10 February 2013

It was late in 1999. I convinced Gail to help me in between her job interviews as she’d just graduated from Newcastle University. I’d encourage her to go for graduate interviews then dread every minute, hoping she’d not get the job. I never knew until years later that she felt the same and dreaded being offered one.

Having Gail on my team gave me the courage to rent our first two man office on Fountain Street, and UKFast was formed.

They were wonderful days; wonderfully terrifying, wonderfully tough. The pain we felt back then makes us appreciate everything now, and I never forget my roots or my journey. When heading to the Midland Hotel gym or crossing town, I often go via Fountain Street and look up with pride at our little startup office.

We missed the dot com boom but, at the same time, when the bubble burst, we were unaffected as we only had a couple of clients. It seems a million miles away now.

It’s 2013, we have thousands of happy clients and an army of focussed, dedicated, happy team mates.

The gap in the middle is a blur. Gail’s much better at remembering dates and times. Maybe it’s because I am always curious to see what’s around the corner. I always have one eye on the horizon.

Venturing into the unknown is what I enjoy the most.

That being said, I am eternally grateful for the extraordinary, coordinated efforts of every person, past and present.

So, if I look back, there are a few memories that stick out. I remember Gail’s Granddad coming to see our new office and being very impressed. I was mortified when I realised he thought we had the whole building. When I explained that it was just this tiny room, I felt empty. I realised that I had my work cut out and I was a million miles from where I needed to be.

It was at this moment that I first set the goal to get a huge office, one that we’d own, and one that dwarfs our start up headquarters.

I remember talking to businesses and when they asked, “how many people in UKFast?” I’d say, “Well, in this building there are around 200.” By avoiding the question and answering another one, I didn’t have to tell an untruth. The fact that the other 198 didn’t work for UKFast at the time was irrelevant! In business, it’s important to instill confidence in your prospective client and, rightly or wrongly, people get reassured by size. I heard Simon at Techhub telling a nice story last week when we both sat on a panel together for an Insider event on growth. He said, in the earliest days, “We answered each others phones just to give the illusion of being bigger.”

It’s funny how things transpire. Now, with 200 strong, the next part of the jigsaw is just slotting into place and I’d like to say thank you to everyone at UKFast; clients, suppliers, competitors and everyone who has helped to make this possible but, most of all, to Granddad for inspiring me to step up to the plate. Against all the odds, against the mathematical statistics of even being around a decade later, let alone being profitable and strong enough to be acquiring buildings, this is the 5th office building we have bought in just a couple of years with space totalling around 80,000 sq ft.

Acquiring the latest building, No.1 Archway, was stressful and the pressure was immense; probably because I knew we’d complete a number of goals in one hit. Strategically,  it immediately gives UKFast and Manchester improved connectivity as the building bisects Telecity’s 2 main data centres that currently house the bulk of Manchester’s connectivity. Ironically, all the networks cross our car park on the route to the 2 buildings.

We already have a list of telcos wanting to take space in the proposed DC wing of the building. The building is also large enough to take the overflow of staff that we currently have with our rapid expansion plans. So, immediately, I will be looking to rehouse some of the faster growing departments, giving us room to breathe again.

It’s been hard keeping it a secret. Nowadays, with Twitter and Facebook, and teammates with friends and families in other businesses, I have been dreading the news leaking. At the same time, it’s been hard standing up in front of my colleagues and friends at work, telling them how things were getting on with the project when, in reality, it was a deal that was constantly on and off.

It’s so important to create an environment of stability, and yet I had no idea until the very last day whether the deal was going to come off or not.

It was a complicated transaction as the building was owned by one company and the land by the council. I remember, just before Christmas, emailing Sir Howard Bernstein from Manchester Council. I was at Old Trafford, a guest of a supplier, and I was supposed to be watching a game of football. I don’t remember who won or anything about the game. I spent the entire time writing an email to Sir Howard and another to my lawyer explaining, “the deal is off!” It had just got too complicated; each of the 3 parties being perfectly reasonable but wanting something slightly different. I have to say, if it weren’t for Sir Howard’s forward thinking and help from my good friend Chris Ogelsby CEO of Bruntwood, the deal would not have happened. Chris’s experience in property negotiation, and his patience, helped me keep my eye on the bigger picture.

Now, at the cornerstone of the Science Park, and as a prominent landmark coming into the city from the airport, UKFast is in a great position to really expand properly with an increased sense of responsibility.

It was worth the wait and every ounce of stress. We got an incredible deal buying the building for £3.2 million, around half the price of its real value in my positive times.

I was a little disappointed that after years of driving past that building and dreaming of owning it, to actually do the deal and, having proudly been interviewed by the Manchester Evening News, to only get 3 sentences in the next day’s newspaper. Sadly, with redundancies being announced in their business, everyone’s focus was understandably on other things. But it’s a story that people need to hear when we are being continually told that the property market is depressed. It’s just everyone in the property market who are depressed. It’s up to us to give them a hug and start buying buildings and investing in Manchester’s future. I can’t think of a better city in the world to lay down my foundations.

And it’s not just us at UKFast in our industry and on our doorstep. Look at Melbourne Hosting, an incredible start up that, in a matter of a few years, built a business that the owner Daniel was able to sell to Scottish hosting company Iomart for around £5 million, and Scott Fletcher of ANS, which has really started to grow in recent years. There are many businesses in Manchester doing well.

The question I get asked is, ‘when will it be ready?’  My answer to this is simple: it will never be finished. As Benjamin Franklin once cleverly said:

“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.”

I already have my eye on a plot of land for the UKFast Campus when we grow to over 1000!

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