Brian Donnelly founded his first major business, Constellar, in the late 1990s. In the process of growing the business, he migrated to Silicon Valley, after being offered $3 million US VC funding.
Three subsequent rounds of funding – totalling $30m – took Constellar to a capitalisation value of $123m, 70 major customers, and 160 staff, before it was sold to IBM.
Brian has seen companies large and small struggle with spreadsheets to automate business critical operations. Back in the Birmingham Science Park, he has taken his new company Synapse to FY 2016 £1.8m revenues and 20 staff.
Synapse is a service solution provider which improves the operational efficiency of spreadsheets to allow multiple users to update and synchronise data in real time. This solution offers spreadsheet users a ‘single version of the truth’ from which to work, creating a more efficient use of existing databases.
Located at the Innovation Birmingham Campus, Synapse is at the heart of the technological innovation hub of the Midlands. Synapse customers include a global Swedish retailer and a leading UK Bank. But Brian’s Synapse story didn’t begin in the Midlands.
“I was living and working in Silicon Valley for the last 8 years,” Brian recounts. “I built my business there, and once I’d exited from that, as my other half was a CEO of an insurance company in Birmingham. I ended up being in the audience for a lot of corporate dinners.”
“At one of them I was sat next to the CIO of Lloyds. She explained the problem she had. There had a big PPI miss-selling problem, there was spreadsheets everywhere – it was a nightmare and no one could fix it. I put my hand up and said: I’ll go and do that. I grabbed one of my technical buddies and we went up, and the rest is history”.
When Synapse began, Brian didn’t have a full business plan. “We were very financially experienced, but we didn’t start the business with a long-winded business plan at all. We just started with an idea and went for it.”
“We found there was a much bigger and better market once we’d got into it than we originally planned, and as we generated the numbers we wrote a business plan which we’d done, and we’ve exceeded it by a long margin, right up to date.”
Brian encountered a few struggles with launching Synapse. Firstly, he had a difficult time raising finance, citing that it was “almost impossible to raise funding”.
He also found it difficult to pitch the idea to people, as he was in essence, highlighting a need that many businesses did not necessarily think they had. As a result, he had to work hard to convince people that his product was one that would benefit them and ultimately save them time and money.
Additionally, Brian acknowledges the importance of hard work.
When asked what advice he would offer to entrepreneurs, he placed emphasis on the notion of “really wanting it”.
Brian is not a man of half measures – he revealed that you must be prepared to put everything into making your business work, including having no money, living on credit cards, and losing relationships.
“It will be so much harder than you’ll ever imagine,” Brian said. “You’ll live on nothing, borrow money on credit cards, not take a salary. It took me 40 years to learn what Cortés meant by “we must burn the ships” and if people understand that, they understand the commitment.”
Brian’s emphasis on knowing your priorities, and being prepared to make sacrifices, is essential for anyone interested in starting their own business.
So, what does the future holds for Synapse?
Brian’s immediate priority is to hire a small number of very good managers, in order to grow sales and industrialise the whole customer acquisition process. The company is also researching the possibility of starting sales in the US, and Australia, countries where Brian has extensive connections.
It appears that the future for Synapse looks very exciting. It has taken a lot of hard work and determination for Brian to reach this stage, but to take Synapse from a start-up to a business with £1.8M revenues and 20 staff is a massive achievement in itself.