What better way to start a career than playing fruit machines and video games to make sure that they work? This is how Neil Everatt, 49, found his passion for technology.
As CEO of Lincoln-based Software Europe he now uses all forms of technology to help make business life simpler. He has an ambitious goal to reach a £10 million turnover by 2019 whilst providing a fun office environment with space hoppers and arcade machines for his staff.
When Neil left North Kesteven School at the age of 16, he was unsure what he wanted to do with his life. “Fortunately the government had a scheme called the Youth Trade Scheme (YTS),” he said. “The idea was that they would catch the people leaving school that had no idea what they wanted to do and I fell in that category very easily.”
He went to Lincoln Technical College to learn electronics and got a part time job. “My first ever job was playing video games and fruit machines to make sure that they worked.
“That was my first experience of technology and I just got a buzz out of it. I learned really quickly that actually if you worked really hard you could move up through the ranks quite quickly.”
After having worked for Software Europe on and off since 1992, Neil received an email from one of the founders in 2008 asking if he would like to run the company. He jumped at the chance to return to the company for the third time and take control.
“It took me all of 0.2 seconds to make that decision (but you never tell your wife you have made your decision that quickly),” Neil laughed. “So I came back in 2008 as the Managing Director.”
Taking on the digital age
Since the 1990s, technology has evolved at a speed that has never been seen before. For many companies it’s hard to stay up to date, but for a business which prides itself on keeping ahead of technology to provide the best service to its clients, it is a real challenge.
“In 2000, the company decided to have a play with this internet technology and at the time, if you think about the internet back then, you were probably still dialling up to get your connection.
“We decided to put all of our eggs in that basket of the internet. 15 years later we have got this huge amount of knowledge on how to deliver services over the internet, all business to business type services.”
Neil keeps a mini museum of mobile tech in his office. It has everything from the first mobile phones, where you needed to be a professional weight lifter to carry them, to the now redundant Google Glass. He gets all of the latest technology so that he can stay ahead of the market. “I think you have to be passionate about it, you have to keep your eye on things.
“We are doing a presentation about where the world will be in 2022 and, it’s thinking about robotics and using drones. Amazon are trialling delivery by drones so we bought one and we are going to get to use that in the presentation to show how, in the future, these things are going to work.”
As for today, Software Europe has helped businesses save money and boost productivity through the products it offers. With the company’s flagship piece of technology, Expenses, it has streamlined the process for employees to claim back their money where it once was a long-winded process.
“We help our clients by putting all this technology online and using apps, so you can take a picture of receipts and you can record your journey using GPS. We help our clients very much by automation.
“I can’t help but get excited about technology and gadgets and how they’re helping people.”
When Neil became Managing Director, the company consisted of 16 staff and had a turn over of around £2 million. Now the company has grown to 60 staff with a £4.1 million turnover. Neil plans to continue to expand and reach £10 million by 2019 and then £50 million five years later.
Finding the right skill set
Taking on the challenge of staying ahead of the digital age is much easier when you have the right staff to back you up. However, with a skills shortage within technology in Lincolnshire, it is easier said than done. This has been one of the biggest challenges for Neil to tackle.
“Recruitment is a real nightmare for us. We are a technology company and we are not in Silicon Valley. The university produces some good technical people, but what we found with the local students that they want to leave and work for Rock Star to build games or work for Google.
“Companies like us, we have to really push hard to get people excited about working here. We started doing some more sponsoring of football clubs and rugby clubs just to raise our awareness.
“We are very fortunate, we have a really good team of people now. When you are a small company, you don’t have the big salaries to offer to get the gold experience and the qualifications, so you have to pick out the people that you hope have got something you like and we have been fortunate in that we have got some people who have been at the company now for 15-20 years.”
Despite the challenges, Neil still has high hopes to double the size of the company in the next 18 month to two years, and he won’t let the skills shortage in the county counteract this. He made the decision to employ 11 people in Bangalore, India, to provide technical support for his clients but the decision wasn’t taken lightly.
“I sat here years ago and said, ‘We are a Lincoln company, we’ll employ Lincoln people,’ and right up until a year ago I would have stood by that. The fact that you’ve got to remember is that getting people in Lincoln is a real struggle and the option was to cut down the products we were developing or open somewhere else and get some other resources.”
“Begrudgingly, we took the decision that we will go out to India and I have to say that it’s been really good.
“The way that I liken it is to say, ‘Well if we had another office in Liverpool, would you have an issue with that?’ It’s because it’s India and people have this perception about India.”
But for all of Neil’s colleagues, at home and abroad, he likes to keep an element of entertainment around the office. Whether it is having an office bake off or providing space hoppers, arcade machines or table football in the staff room. Seeing a smile on the faces of the people he works with drives him.
Now that the company has more than doubled in size over the last few years, it is at that time where Neil can concentrate on promoting his business, showing the world what it can do and getting the name out there.
“I’ve closed big deals and I have been and travelled the world on business, but taking this in your own town where you were born and making it something really special and a nice place to work has been, for me, a great achievement.”
“As the company gets bigger, you have to accept that there are people who are really good at their jobs and let them get on with it. I have to keep reminding myself that we’ve got great directors and great managers, so you have to back off a little bit.
“When the company had 18 people you got involved in everything from seeing how the website looked to checking the code for quality, helping out with design ideas. Now you have to literally step back a little bit and do your job as a CEO which is to go out there and promote the company.”
This feature interview was first published in issue 46 of the Lincolnshire Business weekly magazine.