John Knapton of the NISP: 'Sales isn't a dirty word, but firms don't spend enough on it'
We've had our fair share of tech success stories in Northern Ireland, and John Knapton has played a part in many. Now head of the Science Park's Springboard programme, which aims to bring innovative companies to the next stage of development over a 16-week coaching programme, he's using his expertise for the next generation.
Those who have joined the Springboard programme are 6.5 times more likely to succeed than other start-ups, he says. It's modelled on a wildly successful programme of the same name in San Diego which helped wean the US city off a high dependence on public sector jobs - so no prizes for guessing why people wanted to export it to Northern Ireland.
"Northern Ireland has been found to be the best UK region at getting entrepreneurial companies from zero to a £1m within a year - but we're not so good at getting sales from £1m to £10m," says John. The Co Down man, whose career began with an electrical and electronic engineering degree at the University of Ulster, could be forgiven for balking at my less-than-innovative choice of the science park canteen for our lunch, but is polite enough not to say, thank goodness.
Thinking that life's too short to stuff a mushroom, I choose the canteen's own pre-stuffed one, with salad, while John goes for cottage pie and chips.
Warrenpoint-based John has had a fascinating career, including stints at Audio Processing Technology Ltd, digital camera maker Andor - now part of Oxford Instruments plc - and as a venture capitalist with Crescent Capital. He worked in Sheffield for 10 years with Wearnes Cambion, and in Boston in the US for Princeton Instruments for three years. And - ageing him much more than his youthful appearance would suggest - he worked for six months in the early 1980s on equipment used to test the electronics of the DeLorean for Bessbrook company Electrodel.
John found his forte in sales and marketing - areas which he finds are often deficient in Northern Ireland companies.
He indirectly had a hand in the massive success of Jurassic Park, as APT's algorithm was used by Digital Theater Systems for their cinema audio playback system - which premiered with Steven Spielberg's dinosaur epic in 1993. He then joined Andor, which had just a handful of employees and £1m in sales - helping contribute to sales growth to £10m but leaving just before its IPO. He's evangelical about addressing our sales and marketing deficiencies. In short, we may have the good ideas and the diligence to apply them - but we haven't got the sales and marketing nous to sell around the world.
Sales shouldn't be a dirty word, he says. "Pretty much every company doesn't spend enough on sales and marketing. You don't know what you don't know, and many companies just don't budget for it." Springboard's entrepreneurs in residence - who provide their services for free - can lend expertise in sales and marketing, and other areas. And he's regretful that there are so few listed companies in Northern Ireland. "We just have three (UTV, Kainos and First Derivatives) when really, the numbers should be in the double figures."
Springboard aims to help companies succeed, but with candour, John says: "You learn as much by failure as by success." He joined Arca Technologies, which had thrived during the telecoms boom but was floundering by the early 2000s.
"The bubble had burst and I spent a year trying to rescue it, but it couldn't deliver product."
He's adamant that companies need programmes like Springboard to grow, and that not all can become successes on their own. "There's always a need. You don't know what you don't know. It's like any walk of life - if you're not constantly learning, you are falling backwards." It's a tough love programme, but not harsh for its own sake. "We'll collaborate with anybody, but compete with nobody. We won't push people towards IPOs or trade sales if it's not right for them."
- Next week, Margaret Canning meets Huhtamaki general manager Philip Woolsey
The Innovation Centre Canteen, Northern Ireland Science Park
Stuffed mushroom with salad: £4.25
Cottage pie and chips: £4.25
Diet Coke: £1.30