Tandem's Darren Bush talks about the decision to expand into managed services

Indie Profile: Tandem Solutions

Darren Bush, managing director at Tandem Solutions, talks to PCR about software solutions and his love/hate relationship with industry buzzwords.

When was the business founded and what were the decisions behind forming it in the first place?
It was 22 years ago when I was about 18 – predominantly as a software development business. Before then, from the age of about 14 onwards I had a few games published for the Commodore 64…

Oh brilliant, so is it fair to say you were a ‘bedroom coder’?
Yeah, on the Commodore 64 and the Texas TI994A. From that I went on to develop a couple of small business applications on the BBC Model B and the Amstrad PCW range and with the advent of the PC – when costs of PCs came down – I got involved in business software development from the age of about 19 onwards.

So from quite a young age, you were headed towards a business angle. And then you expanded… Well realistically, I would say that we grew steadily, taking on staff and premises over ten years. It took us about ten years to get around a million turnover. Then we spent probably another ten years with a turnover of about £1.2 million because we were largely services based. Then we grew to £1.5 million last year and we’ve just completed the first six months of this year and we’re already at £2.2 million for the year so far.

We’re hoping that we can push through the five million turnover barrier this year and retain profit and get listed quite high on the Times Fast Track 100 list.

So you’re doing well then?
We’re doing very well. As I said, we’ve already exceeded last year’s turnover by a significant amount and we’ve retained very good profit.

So how have you done that?
The majority of our growth has been within education and the public sector. We formed a managed print division in July 2010. That division has given us the majority of the growth. That division added around 15 people in to the business. We’re up to about 45 employees in total at the minute and we’re in the process of recruiting for another six positions.

So what kind of people do you look for when recruiting?
Well, for anything on the technical side of the business we take on anyone with a strong, demonstrable skills and experience in the sector we’re going for. On top of that, we’ve got a couple of apprentices starting this month.

The active sales team, which is about nine people, have mostly come from sales backgrounds but not necessarily IT sales. We can teach them IT, but we want someone with a strong background in sales. We’ve got people who used to sell Stannah Stairlifts or commercial insurance – we usually look for people with a hard sales background.

How else have you achieved this growth?
We’ve also got a team of 12 that head up our development team, which is literally database design and development, web design, share price solutions. We offer full service from specification through to the writing, training and installation.

What spurred you to expand into managed services?
I think managed services is a really overrated term. We’ve sort of always done managed services but I guess we’ve only implemented true managed services in the way some people define it around two years ago.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a buzzword…
To be honest, it really winds me up! Everyone says ‘oh, we’re an MSP’. So what do you do? ‘Errrrm, I can’t tell you that’.

I would say at the minute about 60 per cent of our clients are on a true MSP contract with us, the others are on a sort of hybrid model.

What about that other dreaded buzzword – cloud?
Well, being in rural Lincolnshire, cloud sounds phenomenal but broadband connectivity is appalling.

So the way we’ve looked at cloud – because it’s a buzzword and everyone thinks we should be doing something about it – is that it’s a door opener for us. So we’ve got two canvassers hitting businesses in our area and they’re asking people if they’ve considered cloud and managed cloud services.

If we get an interest from the canvassers, we get the opportunity to go and talk to the business. Sometimes they want on-premise solutions, but a lot of the time, cloud isn’t the right thing for that client but ‘cloud’ is the buzzword that gets us in the door.

And then you find what’s right for them…

What do you think are some of the main challenges facing the channel at the moment?
Well, I would say my biggest business challenges are staff. Again, partly because of geography but also – while we’ve definitely got the right people – it’s really hard to find the right people. If I’m honest, that’s one of our biggest challenges.

An equally big challenge is premises. We own a three storey building now. We’ve owned the top floor for the last five years and have ust bought the bottom two and we’re waiting for the other tenants to vacate.

From a channel perspective, I still think that the smaller independents are struggling to make margin on hardware when you’re up against the multiples. This is where I bring a Network Group plug in. Being part of a group brings us back up to par with the multiples because of the buying power of the group.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out?
I would say that in today’s market, I think the early years are very difficult. If you’re going to look at it from a business perspective, then I think the grass isn’t always greener and sometimes you’re going to have to work twice as hard to make nearly the same amount of money for a long period of time.

If you’re looking at it from a lifestyle perspective then go for it. But if you’re looking to make a good return, I would say that without the support of buying groups and so on it can be a tough world.

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