable to be a nimble startup than a massive corporation. Yet when it comes to securing government contracts, big still tends to be seen as beautiful. With more resources comes greater capacity, and with greater capacity comes greater efficiency and ability to do the job.
Try telling that to Paul Sachs, the founder of CaseLines. As one man he was able to beat a multi-billion pound IT giant to secure a contract to digitise the entire UK justice system.
CASELINES IN BRIEF
Founded: 2000 (as Netmaster Solutions Limited)
HQ: Victoria Station, London
Turnover: Above £5 million
Sachs started developing CaseLines in 2008. The former director of AI labs at PA Consulting was working as a sole trader doing contract programming under the name of Netmaster Solutions when he discovered how inefficient the handling of courtroom documents was.
Judges, lawyers and court clerks would often have to sort through stacks of hundreds of paper documents including witness statements, charge sheets and evidence bundles. CaseLines is an electronic evidence management system for courtrooms, allowing for the documentation to be uploaded, collated and shared between all parties involved. Typically this consists of word documents, PDFs, certificates, and increasingly video.
Having developed the product alongside his other programming work - the first sale was a £3,000 one-off contract with Brighton and Hove City council - Sachs was invited to join a market engagement programme run by the Cabinet Office to see how paper could be removed from the crown courts in 2013. After six months of contributions CaseLines received a request for a procurement proposal in December 2014.
It entered the process competing with five other bidders of varying size. Eventually this was whittled down to just two. CaseLines - which at the time had two full time staff and 'no money' - found itself up against the Canadian IT giant CGI Group - a $10 billion dollar beast with over 68,000 employees.
It seemed a no brainer. CGI had the expertise, reputation and track record of delivering the resources. But the bid came down to a key question.
Both parties were asked about the process behind sub-pagination - what happens when a late arriving document is handed over to the judge, which involves numbering the document with letters as well as numbers.
While the CGI representatives advised the MOJ procurement panel, which included eight judges, that it would spend time working to understand how the process works, Sachs on the other hand knew the answer.
While coding the programme he’d spent hours shadowing judges, watching how they worked, and asking them how they handled documents. He knew his software inside out and more importantly was able to explain exactly what it would mean for the judges using it. It swung the balance and CaseLines was able to secure the £6 million contract.
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Although Sachs is unwilling to reveal revenues, CaseLines is now used in 78 courts around England and Wales, and by 25,000 users and 1,200 judges daily. Sachs says that it saves the MOJ a pile of paper the height of The Shard (310 metres) every four days.
It is now used in the commercial courts of Dubai and Abu Dhabi and went live in Kenya in September 2018. In 2019, the service will roll out across the whole South African civil justice jurisdiction where it is hoped digitising the documentation process will see a significant reduction in corruption.
You would have thought that scalability would have presented a major challenge. The system holds 100 million pages of evidence (and is growing at a rate of 12,000 new cases each month) so ensuring easy access, and more importantly security, could cause a problem.
However Sachs says the decision to build the CaseLines software into Microsoft’s Azure cloud system made scaling and security much more manageable. 'This was a massive shift from the nineties or even ten years ago,' says Sachs. 'To be able to co-opt that level of scalability and security as an individual is quite phenomenal really.'
The rapid growth did of course force the company to recruit more people, but the MOJ provided a lot of assistance by providing office space - initially in Southwark Crown Court - and helping with teething problems.
CaseLines has very few direct competitors which means the company often enters into single vendor procurement contracts when negotiating with new government clients, but this has not been without its problems.
‘You don't know whether your pricing is competitive enough or your functionality is comparable because you've got nothing to compare it with,' says Sachs. 'In a way it would almost be better to have some competition.’
A simple lesson
The next stage of CaseLine’s development involves integrating ongoing blockchain and AI research into the software. For now its focus is solely on the legal market, although Sachs sees the software having a use for maintaining patient records in the healthcare sector.
CaseLines’ situation is relatively unique and maybe if it operated in an industry with greater competition there would have been a different outcome. Nevertheless it's a simple reminder to businesses of any size. Resources, expertise and reputation are great to have, but if you lose focus on the business outcome and the end customer, it ultimately counts for nothing.
Image Credit: Michal Chodyra/GettyImages