How do you turn yourself from a one-man business run from a home office into a multinational concern with a R70 million turnover in four years – without any capital injection? Glen Ansell knows how. The founder of i5 Technology has achieved something truly remarkable with the company, but he’s the first person to point out that it took diligence
A busy year
With a BCom degree in logistical management under his belt, Ansell left South Africa after studying to seek his fortune in the United Kingdom, but quickly returned. “I come from a very entrepreneurial family and have always wanted to own my own business, so I used some experience I had gained in training in the UK and started doing training in Microsoft CRM products,” he says.
Starting off working from home, Ansell quickly gained a reputation and started to build up a client base. After two months he hired his first person into the business and after three months working from home, sub-let office space from another IT company. It was a busy year, and one in which i5 became a Microsoft partner and then shortly afterwards gained Microsoft Gold Certified Partner status – the highest certification a partner can achieve from Microsoft. Microsoft has been instrumental in i5’s success. “I don’t mind saying that without Microsoft, things would have been a lot harder,” says Ansell, “They have been exceptionally supportive of us over the years.”
i5 specialises in providing business intelligence and customer relationship solutions based on the Microsoft platform. However, as Ansell points out, the focus has shifted and the offering diversified as the company has grown. “We started off doing CRM systems – support, marketing, sales and service – but over time we slowly added various different components to our offering that makes us more of a solutions-delivery business than a deliverer of products. So in the past where we might have provided a company with a software system like a CRM tool, today we will deploy holistic solutions that comprise multiple products.” As Ansell explains, today the company ensures that, in delivering such solutions to clients, each technological intervention is assessed from the five key perspectives of strategy, people, skills, systems, and infrastructure. Its primary competence lies in Microsoft Dynamics CRM and Information Worker, while its specialisation in customised CRM, intranets, portals and call centres has secured it prime position in the market as a niche specialist.
Looking back, Ansell says his biggest challenges lay in building a reputation as a credible service provider to big business. “At the end of the day, it all came down to the correct positioning to make ourselves appear less risky to larger organisations. So instead of positioning products, we positioned ourselves as thought leaders in this space, as business consultants and architects who could affect a business’s bottom line,” he says. Landing big name clients sometimes meant doing things on a risk-reward basis, something that the company is not afraid of doing even today. “This has worked particularly well for us and if anything we are moving towards doing more, not less, of this type of work. This is simply because we believe so strongly that what we do can make a tangible difference to a customer’s bottom-line,” he adds.
Attracting talent and developing skills
Reputation and positioning also played an important role in helping Ansell to attract top talent, no small task in an ICT sector experiencing a critical skills shortage. “Being a small, relatively unknown business makes it a real challenge to attract the kind of talent that is so critical to helping the business grow as I wanted it to. But one of our strengths has been that we really try to grow people rapidly from the inside and in this we’ve been particularly successful.”
He agrees that getting around the ICT skills shortage is not easy but it’s a challenge he tackled with characteristic innovation. “For a small company, recruitment fees are just not viable and the process is too time-consuming and ineffective. So we started our own recruitment company, of which we own 49%,” he says. The company also accessed graduates through Microsoft’s Graduate Development Programme and today has developed its own training course for graduates that combines experiential learning with formal training. “In this way, we skill people from the bottom up. From the top down, we are starting to send a lot of our managers to training and advancement programmes.” These skills development interventions have played a central role in the company’s success.
Success has come with rapid growth. The company has consistently doubled revenues every year, and its staff complement has grown to more than 50 people in four years. “We’ve had to move premises on average every two years, just to accommodate our rapid growth,” says Ansell. In 2006, the company formed Rezonance. “In deploying Microsoft CRM solutions for customers, we realised that a lot of companies had the same requests for additional functionality and each time, we’d develop these additional things from scratch. It didn’t take long to realise that there was a gap there to enhance the Microsoft CRM solutions to meet client’s particular needs,” he explains. The company also acquired Fusion Factory, which propelled it into the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) space.
Ansell explains the thinking behind the acquisition, “Fusion Factory was very similar to our business but they were also involved in ERP, which was an area we wanted to get into. So acquiring them gave us access to strong, seasoned and experienced individuals in that space who had the resources and skills we needed to break into ERP. Its not an area where you can simply send people on a course to become specialists. CRM and ERP are very complementary so it was a move that made sense to us.” i5’s expansion continued into 2007 with another acquisition, this time of web design studio, Chameleon Technologies which, on being acquired by i5 was renamed BlackLight. The company brought a digital media and graphic design competency to i5, allowing it to deliver the most advanced visual aspects of the new internet in addition to its existing back-office functions.
Beyond SA’s borders
2007 was also the year that i5 took its first step towards becoming a multinational company, expanding beyond South Africa’s borders with the establishment of i5 WECA (West, East and Central Africa). “This has afforded us fantastic growth opportunities. We’ve deployed one of the largest Microsoft CRM deals on the continent in Nigeria and have done work in Kenya, Ghana, Togo and Malawi,” says Ansell. He explains how pleasantly surprised he was by what he found in these markets.
“We had no idea what it would be like – you don’t typically think of many African countries as having significant IT capabilities. But what we realised is that there is a booming market there that many South African companies are simply not leveraging enough.” The company has undertaken projects in the financial sector for major banks. “For Eco Bank we’ve just deployed a CRM solution over seven countries,” explains Ansell. “The demand is there for our skills but they just don’t have the supply. The business potential is huge.” The experience has proved to be an invaluable learning curve and one that set the stage for expansion into other countries beyond the African continent. “It really raised the level of our game, giving us the potential to be a true global player.”
After the African expansion and given Ansell’s ambition, it was almost inevitable that i5 would set its sights beyond Africa’s shores. At the end of 2007, the company opened offices in New Zealand. “This is part of a plan to develop a footprint in the Pacific Rim and this year, in 2008, we plan to open in Australia as well,” says Ansell. Research visits to these countries revealed an untapped market for enterprise-ready solutions based on Microsoft’s technology. He adds that the boom in South Africa in CRM and Business Intelligence (BI) development has put the country in a world leadership position in these solutions. “We believe there is probably ten times the potential market we have in South Africa and we’ll be applying our experience in CRM and BI in New Zealand and Australia,” he says.
Targeting new markets
In spite of global expansion, i5 hasn’t taken its eye off the local ball and in March 2008 launched hosting business, Virtual Box. “This is my stretch project and also my vision of the future of IT,” explains Ansell, describing what he calls ‘utility computing’. “Businesses are coming to realise that they don’t need to have their own IT division, and that they can stop trying to become IT businesses and rather focus on their core business. Instead of having IT as part of the business, they buy it as an enabler. We host the IT here at our offices where we have built in redundancy, UPS and generators. Businesses connect to us which means they don’t have to worry about IT. We manage it all in the background for them directly from our premises,” he outlines.
Taking on new roles
Perhaps one of the critical success factors of i5 is that Ansell has grown with the company and from this year, he’ll be taking on a new role as CEO of the i5 Group, handing over the MD position of i5 South Africa. “My strengths are around the building and creation of things and what i5 South Africa now needs is a strong operational and standardisation person. I want to focus on driving business growth and development, expansion, mergers and acquisitions,” he explains. He looks forward to exciting things on the horizon.
Help from mentors
“I have been incredibly lucky to have had some amazing mentors in my career and because of them, I didn’t have to bump my head so often,” says Glen Ansell. His advice to all entrepreneurs is to learn from others more experienced in business than yourself. He lists the following as organisations that have helped him on the road to success:
- South African Chapter of Entrepreneur’s Organisation: They have provided me with my own private board of directors with whom I can share the pains and challenges of the business and off whom I can bounce ideas. Being able to share various experiences makes you realise that you are not on your own and that your problems are not as unique as you think they are.
- Endeavor: This Ngo has provided me with tremendous entrepreneurial support, connecting me to relationships and networks of some of the greatest business minds across the world. They have provided me with business advice, and investment and market opportunities.
- Microsoft: Being a Microsoft partner has meant so much to i5. They helped us tremendously in the first two years to build the business by creating leads and opportunities.
Ansell’s advice for success in business
- Be open to the advice and information that more experienced people can offer. Don’t think you know everything.
- You don’t have to make a mistake to learn from one.
- Delegate – it’s vital if you want to grow.
- Invest in the development of your staff – great people make a great and successful business.
- In business there are obstacles every day. Tackle them with diligence and perseverance.
- April 2004: Glen Ansell starts i5 as a Microsoft CRM product trainer. Works out of home
- June 2004: Hires first employee
- July 2004: Moves into sub-let office space
- 2004: Becomes a Microsoft partner
- 2004: Gains Microsoft Gold Certified Partner status – the highest certification a partner can achieve from Microsoft
- 2004 turnover: R600 000
- 2005: Company employs 12 people
- 2005: Sub-lets larger premises
- 2005 turnover: R4 million
- 2006: Rents full-floor premises in Bryanston. Wins Microsoft Dynamics Partner of the year, Microsoft Information Worker Partner of the year and the Microsoft Winning Customer awards. Establishes Rezonance Software and acquires Fusion Factory
- 2006 turnover: R22 million
- 2007: Wins Microsoft Independent Software vendor of the year award
- July 2007: Acquires CT Digital and forms BlackLight, graphic design and media company. Establishes i5 WECA (West, East and Central Africa)
- December 2007: Moves into current premises and i5 New Zealand is launched
- 2007: Turnover exceeds R35 million
- February 2008: Glen Ansell joins global Endeavor network
- March 2008: Launches Virtual Box, hosting service
- The Future: 2008 projected turnover: R70 million