Advanced Computer Software (ACS), a healthcare and business management software provider, is a UK firm that aims to take on the global big hitters and win.
A string of successes in winning business intelligence contracts from under the noses of firms like Oracle, IBM and SAP has led to the firm posting full-year (to February 2014) revenue figures of just over £200m, an impressive 67 per cent improvement on the previous year.
Vin Murria, the firm's charismatic CEO, says she'd like to grow the current market capitalisation of around £600m to over £1bn in the next three to five years.
Murria, who launched ACS in September 2008, only started to draw a salary from the firm very recently. "I do this because I love it," she says. "It's about loving what you do, and a hunger to grow something great."
And recent changes to the way local authorities spend their budgets is helping to fuel that growth, according to Murria, as it gives ACS a vital edge over its larger competition.
"Local authorities, central government and the healthcare industry are all still going through a ‘spend to save' philosophy. They want to see ROI within a year, and Oracle and SAP can't do that."
Murria describes ACS products as having "99 per cent" of the functionality of SAP and Oracle, but it's the capacity to deliver that early ROI that wins business, she says.
We recently won a contract in Northern Ireland, worth £17m over 10 years. They made £8m a year savings from the first year," she adds.
Murria describes ACS as "sitting just below SAP and Oracle", but leading in its field in the UK. She admits that her firm steers well clear of competing with accounting and CRM firm Sage, instead citing Netherlands-based UNIT4 - recently bought by private equity firm Advent International - as its closest rival. However, according to Muria, UNIT4's focus is primarily in AsiaPac and the US as it doesn't count the UK as a growth market.
Mobile BI and big data
The rise of mobile in organisations has caused many firms to adapt their strategy, and ACS is no different. But are complex applications such as business intelligence (BI) really suitable, or even necessary, on a smartphone?
"BI full stop is very useful, whether mobile or not," begins Murria. "The world is moving so aggressively to mobile, and really it's just a continuum of screen size. Once the queries are written it's just running them in a certain way. If you're doing heavy number crunching you do it back at your office, but as long as it's not that, you can use a mobile for BI," she adds.
So BI is still relevant then in a mobile world. But this is also a world heading rapidly towards big data for corporate intelligence needs. In a world of unstructured data, will the traditional BI vendors fall by the wayside?
"Big data and BI are very similar," says Murria. "You're looking at the same pie, but maybe with different data feeds. Whether it's big data or normal data in silos, until you get the right data and ask the right questions, there's no value in it. In the end it's still about the questions a user asks," she states, adding that her customers are not yet asking for big data solutions.
Skills and development
The difficulty of recruiting appropriately skilled IT staff is often the thorn in the side of many UK-based technology firms, especially those based outside London. While ACS has several offices around the country, Muria states that it's in her firm's home patch of East London that it finds it hardest to find good IT people.
"The hardest [geographic] area to recruit is here at City Road. The quality of people we hire is really good, but if a bank decides to hire 100 technical staff, they'll poach around our area and we can't match the salaries they offer," she says.
While Murria admits that her firm pays at a "medium level", at least compared to what banks can afford, she states that the mentoring and development available at ACS helps it to stand out from competing employers.
"We have an advanced university programme around mentoring and developing people - we invest in our people, to help them become whatever they can be," she says, adding that ACS offers a broad range of courses to its staff.
"That can be anything from presentation skills, recruitment, accounting, to management skills. And the more courses you turn up to, the more impressed we'll be."
Murria's aim is to create the "next big UK software business". And part of that process involves batting away potential buyers.
"I think I'm keeping buyers at bay. We say things like come back to us in three to five years."
Murria explains that she sees a tendency in the UK to think small scale.
"Entrepreneurs get [their firms] to £5m-£10m, they pay off the mortgage, and they're happy with that. There's nothing wrong with that, but in the States, that wouldn't count as started.
"People make some money, say £3m-£5m and they think that's a huge amount, and then they become a non-executive director instead of moving onto the next start-up. In itself that creates opportunities for people like me.
"We found a small business recently [education software specialist Compass Computer Consultants, bought by ACS for £14.5m in February 2014] with a great team, a great product, and their customers adore them.
"But they got to a certain level and didn't want to take it forward. I was in awe of what they achieved, but it could have been worth 10 times what it was."
Murria explains that the problem is a cultural one. "In the UK if you fail once they don't trust you. The motto in the US is you have to fail three times before you become a billionaire."
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