BEFORE I shook their hands ahead of an innovation and export seminar last week, I knew nothing of Steve Parkes or Jim Furness, or their companies STAR-Dundee and Omni Instruments. Two hours later, I was inspired by their stories of achievement in the face of adversity.
STAR-Dundee employs just 25 people, but supplies specialist technology to all six global space agencies, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Its product, SpaceWire, is a complete technology package which can send back high-quality data, and photographs, from space.
Around 100 spacecraft in orbit or being designed are using STAR-Dundee’s technology, including the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (a robotic spacecraft orbiting the moon and mapping its surface) and the $US7 billion James Webb Space Telescope. SpaceWire has helped to send back images from the moon, including pictures of astronauts’ footsteps. [“Yes, they were there,” said Parkes.]
At a seminar exploring the “infinite possibilities” of innovating and exporting, this was Buzz Lightyear stuff: “To infinity – and beyond”.
The story Jim Furness told was equally inspiring. Forced to give up a full-time job in the late 1990s due to debilitating fatigue, he decided to set up on his own – despite having no money. With a computer bought on instant credit, a rented fax machine and a small enterprise agency grant, he spent two days a week following up potential business opportunities by driving around Scotland on his motorbike. For the other three days he lay in bed next to the phone because he was so exhausted and couldn’t do any more.
Furness’s firm, Omni Instruments, now has 12 staff and has exported to 63 countries including Greenland, Guatemala and Mongolia. Its exports account for £1 million-plus of its £2.7 million turnover.
On the surface, its business is not sexy; it creates specific instruments for clients who want to capture specific data – relating to pressure, temperature, humidity, flow, load, torque, etc – and evaluate how it impacts on their business.
Yet Furness turned this apparent engineering geekery into great real-life examples: measuring wind speed at the top of The Shard in London to judge on whether it is safe for the window-cleaners to work; creating miniature air velocity sensors for a Formula 1 motor racing team – and working to monitor rainfall and assess flood risks in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.
There were countless other examples, and Furness also had some telling messages for other businesses. “Not all innovation has to be complicated; sometimes simple is best,” he said.
Parkes and Furness came across as real, grounded people. They innovate and export successfully, encouraging skilled staff to keep coming up with the ideas to drive their business, but temper this with the knowledge that the job needs to be done.
“We encourage a culture of innovation among all staff and accept mistakes as long as we learn from them, but there is always tension with the work you need to do – sometimes you just have to get things done,” said Parkes.
Furness made a similar point: “We all have a tremendous creative urge within us and you must embrace new ideas – sometimes they come from clear blue sky, sometimes from staff and sometimes from customers. I’m the sort of person who wakes up at 5am with a crazy idea – but I have a very good general manager who acts as a brake on me.”
Both men have tackled the complexity of exporting and Parkes highlighted the challenge of identifying cultural and practical difficulties: “Dealing with India, you still need a fax machine – everyone uses a fax. China has a very hierarchical structure, wants the very latest technology and there are major cultural issues about how you enter a room and how you are seated for dinner.”
Yet at the heart of Parkes and Furness’s success is a basic recognition that what it is all really about is the customer – delivering value to the client and ensuring that your solution is better than the competition.
“You have to find the customer’s ‘pain’ and design a solution,” said Parkes. “It’s about how to focus creativity into innovation and designing an elegant answer. You need to avoid ‘sufficing’ – accepting that a solution is good enough – and instead, develop alternatives and compare them.”
The two men also share a sense of humility. Furness said he felt his business mantra should be “Omni Instruments: surprised by success”, while Parkes described an inability to commercialise a product which he patented in 2001 as his “big failure” – but one he learned from.
“We live with fear [of failure], cope with it and strengthen our resolve,” said Parkes. “A lack of self-belief is better than over-confidence. I think over-confidence is like a blindfold on your foresight; look at what other people do and learn.
“Just don’t make the same mistake twice – and remember when things are tough, they will get better. You can always begin again.”
David Lee is director of David Lee Media (firstname.lastname@example.org)