New business, similar competition: It really is a small world for Richard Green
It’s ironic that Richard Green’s first venture into business involved scrapping old bangers, given that his company Ubisense is noted for helping to manage production lines for some of the world’s leading carmakers.
Green recalls his youthful endeavours as an engineering entrepreneur “buying old bangers, scrapping them and using the proceeds to restore vintage tractors.
“Now five of the top 10 global automobile manufacturers run their factories on Ubisense’s location intelligence software.”
More than 40 telecoms network operators and a host of utilities companies around the world also use Ubisense solutions and, in its 13th year of business, Green is feeling lucky about future prospects as the brand builds traction in more vertical markets.
AIM-quoted Ubisense now has 220 employees in five countries and is one of the most celebrated and successful of spinouts from the university’s computer laboratory.
Green is grateful that he was able to cut his teeth, business-wise, with his successful first venture – Smallworld, which was one of Cambridge’s very early success stories.
“It was 1988 and I was 30 when we founded Smallworld. I was lucky to be part of a group of talented folks working on a prototype that was killed off when the company developing it – Computervision – was purchased by Prime Computer in the late ’80s. We saw the opportunity to leave and start off on our own and Smallworld was born. I was marketing manager based at Harston Mill.
“Smallworld was an exciting concept, providing a revolutionary approach to digital mapping – or Geographic Information Systems. My biggest influences then were Dick Newell and Tom Sancha – the founders of Cambridge Interactive Systems – who I joined in 1984. At the outset of Smallworld we had sort of a business plan – of course it bore no relationship to the business we developed!
“The seed capital was put up by three of the founders who had sold off their previous business and then sweat equity from the rest of the team who all took at least a 50 per cent-plus salary cut for the first few years. It was great fun, very exciting although I am sure I have blanked out the stressful bits; I’m sure there must have been some.
“The biggest challenge was to enter a market dominated by big players – IBM and Siemens – and get the name established as a credible supplier to very large blue chip customers. We attracted investment from a couple of our biggest customers to overcome this problem which paid huge dividends as they had both an operational and financial interest in our success.
“One stumbling block was not spotting mistakes the second time we made them! But we leaned on each other when times got tough and managed to steer the business to global success. We had a very well rounded team – with a cross section of experiences – but in terms of networking it was simple: It was customers, customers, customers – that’s who we networked with.
“Smallworld was listed on NASDAQ in 1996 and trade-sold to General Electric in 2002 for over $200m. At the time we were employing more than 500 people worldwide.”
Richard went on to co-found the current business, Ubisense, in 2002. It floated on AIM in 2011 and now turns over more than £35 million a year and employs 260 staff worldwide. Surprise, surprise – Ubisense found themselves up against major competitors once again – such as Siemens and Zebra – and therefore had the same brand recognition issue to overcome.
Green is an eternal optimist and extremely positive. “The sun’s out, I’m smiling – it’s another great day,” is one of his entirely genuine responses to: “Hi Richard, are you well?”
He says: “Given my time again I’m not sure there is much I would do differently – other than figure out how to spot the same mistakes before we make them again! And I would thoroughly recommend the thrill of building a business – and succeeding – to any budding entrepreneur. I would urge them to just go for it, make a decision quickly and they will be surprised how much progress they can make.”
Green is equally positive about the environment that has been created in Cambridge and the UK to found and grow a business – with one caveat. “The only things I would add to the current formula would be for the Government to help promote UK businesses. Perhaps also it would be more helpful if it was easier for companies to sell to the UK government as having customers is the best way in which to propel a business, refine its model, proposition and so-on.”
The positive Mr Green won’t countenance the negative view from some quarters that Cambridge entrepreneurs are limited by ambition and therefore we are not scaling enough businesses.
“I don’t buy that at all,” he says. “In the context of our demographic we are doing brilliantly. Just look at the examples! Let’s not fall into that familiar British territory of complaining about everything – football, the weather or a supposed lack of ambition. We have loads of it in Cambridge.
“Look at the list: Abcam, ARM, Autonomy, AVEVA – and that’s only the letter A for goodness sake!”