The RainMakers Report: Piers Daniell, Fluidata
Piers Daniell, founder and managing director of Fluidata, has been interested in business since listening to his family discussing the world of work around the dinner table as a child. Compounded by parents who did not believe in pocket money, this fascination motivated him to start his own business fixing friends' IT problems, Stayward, from the age of 16. This venture would eventually become Fluidata, which sells innovative, high-speed internet services.
Unlike school, which his dyslexia caused him to find challenging, computers were always "intuitive – not complicated" for Piers. However, despite this natural capacity, he explains that "the aspect I really enjoyed was running a business. I was acting as the director of a company, doing everything from creating the brand to invoicing, and it was fantastic."
When Piers chose not to attend university, his parents charged him rent from the day that he left school. "So many entrepreneurs will assure you that it's 'not about the money' but financial security has always been a huge motivating factor for me. By forcing me to pay rent and take responsibility for my decisions, my parents gave me a fantastic impetus to ensure that whatever I did was a success. I realised quickly that money opens doors and, ultimately, can buy the one thing that everyone wants more of: time." Although Piers did not retire at 30, this drive has evidently played a huge part in his attitude towards business.
During a stint at reseller giant Softcat, which he describes as "my university experience – two years of being educated about business," the restrictions of being an employee made him realise that what he craved was a position in which he could make a material impact and take control. After switching to work as the sales manager of a recruitment company, he was still disillusioned. Daniell explains his reaction to this: "I left the job, went home and thought, 'I'm going to resurrect Stayward.'" He began selling IT hardware to customers who used high-tech software, capitalising on his ability to condense demonstration hardware to the size of a "carry on aircraft bag."
Further down the line, his desire for financial security led him to rethink his business proposition and move into broadband services to form Fluidata. "I looked at two models in the IT industry: mobile phones and broadband internet. The problem with mobile phones is that operators always want to own the customer relationship. In what became broadband internet, operators were not as concerned about this and it was much easier to set up a reseller arrangement."
Piers did not have a business plan as such: "I just focused on our USPs – how we were going to make our offering better than anything else. I didn't know a great deal about the technology involved but I learnt by scouring customer sites at 3 am and calling support lines."
Fluidata may now be an established business of 52 employees, but Piers does not romanticise the journey from start-up to success story. "Many people aspire to run their own companies but aren't happy to do the same things over and over again, which is what the start-up phase involves. It's not fun or sexy and there is little to no recognition – most people don't understand what you're doing or why you're doing it." Luckily, his natural determination served him well: "I was committed; no failure was enough to stop me. I had no assets and no money, but there was no turning back. If you deal with challenges like these quite early on in life you learn that, no matter what the challenge, you don't have to give up."
When asked about his company's reliance on technology, aside from obviously being what Fluidata actually sells, Piers is adamant that without technology the company "could not do what we do with the people we have. By minimising manual processes, technology allows us to do so much more with our time." This does not mean that technology is beneficial in all its forms: "“We will never sell a product until we have used it in-house and established its business benefits. It's about using the right technology and choosing it carefully – we are slow to adopt because you do not have to be the first to do something to be the best at it."
An understanding of the technology that powers his business is of paramount importance to Piers. "We source and maintain IT systems in-house and buy things as close to source as possible. Every company will use a given technology in a different way and a good knowledge of it will allow you to customise the system to the business' best advantage."
In addition to capitalising on his natural talents and tenacity, entrepreneurship has been an intensely educative process for Piers. "When you develop something from nothing you can't afford to pay for other people's skills. You have to learn things yourself, which may be challenging but also gives you a greater degree of control over all aspects of your business. When I eventually hired a financial director, four or five years into the company's growth, I could really walk him into the business."
Piers identifies his biggest challenge as managing people. "Nothing prepares you for the variety of issues you have to tackle when dealing with people. Finding the right people, training them and then retaining them can feel like a distraction from the core activity of driving the business." In fact, he cites his aptitude for technology as contributing to this challenge: "Occasionally HR can seem like a wasted opportunity because it means there is a process that I can't automate. Working in this industry can make you feel as though most problems should be able to be solved with technology rather than people power. People should be dealing with exceptions, not processes." If he were to start another business, HR is something he would "bring in much earlier."
Piers does not identify a “Eureka” moment at which the vision of his company unfolded before him. "The 'vision' happened naturally. I think it comes down to the ambition to make it big – I have always built this company as though it were a billion pound enterprise and implemented processes accordingly. I hate wasting time and energy repeating things – while I am happy to give advice, I don't want someone to come back to me with the same problem the following day."Looking to the future, Piers is focusing on his exit strategy. Not, as one might think, in preparation for selling the company, but to create the next stage of growth. "I have realised that the standard growth curve will happen naturally, but what I want is a step-change that will increase both turnover and capability. I am trying to create a jump that is sustainable and significant and will fast track the organic growth of the company."
He sees this drive towards constant forward motion as part of what makes an entrepreneur: "A manager, when faced with a particularly challenging problem, might pass it on to someone else or claim that it is out of their remit. As a business owner, the buck stops with me – I need to make it work, and make it work better than before."
Despite all his credentials, Piers is still hesitant to describe himself as an entrepreneur: "I'm just a businessman. A businessman who loves the process of creating things and watching them grow."