Diary of a start-up: Piers Linney of Outsourcery

Tech entrepreneur Piers Linney takes MT on a whistle-stop journey through his start-up successes and failures. Last stop: launching cloud services firm Outsourcery and meeting Branson's mum.

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013
I wanted to be an accountant when I was at school in Lancashire. All the other kids wanted to grow up and become builders or joiners and get covered in cement dust. I wanted to work at Barclays bank. So my career’s adviser said ‘be an accountant’. It was a way into finance for kids like me.

That wasn’t quite how it panned out. I went to Manchester University and did a four-year law and accounting degree. I spent most of it in clubs pulling girls, to be honest. But I did eventually get my act together. I ended up becoming a lawyer for private equity and venture capital firms. I didn’t quite look the part: mixed race, Northern accent, state-schooled… So I ditched the accent.

I got bored with writing up the deals. I wanted to do the damn deals. So I blagged my way into investment banking (I could tell you but I’d have to kill you) and finally fulfilled by boyhood dream of working for Barclays. However, Barclays de Zoete Wedd was soon sold to Credit Suisse, which was bad news for most of the existing staff. Not for me. I got promoted. Suddenly I was three years ahead of my friends: an executive investment banker.

There followed a blur of all-nighters, stress, and a personal record of 68 hours spent at my desk. I lived on Red Bull for three years. But I loved it. Then Barclays changed: it became a ‘service’. We had been used to being the masters of the universe, so after I got my bonus in 2000 I left.

I decided to start my own business after that. I started out with a web company doing pharmaceutical research. We launched one month before the dotcom crash – it was a mess. My business partner’s family had a lot of money, so they helped him save the company, and bought me out. I was never that interested in polymer architecture anyway.

My next business couldn’t have been more different. It was called Trust The DJ, a library of track lists from major DJs that customers could compile into custom CDs. It sounds ridiculous these days, with Spotify, YouTube and iTunes around, but those days it was pretty cutting edge. It time, it morphed into a record label. And now it’s a radio business. Ten years on, I’m still a shareholder.

My next move as an entrepreneur was in April 2007 when I teamed up with Simon Newton to buy Genesis Communications from The Link. I took the business to pieces, and put it back together, integrating it with Thus - another acquisition - in 2009, making us the UK’s largest independent mobile services provider.

I got under the skin of the company by working in every single department – taking complaints in the call centre, working in the sales team. They must have thought, who do these two City boys think they are anyway? But we got results. In 2010, we sold the mobile business for £12m, making a fair profit. That left Simon and I to concentrate on the really exciting part of the business – unified comms and the cloud.

Even back then, I knew that the cloud would be big. The risk was that we would burn too much cash waiting for the market to mature. But the gamble paid off. We spent two years building and honing our proposition, and everything has been falling into place. We thought that SMEs would be our main client base, but we built our systems for governments, just in case. That turned out to be a pretty smart move – the big companies are the ones that are really buying cloud. We just won a contract with the Pearson Group, taking us to a projected turnover of £8m this year. Not bad, considering we only really went live this year.

There are lots of copycats trying to follow in our footsteps but I’m not too worried. They won’t have two years to build the back-end we have. And they’ll never get a name as good as Outsourcery. We spent £100,000 on a branding agency to come up with that.

I always wanted to be my own boss, and I’ve succeeded. One of the highlights of my career happened earlier this year when I was invited to Richard Branson’s entrepreneurship centre in South Africa. I met his mum Eve there and told her, ‘You’re the real person behind Virgin.’ She laughed. She was holding a beer and had just come back from swimming with whale sharks. She’s 80. What a woman.

As for my parents, they’ve just about stopped telling me to go and get a real job now. I think I’ve made them proud. Although, I’m still not entirely sure they understand what I do…

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