In the male-dominated tech sector, Lisa Hammond is a rare breed: a female CEO and co-founder of a software company, Centrix Software. Not only that, under her guidance the company is growing at break-neck speed as it expands across Europe, the US and further afield. Eleanor Harris discovered how Hammond, a techie who started life fixing telex machines, made it all happen
Lisa Hammond is CEO and co-founder of Centrix Software, a leading provider of workspace computing solutions, headquartered in Newbury. She was born and grew up on the Berkshire-Hampshire borders, studied physics and electronic engineering at Reading University and received her business education from the Harvard Business School, US. Hammond and her business partner, Jon Fuller, founded Centrix in 1997 as a consultancy practice, and in 2008 launched Centrix Software as a separate business. In 2011 the company more than doubled its revenue and opened a US corporate headquarters in Boston, and it currently has 70 employees and more than 500 customers for its software product range, Centrix WorkSpace. Last year it was named a Red Herring Top 100 Global company in recognition of its innovations and technologies.
It’s rare to find a woman starting and running a software company. How have you found running a business as a woman in this industry?
I don’t even think about it. We have quite a few women working here, we have women on the management team – we’re almost 50:50 in that respect. I didn’t start a technology company thinking “I am a woman”, I don’t run my business thinking “I am a woman”, I’m just Lisa. And maybe because I don’t think about it I never feel any prejudice. Maybe there’s less of it around in our generation, I just don’t think about it.
Have you always worked in the technology industry?
I studied electronic engineering at university which I guess was relatively unusual in those days, I think there were only three girls on my course. After leaving uni I pretty much went straight into the technology field. I started life fixing telex machines. So I started as a techie, then sales, then marketing, then managerial, and then started my own company, so I guess I’ve had a little bit of everything.
Why did you set up Centrix?
Before Centrix I ran Europe for a US technology company. When you work for a US technology company you work all day and all night, and I was about 30 and I’d had my children – my little boy was 18 months old and my daughter was six months old – and I just couldn’t work all day and all night, so I decided to leave that company and set up my own company. It was all about flexibility and being able to spend more time with the children. I’ve never been nervous about it – I’m a reasonably brave person, and I never really have a question of whether it will work or not, I just assume it will work, you’ve just got to do it.
How did you go about establishing the company?
I set up Centrix as part of another company in 1997 and then I completely bought out the company a year and a half later, so it was more like a MBO than starting the business with nothing at all. The company that I set it up as part of were very supportive, so I had a really nice, soft start. By the time I’d bought the company out we already had customers, money in the bank and a great team hired. And so then I was able to grow it and scale it from that.
Can you tell me about the growth of the company since then?
We ran the company as a services company until 2008 – we’ve always worked with very large customers, Fortune 500 and FTSE 100 customers, and we specialised in virtualisation skills, desktop transformation, software asset management, IT strategy and management consultancy, so that enabled us to grow the company – it was very profitable, it was a really nice business, but the market was beginning to scale, so in 2008 we decided that instead of following a services route we would follow an IP route and therefore we really needed to create the software business. So we made that decision – if anybody ever had told me how hard that was going to be, I’d never have done it. But we put about £5 million into starting up the software business and then hired an absolutely brilliant team, and we put the product out to market at the end of 2010. Now, we have about 70 people in the company so far but we’ve got around 30 open vacancies so we’re growing really quickly, we’ve got about 500 customers for the software, and we’re really close to our millionth ‘seat’, which is phenomenal for a software company at our stage. We incorporated in the US last year and hired our first team of people there, we look at the first stage of growth in the US as five regions of which we’ve started two, we have four more regions to open up in Europe, and we’ll then look east, rather than west, as well. We have a free version of our product which is downloaded all around the world so that will help us pinpoint the regions we staff up. We pretty much double every quarter at the moment, so we’re growing very quickly.
How would you account for the success of Centrix Software so far?
We have got an amazing team of people. One of our core skills is how to attract, recruit, mentor and grow very talented people. It is an enormously challenging environment and we attract people who absolutely thrive on challenge, they are motivated, open, collaborative, very innovative and tenacious, and I think that we really look after them once they’re here. I am very passionate about Centrix, I love doing it, it’s something that I really believe in and I guess those guys share my passion and drive, it’s infectious. And then I also shouldn’t underestimate just the power of how good our product is. Fundamentally, we are absolutely passionate techies here, so, for us, what expansion tells us is that people in companies across Asia, across the US and across Europe are using our software and they’re getting value from it – we get such a buzz out of that.
How does your software benefit companies?
Our software is great from a savings perspective – specifically it saves around $400 for every single person in a company per year. For example, Centrica saved £10m using the software. Another really great thing it does is to enable companies to be really flexible with their workforce: if you are one of those members of the workforce you can go to your work homepage, log in, and there are all of your applications from work, all of your content, all in one place, and it works as well on your phone or iPad as it does on your PC or Mac at home. You can work as you want to – you can work flexibly, you can work from home, you can be mobile, you can work from anywhere and it’s really easy to get at your company resources. Also, most of the technology that companies have to use today, especially if they’re large and established, sits on their premises – they’d love to consume a whole load of services from the cloud but it’s actually quite hard for them to do, they can’t simply move everything out to the cloud: one of the things that our technology does is to help them completely seamlessly bridge those two worlds, so they can make the best use of what they’ve got but they can get it in a mobile way and take the opportunities that cloud gives them. It’s all about agility and flexibility for the companies and they save money along the way.
You saved Centrica £10m – if you had a sudden £10m windfall, how would you spend it?
I would put it back into Centrix – I would grow the company even faster than we’re doing now.
What is your greatest business achievement?
Building Centrix Software and the team we’ve got here, and our product, definitely. It has been a challenging, frustrating, rewarding, absorbing, thrilling journey, like anything that’s worth doing. It has been hugely challenging, and still is, we have different challenges every day.
Would you consider yourself an entrepreneur? Do you have other new business ideas in you?
I’ve got loads of ideas. I can’t imagine working for somebody else. My personal trainer and I started our own gym, because she was frustrated where she was working, I liked working out with her and we knew we could create a special place. This comes back to just doing it – there’s nothing stopping you from doing it so you can just do it. Do I consider myself an entrepreneur? I don’t call myself that but I’m not remotely scared of starting a business, I think it’s a great thing to do.
If you couldn’t get to work for half a day what would you do?
I do a lot of things, I learned to fly, I go riding, I go sailing, I ski, I have quite a busy life. As a person I get huge motivation from my kids. My number one priority in life is my kids. I like to be a good example for them, and it’s motivating from an energy perspective – I just have a lot of energy. I am pretty driven, that’s for sure. I have quite a rich and varied home life that I find really supportive and really rewarding, and then I have work which is a passion for me, and so I then also feel fulfilled. I think I’m a very lucky person.