The IT training sector has been through tough times in the past two years, with spending down by 30% and some providers struggling to stay afloat. Happy Computers, though, has bucked the trend, achieving continued growth by successfully re-inventing its offering to meet the changing needs of the market, and by harnessing the tremendous loyalty it has built among its customers.
From the moment you enter Happy's offices in London's East End, the brightly coloured interiors, paintings on the walls and comfortable sofas all suggest that this is no ordinary workplace - an impression bolstered by big smiles on the faces of all those around you.
But it is not just a fun place to work: during the past 12 months, Happy has also scored considerable business success - most notably, the appointment of Learnfish, its online division, as lead supplier in a major deal to provide European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) certification to some 450,000 NHS employees over the next three years.
Indeed, Learnfish is the innovation that has kept Happy smiling. Until a couple of years ago, the company's training was almost entirely classroom-based, but it spotted a growing demand for people to learn at their own speed, in their own time. Moving into internet-based training was an obvious step, but unlike some of its competitors, Happy concentrates on effective learning rather than whizzy graphics, and combines online modules with some continued classroom sessions - a formula known as 'blended learning' - backed up by reliable helpline support.
Whether in class or online, Happy's approach is to find out what customers want to learn, rather than teaching them what a piece of software can do. The results are evident in a volume of impressive testimonials - many of which are published on the company's web site (www.happy.co.uk). Happy prides itself on the fact that everyone who attends a course provides feedback (Happysheets), and if just a couple of scores fall below 80%, the company treats that as a complaint and every delegate is telephoned to find out how the training fell short. Explains Henry Stewart, founder and chief executive of Happy: 'We are simply not interested in taking money for a course that wasn't of the highest standard.'
Not surprisingly, plenty of people would like to work at Happy: more than 1,500 people have registered their interest in a job there, but the majority are destined for disappointment: turnover is low among the 43-strong staff. One key attraction is an exemplary commitment to flexible working.
'The onus is on us to prove the job cannot be done, not for the employee to prove it can,' says managing director Cathy Callus. Employees are also allowed to choose their own supervisor, and the admin staff - known as 'smoothies', or smooth operators - write their own job descriptions by dividing tasks among themselves.
It is the contribution Happy Computers makes to charities and good causes, though, that marks this out as a truly exceptional company. An estimated 25% of profits is given to the community each year in various ways. Every member of staff chooses a cause to receive a pounds 75 donation; furthermore, everybody can give one day a month of their time, fully paid, to a community project.
In addition, there is a timebank of 100 man-days a year devoted to special projects. Last year, two of Happy's employees spent a month in Uganda training IT trainers to create a sustainable skills base in that country; a similar project is planned in Cambodia.
Asked how Happy protects its intellectual property - its training manuals - Stewart says: 'We publish it for free on the internet.' This, in a nutshell, is at the heart of its philosophy: if you give something today, you will get something back tomorrow. It is a lesson that many others could learn.