From Springboard (magazine of HM Government agency, UK Trade & Investment) (September 2008)
Thinking outside the box
by Catherine Quinn
When BIW Technologies had outgrown the domestic market, UK Trade & Investment helped the firm look to global expansion. Catherine Quinn reports on its success in the UAE.
When you buy a software package that comes in a box and goes onto your hard drive, how do you get the same system to your global offices?
That’s what BIW Technologies has made its business to address since launching at the start of the millennium. So at a time when many software manufacturers were looking for ways to limit access to their developments, BIW was addressing business technology from a different angle. Instead of manufacturing discs which could be loaded onto a set number of individual computers, the company developed software which doesn’t need to be stored on the hard drive.
“We make Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), which can be accessed anywhere in the world on the internet,” says finance director Bill Flind.“You buy a licence and log in using a security code that allows you to make the software available to any number of people who are working on a particular project.”
The software was initially the result of a research project, funded by UK Trade & Investment. “Essentially, we saw this excellent concept which wasn’t being used and didn’t have any financial backing” says Bill. “We set about creating a business to do that and raised business angel finance to launch.
The product has been rewritten about 50 times since then, but it is essentially the same concept. The tool has found its niche in the construction industry, which lends itself to the kind of grand-scale projects that call for multiple companies to have access to the same systems. It is also eminently suitable to retail, so much so that BIW found its first clients were more high profile than most start-ups can aspire to.
“Our first client was Sainsbury’s,” says Bill. "They are still a client today and we’ve also gone on to do work with Marks & Spencer, the NHS, the Government and schools, as well as several very large construction firms.”
In something of an impressive coup, the company even won contracts to supply software for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – an organisation, as TheTimes pointed out in its business round-up, which is hardly short of software providers.
With great power, however, comes great responsibility, and BIW soon found that its success left them needing to expand more rapidly than they may have realised. So while many companies look to export as the next progressive step, BIW virtually had it thrust upon them, with clients suggesting it follow them to pastures new.
“Some of the big construction companies we were working with had already set up in the Middle East, and they basically came to us and suggested we expand out there too,” says Bill. “It was more difficult for them to use our services when we didn’t have an office based near to them offshore. We were already doing some research looking into expanding into that region, so it was an extra incentive.”
With clients already urging them to make the move, the UAE might have seemed like the obvious choice, but in the initial stages of going global BIW, like most companies, had some more ambitious schemes in mind. By chance, it was referred to a UK Trade & Investment international trade adviser, who credits the meeting to the serendipity of a social occasion with an ex-colleague.
“I was actually having a few beers with someone I used to work with, who suggested I meet up with BIW,” says UK Trade & Investment’s Andy Parkinson, who went on to become BIW’s trusted adviser for its overseas activities. “I met up with Bill and we got on well from the start, so I was able to convince him of all the things we could help with.”
The first step Andy took was to point BIW in the direction of the Passport to Export programme, which he felt was perfect for its profile. “They fit the bill of the kind of company who would be accepted,” says Andy. “And I felt it could do a lot for them. For starters, they get someone like me to advise them, who has had 30 years’ experience in export, including construction industries.”
Andy’s next step was to suggest a simple approach to bring the company maximum benefits. “When most companies start looking to expand overseas, they have plans to take on the whole world,” he says. “Most talk about exporting to the US and China, but when you actually drill down into the resources, few firms can commit to starting out their overseas trading in those countries. The other aspect is taking on too many countries at one time – starting simply with one country is common sense.”
Having decided to commit to the UAE, BIW set about using a considered combination of its own resources, together with input from UK Trade & Investment, in order to make the expansion as successful as possible. In the initial stages, Bill found that UK Trade & Investment had an invaluable research resource that allowed it to do its homework at a substantially reduced cost. “It wasn’t all necessarily free,” he says “If you want something really specific, you have to pay for it, but it is at a massively subsidised rate, and a lot of the groundwork research is provided for free.”
In addition, Bill found the embassy services of networking events and impressive receptions to be a boon in a country that rates face-to-face meetings and royalty so highly. “What we found really helpful was that UK Trade & Investment will arrange meetings for you in the embassy, and they’ll make it an official event,” he explains. “So the person you want to make contact with will receive an official invitation stating ‘Her Majesty the Queen invites you to the Embassy’, which is terribly impressive.”
In addition to dedicated ambassador’s receptions, BIW also made good use of the numerous networking evenings organised by the embassy, which allowed it to meet up with useful local professionals such as accountants and lawyers, as well as potential clients.
“They also allowed us to attend the Cityscape trade show at a reduced rate, which was really useful,” says Bill. “UK Trade & Investment makes block bookings, which mean businesses can buy much smaller stands and save money – we paid at least a third less than it would have cost us to exhibit.”
With a successful exhibition and a gradually expanding network of associates in the UAE, expansion began to come together for BIW. The company has not only opened offices in Dubai, but also attracted one of the region’s biggest players as a client.
“We now work with Nakheel, which is responsible for projects like The Palm Islands and essentially controls and constructs all of the waterfront area of Dubai,” says Bill. Nakheel’s construction projects are some of the largest and most prestigious in the world, and the new client meant BIW could now enjoy the opportunity to become firmly established in the Middle East and beyond.
For Nakheel too, it meant an opportunity to manage better the staggering scale of its construction projects. “We wanted a robust, scalable, industry-strength project-control system to support the numerous supply chains involved in designing and constructing our developments,” said Michaella Kerckhof, Nakheel’s chief information officer. “BIW’s application suite complements the system we use to manage our internal business processes and supports tens of thousands of users all over the globe.”
Tackling bureaucracy in the UAE didn’t come easily for BIW Technologies. “Invoices have to be approved by seven or eight people,” says Bill, “and each needs the original document, signed in ink by a recognised authority.Obviously, quite a few just get lost along the way.We also found that certain set-up procedures were less straightforward than in the UK.
“It took a lot of mobilisation and investment and planning, and it was difficult to set up because of the very strict definitions of what can be undertaken onshore,” explains general manager Dr Asif [Sharif], who is based in the Dubai office.
BIW is now hoping to expand into nearby regions such as Oman and countries such as India, where the company already has a customer support desk. “Even though we’ve now got more expertise now,” says Bill, “we’re still planning to use UK Trade & Investment again. The extra support can only be a good thing.”
(Original article available as PDF - see right-hand column)