David Hallam: Finding order in chaos

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Since the dawn of the information age, 43-year-old David Hallam dreamt about the potential one product would have for the world — and has endured some gruelling challenges in order for it to become a success.

Although he faced defeat many times and was told that the product would never work, he finally made his dreams come true as his company OrderWise went from a difficult start to a company with a £5 million turnover, but still only one product.

When David looks back on what he has achieved, everything has changed for him. With two teenage children, a wife that he loves dearly, a pet Harris Hawk called Bonnie and a Burmese Python, he seems to have nearly everything that he could ever have hoped for. But he started out with nothing and it took many years to create the big business management software available today.

He left school straight after his GCSEs with two Cs, two Ds and two Es and no idea what he wanted to do. After trying his hand unsuccessfully at a couple of different labouring jobs, worried about what the future may bring, he landed a job in maintaining computers — but it wasn’t long before he was on the hunt again after the branch he worked in closed.

“Being made redundant was quite a horrible thing,” said David. “You go from earning a reasonable salary to nothing all of a sudden. I wanted to be in control of what I did and stock control and order processing was something that at that point was already in my head.”

It was the beginning of a thought process that shaped David’s life. His dream of running his own company, creating a software which allows around 1,000 businesses including John Lewis to be able to manage their stock levels and invoices as simply as possible. He believes that the transactions of a business are one of the most important parts of any company.

“I started to write little bits of software here and there and got to know a few people who wanted a bit of software for this and that. In the end I got another job with a company and I was doing this in my spare time. Then they made me redundant and I thought ‘Right. That’s it! I am going to just sit and write software.’ But the reality of it is software takes an awful long time to create.

“I was given £600 redundancy money. I had a car loan and lived with my parents. £600 is not going to go a long way. So I went to the job centre and I remember so clearly, I put on my suit and I polished my shoes. I went to the job centre and I put my hand on the glass door. Looking through, I saw all of those people in there. There wasn’t another person in there wearing a suit. I took my hand off the door and I went home. I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that. I’m going to do what I want to do.'”

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Never losing faith

David started selling computers and ready-made software to keep some money coming in for several years, whilst writing his own software at night, but he was burning the candle at both ends. His dream of focusing on what he wanted to do was eluding him so he put his suit back on and headed to the bank.

“I saw the bank manager who was sat behind this almighty mahogany desk and I gave him my documents, explained what I wanted to do and he said to me, ‘Mr Hallam, I see absolutely no future in this software thing.’ He threw my proposal back at me and continued, ‘I suggest you go and rethink your career,’ and I thought, ‘You bastard,'” David said laughing. “If there was anything that was going to spur me on at that point, that was it.”

Despite his determination, there was still the small issue of money to fund his new venture. He filled out a credit card application in a Sunday magazine and it was accepted. He drew out all of the money to be able to live whilst he built up his company, slowly building up a good client base for his software.

“Money didn’t last long so another Sunday magazine came, another credit card filled out. I used that one to pay the first credit card.

“My long term view was that all that would go. I continued to focus and got another credit card to pay the second one. I drew some more money out of that one – rob Peter to pay Paul. Interest rates started to go up and I started to think that this was a problem.

“I had got something like £30,000 in debt and I had nothing. I really had absolutely nothing, other than the software I was creating.”

In the early 90s, David finally got his first OrderWise customer live on the system and “slowly, but surely, through hell or high water, the business started to form.” Still struggling to pay his mortgage, David never lost faith in his product and the potential that it had for the future.

“It wasn’t really until about 2006 that all of that effort for all those years really started to kick in. In about 2008/9 we turned over our first million in a year.

Since then, the company has grown significantly. After he got his first first million, the company was on the up and every year saw an increase in profit and turnover. This year David is expecting a turnover of £5 million, after a £4 million turnover last year.

David had invested £1.3 million in the purchase of the company’s building at a time when he only had 33 staff. Now more than 100 employees fill the offices and every single one of them plays a vital role within the business, providing an end-to-end service to around 1,000 companies across the UK and about a dozen around the world including Nigeria, USA, Sweden and Germany.

Staff work to release a new version of the product every month and are even working on some Android applications for a better user interface.

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Photo: Steve Smailes for Lincolnshire Business

Standing firm

Having just celebrated the 25th anniversary of OrderWise in January, David is ready for anything. “Now we are at the stage of really going for it. It’s taken so much effort because the software industry doesn’t stay the same. During all of that time we went from DOS to Windows. Then other programmes came out and we’ve had to do several rewrites of the software. Each time it gets better though.

“Today we are sat on some amazing software, we’re sat in a building that is full of talent and that is really helping us to progress forward now. We really had quite humble beginnings.”
Since the business took off, David has put the success of it on his dedicated staff who, themselves, must go through rigorous training and exams to be able to work at the company. Their reward though is to be looked after as though they were David’s own family, even with their own free office gym.

“I contribute a bit but also every other staff member contributes a chunk as well. I’m not so stupid as to not realise that the sum total of the company is actually the total of the staff we employ, it’s not necessarily what I do.

“We are a people business and we’ve got to get the right people into the business, hence why we want to look after our staff and why we want to pick the right staff. I don’t say we have a 100 staff, I say we support 100 families and I’m a family guy, a lot of our staff are family people as well and that mindset makes you think a little bit differently.”

With everything that David has done to get the business into its current position, it is no surprise that he only wants to employ the best. To become part of ‘the family’, potential staff have to go through four weeks of training and pass two exams before they are able to start learning the role that they were employed to do. It takes four months before a new staff member is left to their own devices. If they don’t pass the exams, they don’t progress any further.

“It’s harsh but if you can’t grasp the concept of what we do, there is not a job in the building that you can do. Every person in this building will have passed both of their exams. It is explained to everybody to begin with, it’s not a surprise. But it’s the way that it has to be because thats just the start of learning Orderwise.

“I see them on day one as new starters. They go through the training and I see these wonderful people end up as zombies by the end of week three. Everybody underestimates that.”
Finding the right person for the job is David’s biggest challenge and proudest achievement. It has not been an easy road to travel and now he is concentrating on taking the company into the future.

“You can’t buy a book that’s called ‘This is how to start your business, David.’ There’s nothing. You have to learn. I am a very different person than I was.

“Software is the easy part. It’s the people that surround you and all of the different variables that they bring in every day. For the majority of the time, I was the one that wrote most of our software. I don’t write any of it now. My role has changed completely. My role in this business today is predominantly about the people within it and it’s still hard.”

This feature interview was first published in issue 67 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.