Pamela Cook talks to Business Matters about why her data-tech company, InfoShare, looks to identify and help vulnerable people through data.
What is the background to your business?
Infoshare was born in Kingston-Upon-Thames over 20 years ago. Its inception was a result of the growing role that data has in all our lives and the recognition of the real-world impact when that data is inaccurate. Due to advances in technology, things like AI and machine learning have moved out of science fiction and into the mainstream. However, any software that uses data is only as good as the data that goes in – ‘good enough’ data is no longer good enough when the insights gained are relied upon to make critical decisions. There was an opportunity to help organisations to trust in their data, so they could use it for good.
I took over as CEO of InfoShare in 2010, re-mortgaging my house to fund a major company restructure. It was a daunting but exciting challenge at the time, but it has been incredible to see the company grow and develop, whilst keeping our desire to be a force for good at the core of everything we do.
We developed our technology closely with police and public sector analysts to ensure we were authentic in our response to the market needs, and to ensure we were genuinely building technology that could make a difference. The ability to help organisations easily join up their data was a must, as it is proven to support better identification of vulnerable people.
What is your point of difference?
On the face of it, we’re just a data technology company creating accurate single views of people (and places, addresses, objects, etc). What sets us apart is that we have never strayed from our original goals – to identify and support the most vulnerable, to help organisations use their data for good, and to make a positive impact. If we have helped save one family, to us it’s been worth it. We are also speaking from experience; I personally have first-hand experience of the human cost of bad data preventing interventions for vulnerable children. In fact, this is what drove me to put my house up for collateral to take on the company as a single parent to two adopted children.
Of course, it also helps that our software is extremely powerful, linking people based on evidence (as opposed to probability that most industry competitors use). We may only be a SME, yet we have consistently proven to outperform some of our biggest competitors in head-to-heads, giving confidence that we can help organisations identify vulnerable people to offer early interventions and support. We also offer a complete evidence trail of all links and changes, to support organisations in their compliance.
How do you spread the word about your business?
Getting your voice heard in an industry of giants isn’t easy for an SME committed to its values over profit. However, we have been really successful through word of mouth, where our reputation for delivering speaks for itself and is gaining traction with the addition of some big names to our client base (e.g. Royal Mail, Pets at Home, the Met Police). We don’t have the vast marketing budgets that our competitors have, but we are lucky to have customers who quickly become supporters and believe in what we do – helping our customers achieve their own goals is the best marketing we can ask for. We let them speak for themselves and focus on sharing their success stories. However recently, we have been working more closely with our partners, to bring our innovative data quality and data management technology to new audiences.
How has business been during the Covid-19 pandemic?
Understandably, for most people, general data transformational projects had to take a bit of a back seat, whilst people shifted focus onto pandemic response. However, due to significant periods of isolation and lockdown, the need to be able to accurately identify vulnerable people became a front and centre issue for public and private sector organisations alike. Councils had to understand who within their area might need additional support; supermarkets had to understand who to prioritise for home deliveries; banks and financial services had to understand financial vulnerability in the face of wide swathes of the population on furlough or made redundant.
As a result, we poured our efforts into helping our customers to identify and understand their vulnerable customers and citizens, giving them full access to our entire suite of products for no extra cost, alongside free consultant support to help them use the technology to its full ability. We also offered our technology free of charge to all public sector bodies who needed to quickly identify vulnerability. 2020 wasn’t the year for eye-watering profits. It was the year we had to do whatever we could to minimise the impact of the pandemic and ensure people didn’t fall through the gaps. We had a flat year profit-wise, but I’m proud of what we achieved.
What’s the hardest thing about running a business?
In the early years, with a very tight cashflow, just surviving was my biggest challenge. It is something that I take personally, that the people who make up our Infoshare team are relying on me to keep the boat afloat. It was always at the back of my mind, that there were a team of people who needed me to make the right call. Fortunately, we are far from the nail-biting early years. However, it has simply moved to a different set of problems that will be familiar to most SMEs who go from small to medium – the ability to plan for growth pains in advance, and to know when to invest, what to invest in, and why.
Have you received any financial support for your business?
We received a small amount of investment in the early days. But unfortunately, it was not enough, and our naivety shone through. The second time around, I was in control of the financial support – as I re-mortgaged my house to gain the capital. It certainly gave me an extra incentive to make it work!
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
On a personal level, it has been the balancing act of raising two children as a single parent whilst running a growing business. The biggest business challenge was just keeping the company alive in the early years with a challenging cashflow, whilst we focussed on developing our technology. We wanted to do it right, without cutting corners to build the best possible product to meet the needs of the market. But this required a steep learning curve in financial management, marketing, development processes and technology forecasting – as the CEO of a growing SME you definitely have to wear a lot of hats!
What are your three golden rules for success?
- Surround yourself with capable, motivated and diverse people. And then allow them to shine. I like to hire people who know more than me and can bring fresh perspectives. Also, think outside the box in terms of job requirements and flexibility – if you let people work around their life, you may be getting access to skills and experience that other more rigid employers have missed out on.
- Ensure you’re responding to a genuine market need when creating your products/solutions. If you do so, you’ll have less of a job to convince potential customers to choose you.
- For start ups and young SMEs in particular, don’t expect success overnight. Manage resources shrewdly and commit to nurturing a capable, skilled team who will make your company great.
I couldn’t run my business without…?
A smile. It might sound twee; but running a business can knock you over a thousand times before you succeed. If you can’t dust yourself off and keep going, whilst maintaining your own happiness as well, it will be a steep learning curve.
What’s next for your business?
We are continuing to improve our technology and solutions, bolstering our flagship single view technology ClearCore with a new product (ConsentMaster) to support organisations in their GDPR compliance. We’ve recently added the ability to add in external data to single views to help clients develop a better understanding of their customers, for instance to make better vulnerability assessments or remove deceased people from their contact lists. We have also just finished testing for international markets and our new partner strategy is key to hopefully opening us up to a wider audience.