How my first failure in business led to creating a flourishing tech firm

An illustration Amiqus being improved about with an updated billboard being laid on.

I first met former Standard Life chief executive Sir Sandy Crombie some years back when I was struggling to keep alive an interior decorating firm I had started with an idea hatched at university studying entrepreneurship.

We were contracted by a company that was renovating Sandy’s home in Edinburgh – I initially met him with a van full of dust sheets, paint-splattered overalls and all of our equipment.

I explained to him that I was intending to start another business, and one day would need a chairman – would he be available? He said it sounded “interesting” and that I should get back in touch with him when I’d done that.

The original firm, Fresh Interior Solutions, ultimately – and indirectly – led me to create software firm Amiqus. The company provides remote staff and client onboarding for organisations such as the Scottish Government, NHS, and estate agent and solicitor Simpson & Marwick, helping them manage their compliance securely and digitally.

The interiors firm had been developed with backing from The Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust, and we moved from initially managing smaller residential-type work to becoming a contractor for Farrow & Ball, and then serving larger companies and bars, restaurants, hotels as a subcontractor.

When the financial crash happened in 2008, larger-scale contractors started squeezing costs, expecting us to reduce existing contracts by up to 40 per cent, which just wasn’t possible for us.

We weren’t being paid, had costs to meet, and it seemed our only options were court or arbitration clauses in complex contracts.

At the time I didn’t know anything about alternative dispute resolution, and we began the civil court process, though time didn’t stand still, and we were forced to close the business. Everyone was made redundant.
I quickly and painfully realised that engaging with formal legal processes was time-consuming, complicated, and expensive – small businesses are very much the underdog.

It seemed there was a real opportunity to use technology to improve the processes. That was the genesis of Amiqus, to look at how to help businesses make informed decisions and engage easily with the legal profession.

I trained in civil and commercial mediation, and then I volunteered as an in-court mediator for Citizens Advice Bureau. I acquired skills that proved to be highly transferable to running a business – understanding what’s going on under the surface of an issue and being able to think rationally and step back from an emotional response.

To help put the wheels in motion for Amiqus, we worked with the University of Strathclyde and The Data Lab to put together the basis to help someone search the type of legal problem they had, and understand what case law related to their issue.
But it became apparent that when a law firm takes on a new client, there are quite a few hurdles to begin with – it’s an expensive process. This then led us to look at how companies taking on new staff members have to verify them.

After initially engaging directly with the legal market, we recognised the onboarding problem existed across many sectors. We were ultimately building a platform to help people engage and onboard with organisations, whether staff or clients. The common denominator was securely proving who you are.

It is about six years since I founded Amiqus – and our platform is now used by hundreds of companies. Last year we made our debut in the public sector, securing contracts with the Scottish Government and the NHS, helping to quickly vet returning staff to help with the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.

Image of the Amiqus team at a meet up.

We’ve also picked up some awards on the way – from Scottish Edge, Entrepreneurial Scotland, and Pitch of the Day and Audience’s Choice awards at EIE17 and EIE19, for example.

More meaningfully, we are proud to be supporting the onboarding of so many clients and new recruits. We are particularly proud to be providing the technology behind ProxyAddress, which helps connect those facing homelessness with support and financial services.

Instead of being driven by near-term profit objectives, we’ve grown by finding and pursuing a clear purpose. We’re building long-term value while being always mindful to do the right thing. We’ve now established a great client base and we have an excellent net promoter score.

But the journey of being an entrepreneur isn’t easy – it can be hard to be told your idea’s terrible, will never work and so on – something I’ve heard often.

Entrepreneurs have to be resilient and of the mindset that yes, things will be hard and take longer than expected. When it feels like you’re making little progress, you remind yourself that you are nevertheless inching your way forward.

My initial failure and learning with my interior firm certainly spurred me on. I sold everything that I had and moved back home with my parents.

I’d sacrificed what I had to try and build a business and it was all taken away – unfairly, I certainly thought. But rather than complain, all I could really do was pick myself back up with a clear purpose to make some change.

At Amiqus, the aim is to scale internationally from Scotland – and replicate the success of other tech companies who’ve come before us.

As for Sandy, it was a key moment in 2017 when I was able to go back to him, just as he was nearing the end of his role as board member at Royal Bank of Scotland and ask him if he’d like to join us as chairman.

He did, and for me he’s been that invaluable person that every entrepreneur needs – someone you respect who can steer you from danger, stop you going up dead ends, encourage you when you are tired, push you when you are stuck, and use decades of experience and wisdom to help you find the route to success.

As told to Emma Newlands and published in The Scotsman on Wednesday, 10th February 2021


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