Business

The takeaway worker who set up a fast-growing IT firm

Mark Furness Image copyright Essensys

Working behind the counter of a Thai takeaway in south London, Mark Furness had hit rock bottom.

The Liverpudlian had previously successfully managed a technology business in the north of England, but he says that after its parent group had reneged on giving him a share of the company he quit on the spot.

Moving to London, aged 30 in 2004, to try to restart his career, he instead soon realised that he was "burnt out" by the vagaries of the business world.

Quickly running out of money, he found himself down on his luck. Out of financial desperation he had to swap selling computer equipment for Thai curries.

"By that point I didn't have a penny of savings left, and was staying with friends," says Mr Furness, now 41.

"I earned £150 a week, my rent was £120 and my bills were £25. So I was left with £5 a week to live on.

"So I bought big boxes of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes and litres of milk for my breakfasts and lunches. And then I'd have dinner every day at the Thai takeaway. I did that for seven months."

But as far as Mr Furness had fallen, he says that he was still convinced that he could - and would - set up his own successful IT company.

So in between serving customers their pad Thai or tom yum soup, he'd write down all his business ideas.

Two years later Mr Furness did indeed launch his company - Essensys - which allows small and medium-sized firms, and shared office spaces, to easily outsource all their IT requirements.

Image copyright Erroll Jones
Image caption Like many self-respecting tech firms, Essensys' headquarters has a pool table

Today Essensys is the second-fastest growing IT firm in the UK, according to business magazine Inc. Meanwhile, business research group Gartner has declared that Essensys is a company to watch.

And with London-based Essensys now expanding into the US, Mr Furness, who has the chief executive role, has gone from a spare room in south London to an apartment in Manhattan.

Not bad for a man who left school at 16, and who freely admits he knows "not one jot" about how to write a software programme, or build a computer network.

'Natural salesman'

Brought up in the working class Liverpool area of Huyton, Mr Furness says his dad had two jobs to make ends meet, while his mother worked in a hairdressers.

He says: "We didn't have much money, but you didn't notice that you didn't have stuff. So growing up was alright, as most kids have it, it was a laugh."

Image copyright Mark Furness
Image caption Mr Furness spent a teenager year as professional drummer

Unsure of what to do with his life, unusual fate intervened one Saturday when the keen drummer was playing drums in a Liverpool music shop.

By pure chance, the manager of a professional band was walking past, and liked what he heard.

So aged 16, Mr Furness was invited to become the drummer of a young cabaret band called Juvenile Jazz that played at corporate events across the UK and Europe.

He accepted, and his first concert with the group - the rest of whom were in their early 20s - was in London, which came with a night's stay at one of London's most famous five-star hotels.

Mr Furness says: "I had never stayed in a hotel before, and suddenly I'm staying at Claridge's.

"I remember going to my room and thinking 'this is alright'. It was one of those moments in life when I realised there were opportunities out there."

Image copyright Essensys
Image caption Essensys' headquarters is based in London, and it now has an office in New York

After spending a year with the band, Mr Furness says he was ultimately sacked because he "wasn't talented enough".

He then went travelling for a year, including spending time in Australia where he worked going door-to-door selling cable TV. Mr Furness says he found it "really quite easy". He adds: "I was a natural salesman, I loved talking to people."

It also marked the start of his career in the IT sector.

Overseas expansion

Returning to the UK, Mr Furness worked for a number of technology companies before washing up at the Thai restaurant in south London.

Without the money to start an IT firm, Mr Furness realised that he needed a better paying job so he could save up some funds.

Image copyright Essensys
Image caption Essensys' operating system is called Jeff

So with the help of his brother, who bought him a new suit for the interview, Mr Furness got a job in sales at a computer network business.

Two years later he had finessed his idea for an outsourcing IT firm, and persuaded two of his workmates to leave with him and establish Essensys in 2006.

Each putting in £6,000, Mr Furness' two co-founders Bryn Sadler and Barry Clark had the computer skills to balance his sales and leadership talents.

Their first customer was the owner of Centre Point, the office tower block at the eastern end of London's Oxford Street, and others soon followed suit.

Essensys now handles the IT for 6,000 businesses in the UK, and 250 in the US, where it has been operating for almost six months.

Its annual turnover is more than £12m after seeing annual growth of more than five-fold per year, and it employs more than 90 people.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Mr Furness initially moved from serving takeaways to computer sales to raise funds for his business idea

Adrian Mars, technology journalist and IT consultant, says it is impressive that Essensys' growth has come despite it not having any external investors.

"The firm's growth has all been organic, which is pretty good," says Mr Mars. "I think its success is down to how easy its systems are to use, it has really focused on that."

Mr Furness says his aim is for Essensys to become a multi-million dollar business, and that he has in recent years overcome his insecurities.

"I always had a fear of being found out... that I had made it up as I have gone along," he says.

"Two years ago I was still scared of that, but now I'm happy with it, as it helps us to innovate."

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