“Don’t do it. Go and get a job.”
That’s the advice of Mark Furness, founder of Essensys, to those considering starting a tech business.
Today, Furness describes Essensys as “the platform that empowers the flexible workspace industry”, but his journey to this successful venture was no easy ride.
Born and bred in the more impoverished parts of Liverpool, he laughed: “Think Oliver, but in the 1970s and 80s.”
With two options, ‘survive or die’, Furness went with the former and left school at the age of 16 to join a band.
His musical career saw him touring the world, and Furness described how his first hotel stay at Claridge’s opened his eyes to a nicer side of life.
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When things didn’t work out after two years in music, he said his commercial thinking saw him through a number of careers, including door-to-door sales.
Landing a managing director role at a tech firm in the North West in his mid 20s, Furness went on to turn around what he described as a “broadly broken company.” In return, he was promised a percentage of the company.
However, when the company reneged on giving him a share, Furness resigned.
“I’ve always been a really straight-shooter, so one of the early things I learned was to always play with a straight back – and that’s a big thing for me in business,” he explained.
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Rags to riches
Down on luck and couch surfing in South London, Furness ended up working behind the counter in a Thai takeaway.
With an idea for an IT business, Furness said he invited two ex-colleagues for dinner to gain technological insights and advice on his plans for a new tech startup.
“At that point it was all a case of how I could take what I had in terms of a vision for a business, a culture, a look, and create a business around that sort of ethos.
“I didn’t lack vision, I didn’t lack understanding on the customer challenges, what I lacked is the ability to code and the ability to put a technical solution in place, so I needed the technical horsepower alongside me,” he recalled.
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To his surprise, what Furness actually left the restaurant with was two business partners. Each purchased a small percentage of Essensys, providing some startup capital which enabled the business to progress.
Despite building a business as a trio, Furness stressed the importance of maintaining autonomy.
“My view on it is, definitely have people alongside you in those early stages that are bought-in at every level so that they have skin in the game, and are absolutely aligned to the needs and goals of you and the business.
“But also, make sure that there are no doubts around control because I think there needs to be a control point and clear direction point,” he added.
Agility and speed have been paramount to Essensys’ success, and Furness went on to express how a strong and central leadership point is also fundamental.
Within the broader team, passion, excitement and enthusiasm are important to Furness.
“If you can harness passion, it is simply the greatest thing. ‘Cause passion beats everything when it comes to it,” he added.
Accessing tech talent
Furness has experienced first-hand the struggle to access and recruit top tech talent, however.
He commented: “For many years we couldn’t recruit the tech talent that we needed to help us accelerate the business. It was such a challenge that we ended up building part of the company in Vietnam, as there was a reach of tech talent there that we couldn’t get access to in the UK.”
“Parts of the business just weren’t ‘sexy’ enough,” he continued, “we are a workspace technology business, we’re not doing the cool AI or robotics or biosciences.”
Once accessed, however, Furness believes the key to retaining tech workers is to ensure they are well looked after in their working environment.
An example of this in practice is that UK Essensys employees are promised the opportunity to go and work in the US, and those from the US are able to come and work in the UK.
“We start to think of the people more as, dare I say, family,” he added.
Building a positive working environment also has substantial benefits when expanding a business in the future.
Furness explained: “As we’ve become stronger and bigger we’ve started to attract improved talent, and that has in itself attracted others.
“So if I was to liken this to a football club, it is that mega-signing or that stand-out talent. If you can get that person in the business, you will then start attracting and lifting the rest of the company,” he added.
Work/life balance is central to Essensys’ mantra, and Furness retrospectively outlined what he has learned from his experience as a startup founder.
“One of the most important things I’ve learned is it’s ok to make it up as you go along,” he said.
Additionally, the founder believes that while passion is necessary to drive a business forward, work should not be so stressful that your personal life suffers. In fact, Furness said work shouldn’t even be in the top 10 priorities of his employees.
“And the final thing I tell people is to be absolutely yourself. You spend too much energy trying to be things that you are not, or things that you think people want, and actually it’s a waste of energy,” concluded the founder.