Tech entrepreneur makes it big in Sheffield

Tech entrepreneur makes it big in Sheffield

18 July 2017

When you’re meeting a person to learn about their business – what it does, how they operate – it isn’t necessarily important for them to tell you their life story. But when the business you are learning about is a market leader, a major employer and contributor to Sheffield’s growing tech scene, you can’t help but be curious about the people behind it. Why is the culture they’ve built so important to them? What were their motivations to set up the business in the first place and what drives their success?

I recently met with Jonathan Burrows; the MD and founder of Sheffield based tech company ASK4. ASK4 has an impressive growth story.  Launching in 2000 with a focus on private residential Internet services, they moved into the student multi-let market in 2005 when they acquired Horizon Telecoms.  ASK4 made headlines again in May 2014 when they completed a buyout and refinancing backed by Darwin Private Equity LLP. The deal raised £21.5 million in capital to support their rapid expansion.  

Today ASK4 employs 110 people and turned over £13 million last year, with continued double-digit percentage growth expected in the current year. They provide multiple occupancy broadband solutions across the UK and Europe. Their approach is quite simple. They want to put the customer first. It might sound like a cliché but it’s very apparent that this principle underpins every aspect of the business. The 24-hours-a-day, 365-days-a-year service, the multiple languages spoken by support staff, the home-grown developers that innovate and problem solve; customer experience is at the heart of it all.

So what of the people and the culture? What of the man, who aged just 18, after spending one year as an intern with IBM, decided to return to Sheffield to set up his own business? How many 18-year-olds do you know that have an idea and grow it into a multi-million-pound business? And why Sheffield? What did this tech entrepreneur see in this city that gave him the confidence to launch and grow his business here?

I’m told by Jonathan that Sheffield’s appeal was simple. It is in the centre of the UK with excellent connectivity to domestic markets and Europe. The business premises are of high quality, in the centre of the city and offer value for money. There are two world class universities here and 60,000 students. This was attractive in terms of a critical mass of customers but also provided a much-needed talent pool for business growth.  Although, being university-educated is not a prerequisite to a job at ASK4 – these universities attract 10,000 international students meaning that Ask4 can employ native and multi-lingual speakers, reflecting the needs of their international customer-base. Another draw to Sheffield was the city itself. Jonathan needed to set up a business in a place that people want to live in, and one that they can afford to live in. A city that offers them, not just the job, but the lifestyle they want too; whether it’s culture, outdoor adventure, affordable homes or family life. This plays a major role in supporting businesses like ASK4 to attract and retain the talented people needed for innovation and growth.

As one of 320,000 employees at IBM, with its layers of management and big business processes, Jonathan didn’t feel that he would be able to make any difference to the organisation or its customers. This was his personal motivation for returning to Sheffield and setting up his own company. He knew he wanted to make a difference to broadband customers, he could see what needed doing to make a difference, and essentially, he wanted control over how, where and when this would happen.

I asked Jonathan how he measured success – whether he looked back at landmarks in his journey and thought ‘that was it – that was the big one’. He tells me that success is strange in business – because what you end up doing is moving the goal posts. You might start with an aim to employ five people and when you achieve that you move it up to 50. When you get to 50, you’re setting your sights on 100. The same goes for the products you design, the profits you aim for and the market share you acquire.

I get the sense that despite their catalogue of achievements, Jonathan and the team have plenty still to do. The business is expanding further into Europe and the products are constantly innovating; with in-house developers tasked with keeping their offer one step ahead of the competition. This isn’t a business satisfied with their lot. Even their approach to recruitment is dynamic. The technical and developer roles, which range in salary from £20K to £40K, can be harder to fill in this type of business. But as the tech sector grows in Sheffield, so does the pool of people holding these specialist skills. This is why ASK4 collaborate with the universities, the Local Authority and businesses in the city to attract inward other tech firms and support the homegrown business leaders of the future to set up and grow their own enterprises.

The interview is winding down now. There is a lot to take in. ASK4 has an enviable track record and big ambitions for the future. I’m thinking about this when I’m reminded again that Jonathan was just 18-years-old when he made his first steps to launch this international brand. I ask him again; “You were incredibly young to have embarked on this journey – what gave you the confidence?” That’s when he gave me the line. The line that hopefully will motivate others to take this step. The line that explains, without doubt, why Jonathan is the right person to be supporting business leaders of the future in Sheffield to follow their dreams.

He said: “I was only 18, it’s true. But if I wasn’t going to do it then, I probably never would. It only gets harder to take risks the older you get but if you are in the right place, have the right support, guidance and work ethic, it is possible.

“Look, it was either going to be a success, or I was going to have a really good story to tell at a job interview.”

As it happens, it was both a success and a good story to tell.

If you would like to start and grow a business in Sheffield, visit Business Sheffield to learn what free support is available to you or Invest Sheffield to understand what Sheffield has to offer ambitious tech firms looking to relocate.