We talked to Tim Mercer of Vapour about digital transformation, and he had the following to say:-
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these Covid-19 times?
Tim Mercer: I don’t want to play things down because the shift in all of our lives has been staggering, but personally, I’ve probably found the Covid-19 restrictions less of a challenge than some. Early on, I was determined to create a new routine, which didn’t just center upon my working day but physical activity too.
Exercising throughout has kept me sane, especially when the gyms closed. I’ve even been known to go back to basics and work out in the car park with whatever equipment I can get my hands on, doubling up as weights.
As the head of an organization operating in the telecoms and connectivity space, some of us have continued going into the office as usual. We adapted quickly to make the building Covid safe because customers needed us more than ever – not least because of businesses’ mass shift to homeworking.
My two children have definitely struggled, and I take my hat off to parents tackling the homeschooling conundrum – especially the slog of heavy timetables. Adults aren’t wired to spend that much time online, so it’s even tougher for youngsters who can’t get their heads around why their personal space has now become a constant learning environment. They’ve missed their friends too, as we all have. That’s something I have found tough.
We’re thankful for our health, though, and we’re cautiously hopeful that the end is now in sight.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Vapour.
Tim Mercer: I’m perhaps not your average tech entrepreneur. I began my career in the armed forces and spent my 18th birthday deployed in Northern Ireland and my 21st in the Gulf during the first Gulf war. My time as a soldier in the helicopter squadron certainly shaped me as a person, though – not least the values I place on teamwork and camaraderie.
Back as a ‘civvy,’ I had a couple of roles in London before moving back up North. I built a successful career for myself in the telecoms sector, progressing into senior roles at Virgin Media Business before selling everything I owned – including our family home – to set up Vapour.
This was back in 2013, perhaps before the market was ready for a cloud-only tech provider, if I’m honest. But being an early adopter actually stood us in good stead because, now everyone is talking about digital transformation, we’re a safe pair of hands, making the complex simple, clever and powerful.
I secured £4m of investment when I founded Vapour, having never approached funders before. That environment was alien to me but is proof that with passion and conviction in what you’re trying to achieve, it is possible to secure huge sums of money to springboard business success.
How does Vapour innovate?
Tim Mercer: Our technology is exciting, but only people can get excited. That’s why we’re as known for our team as we are our toolkit. We work with clients to demystify the jargon-filled world of cloud and will never settle for just, ‘OK.’
This is integral to our culture, and customers love this passion, honesty, energy, and ownership. We encourage our people to challenge the status quo and not be afraid to ask why.
This then transcends how we approach customers’ problems – it’s very consultative and without prejudice. We want to explore the art of the possible. Technology is here to transform our world, after all.
It’s important to note, however, that our customers prefer leading edge to bleeding edge. Yes, they often want tech that’s new and exciting, but they don’t want to be guinea pigs. They’re looking for proven, reliable, and robust solutions.
We have always been big on collaborations, too, and are not afraid to join with best-of-breed technology partners to offer something even more exciting for our customers.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your business, and how are you coping?
Tim Mercer: As a cloud technology business, many people would automatically assume that everything is rosy, and we’ve had it easy – global reports point to the overwhelming Covid-forced investment in digital transformation, after all.
In terms of sales, we created the same amount of new business growth as we did the previous year, but this was a lot harder to secure. Many organizations have delayed their investments in favour of sticking plaster solutions that they hope will hold until the turbulence has settled.
We’ve therefore spent a great deal of time talking to industry, sharing knowledge, and advising how to innovate, even when being savvy with cash.
As a business, just because Vapour had the tech and agility to make the mass move to homeworking overnight, it doesn’t mean we enjoyed it as a team. The pandemic still resulted in a huge cultural shift for colleagues, and we’ve missed being together. We’ve invested heavily in a mental health wellbeing programme to ensure everyone feels thoroughly supported during this time.
When the world was in flux, we also took the opportunity to step back, ensure our house was in order, and further streamline how we do things.
We also accelerated some of the technical strategies we set out in 2019 because we identified long-term opportunities beyond the pandemic. We recognized that the hybrid workplace represented new opportunities for our toolkit, for example. Moving forward, we expect to see ongoing demand for home connectivity and security, not just for corporate networks, so despite the challenging economic backdrop, we had to keep innovating.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Tim Mercer: I think anyone who runs a business is always faced with difficult questions – pandemic or not. Covid has perhaps just exacerbated some of the challenges we’ve faced.
My biggest concerns, over the past 12 months, have centered around our people because they matter so much. I’ve worked harder than ever to protect our culture, maintain morale and safeguard wellbeing levels without customer service being affected. But I don’t think anyone can get it right all of the time.
Customers have felt the pressure, and they’ve piled that pressure on us at times too. This requires thick skin. It’s therefore important to keep talking, particularly on the days that feel especially flat. This helps to regain perspective and remain empathic.
I completely salute families tackling the homeschooling juggle, for instance. But we can’t forget that we also have colleagues, and friends, who have been home alone throughout all of this. Everyone’s got it tough for different reasons, so we need to keep talking.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Tim Mercer: I love a routine. Work is never too far away, but physical activity and time out with my children is really important to me – ideally outside when it isn’t freezing! I’m also a qualified chef and find cooking quite therapeutic. I make a mean Sunday roast.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Tim Mercer: We have many competitors across the different spaces we operate in, including voice, networks, connectivity, backups, automation, and Microsoft services. However, there are few like us, who have been cloud-only since day dot, and only a small handful can manage a customer’s whole infrastructure.
This doesn’t make us unique, but it does make our proposition quite compelling.
However clichéd it sounds, we can’t rest on our laurels, though. In the past 12 months alone, we’ve invested £350,000 in our toolkit, our team, and a company rebrand. We’re proud of pressing on with these projects when it would have been easy to preserve the cash. But we didn’t want Covid to derail our momentum.
Your final thoughts?
Tim Mercer: The next 12 months will be far from easy, but the time will come when the tides turn and things get crazily busy. Companies are increasingly acknowledging the true value of the cloud, and due diligence now means investments will soon be made at pace. We’ve seen a sea change in how organizations use tech, and the workplace has altered beyond recognition. But I bet we haven’t even seen half of it.
I expect we’ll witness a phenomenal amount of M&A activity too. Some firms will fall by the wayside, others will thrive, and there’ll be many that get gobbled up. I just hope that the big boys don’t start controlling everything as a result. They’ll end up setting the agenda if they do, which would be a shame – not least because their support levels are below par. And Covid has taught us just how much customer service matters.