Having secured a $10 million funding round in April this year, Bristol-based software firm, Brightpearl are making global noise with their game-changing business management solution, directly targeted at SMEs (Small to Medium Enterprises).
Developed by Bristol duo Chris Tanner and Andrew Mulvenna, the business has come from less auspicious beginnings to handling over $1billion worth of retail transactions and stock per year. And it all started with longboards. We caught up with one half of the founding duo, Andrew Mulvenna, for a bit of a chin wag.
TechSPARK: Hi Andrew, could we start by getting a bit of you guys’ backgrounds?
Andrew Mulvenna: Chris and I met at university. I was studying computer science and artificial intelligence and Chris was an engineer, but we really bonded over outdoor pursuits – skateboarding, mountaineering, that kind of thing. We became best friends through that shared passion.
Chris is a very independent, serial entrepreneur, and I’m from a very entrepreneurial family, so we decided to try and make a living combining our passion for longboarding with our engineering knowledge. We set up Lush Longboards in 1999, cutting boards in a back garden, and Lush ended up becoming the third largest longboarding company in the world.
TS: That’s a pretty big leap from software development.
AM: Indeed. Well, as we grew, we were experiencing these pains from having separate spreadsheets for every side of the business – sales, online orders, purchase orders, stock control. Not to mention the separate accounting package. We just weren’t investing enough time into merchandising, finding new products and developing new technologies for a skateboard range. We thought ‘there’s got to be a better way of running a business than this.’
“We thought ‘there’s got to be a better way of running a business than this'”
So we looked for solutions. The traditional ERP products we found like Sage and Netsuite came with huge price tags, at least £50,000 to implement, and they’re designed for much bigger businesses with functionality far in excess of what a small business needs. So we built our own software to do it all for us.
That software was what enabled Lush to accelerate faster than it’s competitors to become the third largest in the world. It’s an amazing success story enabled by this piece of software. We eventually developed this into Brightpearl.
TS: So you went straight from selling longboards to Brightpearl?
AM: No, Chris and I went our separate ways for a while. He stayed at Lush while continuing the development of the software while I took a job running large IT implementation projects for an outsourcer for a few years. I quit in 2007 and Chris invited me back to work on Brightpearl. We did a couple of shows promoting the software, called Pearl Software at the time. We got our first customer in 2007 and we launched the business proper in 2008.
TS: And was that a difficult decision to come back? You were doing well in the IT sector.
AM: Not at all, it was a really easy decision to make. It was a big step moving out from having a good salary, nice home, living in a good part of London so, yeah, there’s a lot of lifestyle which went but it was a great opportunity to get back involved with a good friend on an exciting project.
For the next two years though, neither of us took a salary. We weren’t wealthy guys and we sunk all our money into Brightpearl. I couldn’t afford rent and was actually homeless so someone lent me a boat in Bristol harbour – a 30ft narrowboat. That was the winter the harbour froze.
I remember one occasion, I couldn’t afford to buy coal for the little burner in the boat so I ‘relieved’ a sack from one of the neighbours’ boats. I climbed back over the railing onto the harbourside and slipped on this icy railing, dropped the sack, black coal everywhere. So I’m there sweeping this coal back into the bag, covered head to toe in soot. When I finally climbed back on board and got a fire started, the wind was so strong it blew all the smoke from the burner back into the boat and I had to abandon ship. It was probably about that time I realised we’d pushed ourselves probably a little too far. We shouldn’t be living in these conditions.
“We wanted to found the company in Bristol for lifestyle reasons really. But the community in the South West does punch well above its weight”
We had an amazing piece of software, and we have a huge market. We were doing really well in acquiring customers but just not at the rate we needed; we had to invest more in the product to really polish it. That’s when we started pitching to investors, and landed our first million in seed capital from Charles Grimsdale at Eden Ventures, based in Bath, alongside Notion Capital, another South West-based VC; both world-class tech investors.
TS: Talking of the South West, what drew you to Bristol?
AM: We wanted to found the company in Bristol for lifestyle reasons really. But the community in the South West does punch well above its weight – you have Bath and Bristol Uni; world class talent comes out of there. A great deal of talent moves out of London to the SW for lifestyle reasons too.
I feel there has been an increased awareness in the South West, particularly recently, and we’ve had some really great exits through SETSquared, the tech hub based in Bath. The WebStart incubator as well; Mike Jackson is doing great things over there. I’m involved in both as a mentor and you see some really interesting ideas, and seriously talented entrepreneurs, coming through.
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And as more of these places set up, that will attract investors and the investors will allow these talented, smart grads and engineers we have in the South West to actually start to build companies. The more investment, the more companies, the more likelihood we’re going to hear more success stories from the region.
TS: So where is Brightpearl at now?
AM: We’ve just closed $10million of new investment and the plan from now to Autumn/Winter 2015 is three things. Firstly, investing in product. We’re hiring 14 new engineers whose goal is to refine the product we have, and continue to refine it to make sure it’s the best in the world in what we do.
The second thing is customer service, so the small retailer, who isn’t gifted in tech, can get the right support on the phone when they need it. We have a team working 24/7 all year round which you can phone and speak to a retail expert who knows our software inside and out; something we’re really proud of. We’ll continue to expand that.
And the third focus is our partner network. We have this expanding community of Brightpearl partners – around 600 companies now – who have signed our partnership agreement and are actively promoting Brightpearl globally.
We started the business with a huge vision: ‘let’s try and change how every small business runs’ by using Brightpearl. Do that for the whole planet. That’s still the plan.
We’d like to thank Andrew for taking the time to speak to us. For more info on Brightpearl services, visit the website or follow them on Twitter. And for all the latests South West tech news, say hi to TechSPARK here.