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'There’s no such thing as being too small to export'

The four businesses shortlisted for the SME of the Year Award 2017 share their story and offer some tips on what it takes to build a fruitful firm.


Tomorrow, on Tuesday 7 November, the winner of the Telegraph’s Festival of Business SME of the Year Award, sponsored by Amazon, will be crowned.
This year’s shortlist represents some of the UK brightest and most promising small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – each
one a strong presence in their chosen sector, excelling in creativity, innovation and vision.
Here, the four finalists each share their story.

Tutora


Working as a teacher in Sheffield, Scott Gladwood used to get a lot of requests from parents for out-of-hours tuition for their kids.
He would recommend names or pick up some after-school sessions himself – enough so that he eventually left his teaching post to become a full-time tutor.
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In 2015, talking about his new career with ex-tech analyst and old school chum, Mark Hughes, the duo came up with the idea for their private tutor search service, Tutora.
“It’s hassle-free, helping learners of all ages to find the right tutor,” explains Mr Gladwood. “We have more than 10,000 tutors live on the website, covering every subject, from maths to Mandarin, for every age across the the UK.”
The business has so far facilitated more than 150,000 lessons, growing to 18 full-time and two part-time employees. “At the beginning,
our approach was very much micro-management,” says the co-founder, who now takes a more hands-off approach and lets staff just get on
with it.
“It shouldn’t always be you dictating the pace; you want the momentum to come from the team, otherwise you can’t focus on that all-important strategy.”
Vitally, SME owners must give people in their team the autonomy to use their own skills and judgement; otherwise, they won’t care enough about the business for it to do well, says Mr Gladwood, who recently launched Tutora’s online classroom, which enables students to be taught virtually.

FreeAgent


As a freelance IT consultant struggling to get his head around tax returns and finances, Ed Molyneux decided to take things into his own hands. “In the summer of 2006, I built the first prototype of what became FreeAgent at my kitchen table,” he explains. “I solved my own problem.”
Getting into exports quickly is a really good way for small companies to growJack Hamilton, Mash Direct
The best business ideas often come from entrepreneurs who are their own
target customer, he thinks, because they’re already in that mindset.
“The other advantage was that I knew nothing about accounting, and that ignorance is so useful, because you end up trying to build a product that does precisely what you want, and not something based on industry thinking or competitors.”
Moving to Scotland in 2006, he met co-founders, Olly Headey and Roan Lavery, who helped him to build a market-ready version
of the product, which helps people to manage invoices, expenses, payroll and so on. The trio launched the venture that year.
Today, the company has 50,000 subscribers and 140 staff, and key to its success is a focus on the product.
“We spend a lot of time on it,” he says. “Focusing on maintaining that level of customer satisfaction through ongoing investment in the product is really important.”
His top tip? “Make sure that you have a product or service that people actually want,” he answers, urging firms to be more pain-killer
than vitamin.
“Don’t just be a nice-to-have that makes people’s lives marginally better – solve their big headache.”
'There’s no such thing as being too small to export'

David Nicholson and Hannah Morden-Nicholson of Living DNA

Credit:
Living DNA

Mash Direct


Martin and Tracy Hamilton – fifth-generation farmers based in County Down, Northern Ireland – were seeing diminishing returns on their farm veg, and without immediate change, they feared the worst.
A turnaround came in 2003, as the Hamiltons turned to creating and controlling their own convenience product, taking the fresh farm
veg and turning it into champ. “Nobody was doing a proper British dish for the convenience market, so we built a small manufacturing plant
on the farm and scaled up the family kitchen,” says director, Jack Hamilton, son of Martin and Tracy.
The company initially sold to local stores, then to local and national supermarkets. Today, Mash Direct, which sells prepared potato, croquettes, veggie burgers and more, has 180 staff members and an annual turnover of ?17m.
The whole family (Martin, Tracy, Jack and his brother, Lance) are co-directors, with each family member on the board balanced with a non-executive director.
“It means that board meetings don’t replicate family dinners,”
adds Mr Hamilton.
Key to Mash Direct’s success, he thinks, has been its exporting strategy, which it kicked off in 2010. “Here in the UK, we’ve got four supermarkets controlling a huge share of the market, so getting into exports quickly is a really good way for small companies to grow. There’s no such thing as being too small to export.”
Being able to trace the product to its roots in Northern Ireland has proved to be a particularly useful selling tool in places such as the US. “Our product provenance and family story really resonates with people,” explains Mr Hamilton.

Living DNA


Living DNA is a personal genomics company that enables people to find out from where in the world their ancestry comes.
We want to show that we’re all connectedHannah Morden-Nicholson, Living DNA
It all started when David Nicholson set up his Somerset-based DNA Worldwide Group in 2004, which acted as a distributor of home paternity tests.
A Christmas meeting between family friends in 2012 united Mr Nicholson with his wife and business partner, Hannah Morden-Nicholson.
The duo spotted a gap in the market: no other company in the sector was putting people’s ancestry into context over time.
So in 2015, the couple formed Living DNA, which would put people
(its customers) first. “With the help of academic partners and universities, we developed a test that can break down a person’s ancestry into specific regions and trace it back as far as 80,000 years,” she explains.
“We do tests with the purpose that we can provide support and results now, but also in the future [as science and the technology evolves]. Most importantly, and unlike other companies, we don’t sell customer data.”
Today, Living DNA has 43 staff, with strong international sales in the US, Australia and Canada.
“We want to show that we’re all connected,” says Ms Morden-Nicholson about the firm's focus. “Our product serves a commercial purpose, but also provides an opportunity for charitable projects.”
Living DNA runs school programmes all over the world, providing educational packs and DNA testing kits for children to understand that they’re a mix of people from all backgrounds.
“It shows that we’re all connected at a time when the world constantly feels separated,” she adds.
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