Posted: Fri 16th Mar 2012
"I put my iPad, a notebook and a pen into an iPad bag and I said to my wife Michele 'That's what my business is going to look like. That's what I want to achieve'," says Paul Cox, founder of SpinLessPlates.
Streamlining is essential for Paul: streamlining his business processes, streamlining his time, streamlining his life so that he can spend as much of it as possible with his family, wife and business partner Michele and their two young daughters, Isabella (two-and-a-half) and Jemima (16 months). This is more than just wanting to achieve healthy work-life balance. It's a passion, almost a compulsion, and to understand Paul's desire to have a business he can store in an iPad bag and run from anywhere, you have to delve a little into his history.
A lesson learned
"A lot of this comes from my parents owning a hotel. I hardly saw them as a child and in the end it pretty much killed my dad," explains Paul. "He worked and worked and worked to provide for his family and we would have one meal a week together - the rest of the time he and my mother would work. "My dad didn't start living his life until he finished his business and he was dead within a few years," he laments. "You can work 16, 17 hours a day to support your family, but if your family don't know you, you might as well not bother. "There's a better way, there has to be a better way. I waited 38 years for these children and I'd rather downsize than not spend time with them." Initially, however, Paul followed in his father's footsteps. After studying photography at college, the Derbyshire lad headed to London to work as a salesman for a photographic laboratory. It was the 90s, money was abundant, laddism was in full swing and everyone was splashing the cash. At 24, Paul had a Â£4,000 expense account and spent most evenings with clients at bars, restaurants and clubs in the city. He was working close to 100 hours a week and burning every drop of energy. He pushed hard for the sale and it didn't matter how it was achieved - show the clients a good time, make the sale, move on to the next one. Work hard, play hard - preferably at the same time. "I loved it. That job was my life," he admits. But at 26, he collapsed in the office with a suspected heart attack. Something was seriously wrong. From here, Paul started his first business, a multi media design agency, with two friends and eventually set up his own merchandising business with wife Michele in 2003. Fings was a big success. At its peak, turnover was in the region of Â£600,000 and the company's clients included HP, Microsoft, Yahoo, the Mayor of London and the Rugby World Cup. Then the crash happened, business dried up, the couple had their first baby after years of trying and Paul and Michele realised they had to radically rethink their approach to business.
Streamlining a business - and a life
Fings was struggling, but Paul wanted to work less, not more, and give his daughter the time that his own father had never given him. It was a dilemma, but he had a solution. In the late 90s, he had developed a simple automated ordering and invoicing system for his design agency which enabled the company to keep on top of it sales administration with minimal effort. Fings needed something similar, but with more functionality. Paul wanted a system that would integrate with his website and automatically take his customer on a journey through the entire sales process, from initial enquiry to paid invoice. He wanted to be able to keep track of his customers and suppliers, simplify his quoting, invoicing and purchasing and to access his information from anywhere. Critically, it had to be simple to use and easy to maintain - something that would keep the plates spinning while he and Michelle concentrated on regrowing their business and nurturing their growing family. A chance meeting with his bank manager in a coffee shop in Buxton led Paul to realise that what he was developing had the potential to become a whole new business. "She said 'If you could build something that was so simple anyone could use it, it would fill such a gap in the market'," he recalls. "She explained that so many people find business software too complicated, and they were turning up at her desk with bags of receipts saying 'I can't understand or use accounting software'. I realised that with so many people with little IT experience starting business, Â we could build something that would make running a business much easier for them." The birth of SpinLessPlates After two years of development, SpinLessPlates is almost ready to launch. It's currently being tested by businesses in the UK, Dubai, Australia and Malaysia, and the businesses using it include accountants, print buyers, agencies and business mentors. The software integrates with popular accounting and email marketing packages and Paul is confident it can handle the sales administration of almost any business-to-business firm. He even thinks it can be adapted to consumer-facing firms, and he and his developer are already working on iPad apps and mobile apps to make it as accessible as possible. It sounds amazing, I say. "My end of month accounts used to take most of the day, but this month they took half an hour," he says, by way of illustration. "But more importantly, I've just taken my daughter to a dance class and I couldn't have done that before. We're off to Florida for two weeks for a big family holiday and I couldn't have done that either. I just want to spend as much time with my daughters as I can."
An independent evangelist
Once he gets going on independent businesses, work-life balance, the principle of "working smarter, not harder", the freedom that technology and social media give to small enterprises, it's almost impossible to get Paul to stop. "Large corporates are slow, they always have been," he stresses. "We're very lucky to be living in this age and running small businesses. We can move faster than corporates and use whatever tools are available to get ahead." Paul Cox, the evangelist for living life on his own terms, is a true 'free-ranger'. But is he any closer to the dream of running his business from an iPad bag? He laughs, admits he's not quite there yet and then berates me for my working hours. Â "One hour a day," he says. "That's what you should be aiming for." If only"¦
Simon Wicks, Enterprise Nation editor