Nik Topham left Reading as a teenager and set out on a gap year to surf the world.
Three years later he came back without much money but worldly-wise and found a breaking wave called IT, which he has been successfully surfing for more than 20 years.
“I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t gone travelling, because it made me streetwise and aware of business opportunities like IT development, which was the business buzz-word when I got back,” said Topham, today the founder and MD of a near £7 million turnover company employing 50 staff.
Arguably, having a mother who instilled confidence, being ‘robbed’ of inclusion in the British Olympic canoeing team, literally being robbed while travelling, and having to develop a business brain to earn meals and lodgings as a penniless surfer were all formative drivers for his later role in the competitive IT business world.
Maybe surfing instincts played a part too – being able to spot those breaking waves of IT innovation, maintain position in the rough swells of business and being ready to surf the wave-power at its peak.
Topham hit heavy seas from the start. “I was trying to build a business selling IT kit from my bedroom, with no money, no market awareness, and living off monthly credit.
“Being young, it’s easier to do things without money. Today, married with three children, I doubt I’d take the risks that I did.”
Topham admits he used posh letterheads to impress, and, being young, chose to prospect clients by phone, rather than traditional face-to-face selling by reps in the field.
This was fortunate because IT purchasers were often technology aware, and simply wanted quick information and costings about the new equipment. “IT brought in a different business mentality.”
Equally fortunate, the 1991 recession was ending, businesses were looking for growth and Topham talked persuasively about the future of IT. “Even so, it was hard long hours and I nearly packed it in.”
He began by convincing clients from all sectors that IT tape-drives were better than floppy disks. As each breaking wave of new IT kit broke Sol-Tec was on it. Being cutting edge enabled Sol-Tec to gain high margins, before competition caught up and forced pricing down.
“We’re an SME. We have to be ahead of the game all the time because that’s how we survive. If we follow the bigger companies, we won’t be competitive.”
Quality of customer service, IT knowledge and business support have also been key aspects in Sol-Tec’s successful creation of an established customer base. “Some have been with us continuously for nearly 20 years.”
Sol-Tec was into virtualisation very early about 12-14 years ago, the cloud around 2004, and invested in its own secure data storage centres in 2009, each time selling-in the innovatory advantages to receptive customers. That customer trust in proven performance, allied to a local SME sales push, sustained Sol-Tec through the 2008 recession.
Topham’s biggest obstacle to growth has not been funding, but finding suitable talent. Again, the problem is competition from larger companies for skilled staff.
“As a family-style business we make sure our people enjoy coming to work. We often can’t compete on benefits, so I look after staff in other ways. If one of my staff is not enjoying their birthday day-off or attending their child’s sports day, I want to know why.”
Today, Sol-Tec is a Microsoft Gold Partner, one of its inner-circle of deployment partners, and gaining double-digit business growth in its cloud operations. “For what we do with cloud, I rate ourselves in the top 10 in the UK.”
Sol-Tec also runs Microsoft’s packed-out Thames Valley seminars on the cloud. “People now come to us because we are seen as having very creditable consultants.
“It used to be like walking through mud, but now people are flying into cloud.
“Cloud technology is the dream-wave that will go on and on.”
With single-figure percentage margins on IT kit, Sol-Tec is now riding another big sea-change. It has altered its business model, opting out of the equipment sales price-war and become a value-added service organisation.
“We can still supply product, but now we market our IT expertise and solutions provision through consultancy-based service – helping businesses gain the full benefits of IT.
“We simply aim to be the chosen IT solutions supplier of customers, wherever they are.“
After nine months of anxious transition, Sol-Tec has fared well. “My hands are full with business and our profits are rising.”
Increasingly, Sol-Tec operates onsite moving customer systems into the cloud environment, or acting as a customer’s IT department. Being involved directly with a customer’s IT requirements has led naturally to ongoing workflow. “Our consultants and implementation technicians are now my sales people.”
Now consider. Topham started Sol-Tec by telephone cold-calling and today advocates traditional in-the-field representation. Is that simply irony or an astute business move to meet market needs?
SME-to-SME tips from Sol-Tec
- There’s no drive if you don’t earn your own money.
- If you can’t afford it, don’t get it.
- Don’t be a ‘Jack-of-All-Trades.’ Specialise in what you know best.
- Work with good people.
- Enjoy the big breakers; be ready for the rogue wave.