Former BBC broadcast engineer Ian Herbert launched his career as a serial entrepreneur back in 1990. Today Ian’s 11-year-old company Vistair provides cloud-based safety systems for the world's airlines. Having won a customer-base that includes British Airways, Emirates and Thomas Cook, Ian has learned much, not least about raising finance. “I am 25 years into running my own business and it has taken me 10 of those years to learn how it all works, the rules of the game,” he says.
One of his steepest learning curves came from working with angel investors when he was trying to finance his interactive TV and video business, Vision Interactive, in the late 1990s. “Our bank introduced us to some high-net-worth individuals who took an interest in what we were doing and expressed a desire to invest. We were quite flattered, but when it came down to it, the amount of control they wanted was far in excess of what we wanted to give.”
With a sizeable amount of cash on the table, Ian and his business partner accepted the proposal, driven by a strong desire to grow, although the outcome wasn’t entirely what they had hoped for. “Small businesses can take that investment on at too high a price, and that is what happened,” he says. “The interests and objectives of angel investors sometimes don’t align with those of a business owner.” By way of example, Ian recalls how one such investor placed their own manager at the helm of his ‘internet in a box’ company INTY, a move that Ian believes hindered the company’s growth.
But such travails are all part of the learning process, and more fruitful experiences have also played their part in his company’s success. Ian had the support of his bank for a long time in the 1990s. “They were very flexible when it came to short-term cashflow issues,” he says, having benefited from several unsecured loans on the strength of the bank manager understanding both his business and his vision. “They also provided us with a couple of government-backed loans from a guarantee scheme, which helped us to grow.”
Ian is now running a successful company with a list of sizeable global clients, a business he initially funded from his own savings. “The plan was to develop Vistair organically and slowly and make sure it was built on a solid foundation. That is what I have done.”
Slowly but surely
Ian advises others to take a similar approach to business by adopting a ‘slowly but surely’ ethos. “Don’t imagine that the window of opportunity will close overnight – there will always be another opportunity,” he says. “Bide your time and don’t get over optimistic about what you can do in terms of repaying a loan. Be realistic.” Finally, maintain control and stay true to your vision. “If someone comes in and offers loads of money and it’s all wonderful but they want control of your business, think very carefully before committing.”
Vistair has considered the possibility of raising finance on the stock market, although Ian has decided that this is not the right option for the company at the present time. “Again, it is all about control,” he says. “Instead, I envisage us growing organically like a family business, and evolving slowly into a large and successful entity.”
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