11/03/2011

By Modwenna Rees-Mogg, Founder and CEO of AngelNews

The founder of Ninah Consulting, Confused.com and Buddi talks about seizing opportunities, making innovation happen and the importance of continuous development.

Sara Murray always knew that she wanted to run her own business, so spent a year working for a management consultancy learning about how business works before setting up on her own with Ninah Consulting in 1992. Keen to get started at a young age when she had no commitments, Sara developed a suite of software which streamlined management consultant tasks and which very quickly grew to become one of the most successful business’s she has ever started.

In 1999, working with a number of major brand names, Sara found herself trying to convince Norwich Union of the need to develop an online presence which translated into business. She had identified two issues; that customers will shop around for car insurance – it is a legal requirement but no one wants to pay more than they have to – and that customers still preferred to telephone the insurance company when they came to actually buying a policy.

Sara could see that a very straightforward, consumer-friendly web which offered customers a uniquely comprehensive range of information would be the way to create an online offering which worked; “you need to give a reason for customers to use a website” as she explains.

However, it would be expensive, at least £6m, and so she suggested that Norwich Union shared the cost with five other insurance companies. This suggestion was not welcomed - so she set up inspop.com herself.

With no direct experience of the insurance business, it was a steep learning curve but it was clear to Sara that this was an opportunity not to be missed and the independence of inspop.com was, of course, an advantage in a world where prices can vary enormously and where consumers were increasingly turning to the internet for comparative information. Re-naming the company Confused.com, Sara had 250,000 customers within 18 months and no plans to sell when she approached Admiral Insurance about joining the site.

They were more interested in buying a stake in the business but, not wanting to compromise Confused.com’s independence, Sara declined. Admiral responded by offering to buy the business and made an offer Sara could not refuse.

For the first time in years, Sara had time to do what she wanted and decided to take eighteen months out. For the first three months she managed not to think about working, but before long, ideas were starting to form in her mind and she realised that, having always worked, she was not cut out for a life of leisure. She says that she has always talked ideas through with as many people as possible (without giving away any IP (Intellectual Property) of course) and that “when people say ‘why has no one thought of that before?’ you know that you are onto something.”

Her approach is collaborative at all levels and she likes to work with others, sharing responsibilities and tasks so that she doesn’t get bogged down in unnecessary management.

So the current project is buddi, the GPS (Global Positioning System) personal tracker aimed at vulnerable groups such as children, dementia sufferers and lone workers.

Sara has found working with hardware to be a very different experience to software; buddi has been five years in the making and she predicts another three years of work ahead as more and more options become possible within the unit. Exploring the potential of the device is obviously very exciting for Sara, as has been the take-up from customers at this early stage.

Over 150 local councils are using it already and her target is every council by the end of this year, along with other potential clients, and the device keeps developing; “we are constantly innovating and very focused on all areas of potential,” she says, demonstrating exactly how buddi has gained so much traction so quickly.

More generally, her future plans with buddi is to develop its potential in mobile health – a growing area – and international sales, having signed a deal with Mace (makers of personal safety devices such as Mace spray) to distribute in the US which will give buddi over 1,000 potential sales routes.

Sara attributes much of her success to a small but supportive group of business angels and firmly takes the view that private investors can bring so much more to the table than just cash. The experience and personal involvement of angel investors is something she would recommend to anyone seeking investment, angels having the edge over VCs (Venture Capital) in their understanding of how businesses work and what sort of support is required.

She has also always valued the contribution of mentors at every level, not just investors. “If there is someone you rely on, who you go to for advice, then give that person involvement, a role, in your organisation,” she says, confident that input from such a source will continue to be of value and use in the long term.

She has now reached the stage of being invited herself to take on NED (Non-Executive Director) roles and get involved with other people’s businesses in other ways. She has largely resisted, although she is on the governing board of the Technology Strategy Board and sits on the Small Business Economic Forum.

Aware that the “bonfire of the quangos” has drastically reduced the number of organisations like it, she is glad that the Technology Strategy Board is holding its own and that the Government continues to have role in the development of business and industry.

However, that role needs to be carefully directed and she sometimes feels “like a lone voice for SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) and innovation”. Sara also believes that in areas like procurement there is simply no room for innovation; “the mistake is to make everything go through a set process, whereas it should be possible to solve actual problems in real time if you have the contacts to make that happen,” she says, adding that any possible abuse of process would be far outweighed by the opportunities it would present. Government’s role is broader and Sara cites the electronics industry in Taiwan and Silicon Valley in the US as examples of good strategic investment by governments.

In the final analysis, though, innovation is about individuals. Sara has, like all entrepreneurs, seen opportunities and gone ahead and exploited them. She does not feel that now is necessarily a particularly difficult time to start a business, although she concedes that investment needs to be available. “Good ideas should get off the ground,” she declares, “do it now – always.”

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