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November 3, 2010

The biggest UK software house you’ve never heard of: Q&A with Martin Leuw, CEO of IRIS

Martin Leuw tells CBR all about his business and how he took it from 100 people and £9m in 2001 to 1,200 people and £120m in turnover today

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Apparently your company is "the UK’s largest private software house supplying business management solutions to over 60,000 customers, from start-ups to large organisations". Can you tell us more, Mr Leuw?
Certainly. We help professional organisations save time and money and improve customer service. Our four markets are accountancy, legal, not-for-profit, SME (payroll) and accountancy businesses. We’re a software company focused on specific vertical markets like accounting, legal and charity.

Take for example, an accounting firm; we work with Stevenson Shepherd, a 20 person practice to help automate everything in the practice – so if you’re a client calling and want to talk to a partner and they’re not there, anyone can see what stage the work is at, who is doing what, information is automatically put into the main system, all the various records from submissions to HMRC or Companies House, to work in progress.

Plus, we help keep cash flow coming in by billing regularly, completely automate everything you do, so rather than having different systems and databases you have everything sitting on one system with plug-in modules, which is far more efficient.

I also now see that as CEO you’ve grown IRIS from a business with revenues of £9m and a headcount of 100 in 2001 to an organisation of 1,200 people with a turnover "in excess of £120 million" today. How?
One of the things makes us different is our large direct sales team – 200 people. We don’t use resellers, we keep very regular contact with our customers and we place a huge emphasis on customer support and training. We also own all our IP – we write all our packages in-house (we’re a Microsoft Gold Partner so most our technology is written in .Net and SQL). We write code for the specific sectors we address, which also helps.

I can’t help wondering what the exit strategy is here.
Being a private company has worked very well for us. As an organisation, we invest back into the product set and during the recession it’s worked very well for us – rather than having to focus on short-term needs of market we can re-invest back in to the product set. There’s no advantage for us in going public.

For instance, in the accounting practice market we’re far and away the market leader with half of the UK’s 28,000 firms in that market using our products; Sage is our largest competitor but only has 4,000. In the legal market, there are around 10,000 practices and we have 5,500 of them. In the charity sector we’ve got a large proportion of charities of over 1,000 people and would argue we have no major competitor in charities of membership organisations, though there are a few overseas US organisations that sell in the UK, like Blackbaud.

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That’s all very impressive. I don’t understand why we’ve not really heard of you before. Were you guys called something else or something once?
[Laughs]: We’ve always been called IRIS and we’ve grown organically in accounting, but in 2007 we bought Computer Software Group which got us in to the legal and not-for-profit market. That was our largest acquisition; when we acquire a business we change the name and don’t run it under the old brand.

So where is IRIS going?
We will continue to do ‘more of the same’ if you put it like that. But I can tell you we are definitely moving to the cloud. We want to offer not just completely integrated practice software but also host all customer IT for them, so taking that pain away and give them complete disaster recovery and backup and stop them having to worry about internal systems.

Customers should only have to worry about their core focus and the service they provide and what they do best. You quite often talk to people who run professional organisations and if you ask them if they can get a complete overview of their firm, where cases are up to, what opportunities there are for cross-selling, where their business is coming from, that’s often quite challenging for them as their existing systems tend to be too transactionally focused. We want all our customers save time.

So what is your message to the CBR readership?
The main thing I’m talking to CIOs about is the disconnect between the overall business strategy of the organisation on the one hand and the IT strategy that underpins it. We need to help business leaders and CIOs work together to bridge that gap. It’s not all one-sided or IT’s ‘fault’. Quite often, you’ve got people running organisations who don’t have a good understanding of the technology and what it can do for them. What a CIO or an IT partner should do is work closely with clients to help with that communication process.

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