Alice Kahrmann talks to Steve Purdham of 3rings, the app that lets families know their ageing loved ones are OK.

Oh apps, you've just got to love them, don't you? The circuitously useful, the supposedly time saving, the downright addictive, those that take more time to set up than you end up saving, the games, the filters, the myriad ways of distorting an image, yes there's no doubt they provide a diversionary tactic to the life admin of well, being alive, but is there an app that really can go where others can't? An app that can potentially save lives?

The app to which I refer is the really rather useful 3rings; simplicity bottled - an app that takes that age old adage of three rings (think three plumes of smoke on a desert island) and uses it to wire up ageing relatives to the family unit, with a multiple smartphone bound service that does, well a whole lot for the greater good. No surprise then that the brains behind it are those of a seasoned entrepreneur; Steve Purdham, the man who is perhaps best known for selling Spotify rival WE7 to Tesco for £10.8 million and, wait for it, internet security firm Surf Control to Websense for $400 million. And now here he is; the founder with a self proclaimed 'six to eight year' attention span who (along with co-founder Gareth Reakes) looked at an ageing populus and thought right - technology; how can it help?

It all started with Purdham's beloved mum; topical considering the recent passing of Mother's Day; 'She's 82... Gareth and I started talking about the age wave - there are fourteen million people in the UK now who are all over sixty and ten million who are over sixty five.' Age-centric technology with all its attendant caveats; the challenge of converting a generation that are notoriously technology averse. 'In the seventies before mobile phones, if you wanted to know your gran was OK, you used to ring three times, and then put the phone down, it was a code that all was well, and we thought well how could we make that for the internet?'

As self proclaimed 'techie guys' the first step was the whiteboard; 'We worked out all sorts of wonderful bits of technology so we knew how many times she would go to the toilet every night; big data so you could pick patterns; but the problem with that (although techies loved it; the whiteboard was full of intelligent kettles, and all sorts of things) you just realised that when you talked to my mum and her friends - you know what? They don't like technology. So we took it all the way back, we said 'Well, what are we really trying to do? And all we're trying to do is let the family know that mum and dad are OK every day.' Technology does of course feature, bridging the gap between 'mum's phone, my iPad and my computer via the internet.' The USP located in the fact that's it's the family members as opposed to their elderly relatives who manage the app; 'All mum has to do is take (or make) a call in the morning and the whole family know she's all right.'



So there it is; the smartphone as monitor linked up via specially developed telecommunications software; wife, daughter, brother, sister, all linked up and looped with multiple check-ins dictated by different pricing plans. So far, so good; as far from a jump on the bandwagon Angry Birds derivative as it's possible to get; a highly sophisticated, yet deceptively simple piece of software that's biggest challenge in Purdham's words, is getting people to go from 'yeah this is a brilliant idea' to actually do something about it... We can build technology companies til the cows come home, Gareth and myself - that's the easy bit, but the marketing, the reaching people, the understanding what customers want, that's always the hard bit.'

Well press wise there's plenty to wax lyrical about, not least the app itself but the expertise that informed its development, because as we've previously mentioned, Purdham is nothing if not a seasoned pro; a well established 'whiteboard' fanatic, who digs the empty page (read office) and the challenge it offers to the founder with a touch of cabin fever; because there's a certain sense of ADD at the heart of 3rings (but more of that later). It must also be said that Purdham is exceedingly charming, with his warm Northern manner (he hails from Spennymore near Durham), an easy open face that belies some steely Northern grit, and not to sound too trite, the first observation on shutting the laptop, what a thoroughly nice man, just who you'd want looking out for an elderly relative; family at the forefront, someone with a moral compass basically.

Which brings me back to the six to eight year centric ADD; let's take the sale of WE7 as an example; 'That's what I like doing,' he says of building companies and then swiftly starting new ones; 'I've been lucky enough to do quite a few of them now, it's the bit at the beginning when nothing exists and you take a whiteboard and you fill it in and you start bringing people in.' 3rings already has a ten strong workforce down in Oxford.' But the best bit according to Purdham is 'the first customer - there's nothing more exciting.' At WE7, that 'one' quickly grew to three million listeners on a monthly basis, and then of course there was Surf Control, the remarkably succesful foray into internet technology which spread to fifteen countries around the world.

Eventually however companies become 'just machines', when it becomes more about 'manipulating excel spreadsheets,' than having fun with the whiteboard basically. Out goes 'personality' and in goes 'big data' is the implication; the precursor to 'selling it on and moving onto the next one.' This one might last marginally longer however, because there's Purdham's mum to think about; 'I'd be a little bit worried about letting someone else look after her,' he laughs.



So since I've got him here; the serial entrepreneur in his natural habitat; Skyping me from the office, it would be natural to enquire as to his top tips for startups; 'You have to have passion for what you're about to do,' he says with conviction, 'because, things are never going to happen in the time frame that you want them, it's going to cost you more money than you expected, it's going to take more hours in the day than you've got available.' Next up is 'focus' not just on the business but also on the customer; because according to Purdham 'too many people build products which no one would ever use.' In this way, he's firmly in the Branson/Jobs camp - simplicity combined with high functionality. 'I met a guy who had broken legs, I was on a boat on the English Channel, Patrick Kirk and he had his own buisness doing fire outfits and flammable materials, and he said 'Money is king, and focus' - companies die because they don't have money and companies die because they're trying to do too many things and they don't focus on their customers in particular.'

And of course whilst there's very real altruism behind the business model; it would be fey to think the lure of a very scalable business (remember those generational stats) hadn't been considered. 'We build technology businesses to be scalable, and that's one reason we've spent a year producing the technology, rather than going out and trying to sell it in the first week.' Plus, 'the idea behind 3rings is that fundamentally if it works in the UK, it will work wherever.'

But now to Reakes, co-founder; are there defined roles to the partners' relationship? 'Somebody always comes to the front: Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, and you end up with a great band but somebody tends to take the limelight. Gareth is that young guy, although he's thirty eight now,' (they met at WE7 where he was 'the technology guy). He's the guy who 'understands technology and puts it together and although I'm a techie, things have changed dramatically in the last twenty years. It's totally different to when I was sitting there with a bit of coding; that's the beauty of he and I working together.'

According to Purdham, Reakes is, 'super intelligent; if he was sitting talking to you now, he'd be doing emails and other things; at first I thought it was very rude but that's just the way he is, probably a bit like Mark Zuckerberg, he's so intense and able to do things simultaneously but I trust him tremendously.' At the end of the day it's all about 'good people', there are no defined roles at 3rings, 'That's the beauty of it! If he's doing something or the team are doing something then I'm the coffee maker and the pizza maker or vice versa, it really depends. We have different skill sets - I like marketing, Gareth likes technology, but Gareth can do marketing; he's a wizard at being able to look at Google ad words, data analytics and being able to say that's working, that's not.'

And now to the question that I've been dying to ask since the beginning of the interview, how on earth does it feel to sell a business for $400m? 'It's almost an anti-climax,' Purdham states, naturally self-deprecating, 'because basically they're babies; you grow with them, you nurture them, you build with them, they want to go in their own direction and then you have to pull them back into the direction they should go in, but there comes a point at which, like children, they have to fly the nest.'

When you look at technology companies, one of the challenges of being a UK technology business is getting the funding to go to the next level. When Rob Barrow and I started Surf Control, it was about how do we get to a hundred million? And we didn't know what a hundred million was, it could have been snorkels, it could have been apples, it could have been whatever, and so when we first hit a hundred million revenue we thought 'Hey we've got a business,' but actually on the world stage, you have; not a small business and not a big business and even with twenty percent growth, you're stuck at a hundred million for three years. If you look again at the big businesses, a lot of those are acquired and actually the amount of funding that's available is quite small compared to our American equivalent.' Of course selling brings with it other rewards; 'What's beautiful is to actually see how individuals grow and move on and become superstars in their own right and that's happened a lot. You see ripples that have gone on for a long long time, you see people moving in different areas who are now building their own businesses and you see that across the board - it's fabulous.'

Whilst Purdham is all about encouraging another generation of entrepreneurs, does he believe we're doing enough in the UK to support their development? 'If you get behind the misery that the UK actually likes to bring to the front, then yes,' he laughs. 'It's better than it used to be, because there was a very systematic situation where failure wasn't accepted in the UK, and I think that goes back to the class system and the fact that you're supposed to be in your particular structure. The financial stigma of a company going, bust or somebody starting a business and then it failing in the UK was significant which is totally different to the US.'

Now Purdham gets passionate; 'Less than ten, fifteen years ago people didn't talk about entrepreneurs in the same way as they do now, and so like with celebrity or being a footballer, kids have realised that they can do their own buisnesses, that's why I think you're seeing a lot more now, but always you can support them more, it's a cultural thing. We need to get away from the idea that failure is actually a bad thing, I fail every day and that's the only way that you learn.'

So far, so ideal, but it would be wrong to think it's all been smooth sailing, such is the art of the sound bite, Purdham has made his own mistakes along the way. 'There hasn't been any single one,' he laughs (there are so many all the time!), there have been situations where I've learnt a lot from the negative; when I first started in work I had some very bad managers and I learnt from them what not to do, and thinking back that was probably better in my case than people who were good because I wanted to do better than them.'

Mention of the past brings with it a certain softening, particularly when probing for mentors; 'My first business was when I was eight: my dad did encourage me a lot. Coming from the North East, a mining community and all that, for some reason I always wanted money. My dad said well if you want money I have to go and work for it so I started a stick business - kindle for lighting fire; back then everyone had coal fires and my dad found someone who actually made this stuff and packed it up with a special machine, so at eight years old I used to go around and every Friday night, I built up a round, selling these sticks door to door, and coming home and having shoe boxes full of pennies and I would then order my next stock for the following week. It was brilliant, until the guy got done for VAT evasion, and he stopped making the sticks and my business went down the plug hole, so that was the first one when I was eight.'

Purdham's biggest influence was his father (see family man); 'He's passed away now bless him. He used to always say 'I can - I will - I must!' that was the phrase that a lot of the family continue to use, and when you're feeling down it's a simple phrase that gets you back up, I always remember, I went to Teeside University/poly as it was then. I came home one weekend and he said 'Are you ok?' I said 'Not really I'm just feeling a bit down. I've got all sorts of problems' and you know what it's like when you went to uni; you haven't got any money! You can't go out as much as you want to, you've got a project you've got to hand in in a week's time and you can't be arsed to do it and so on, they weren't real problems. So he took me in the car and he said 'I'm going to take you somehwhere where people don't have any problems' and I didn't understand until we went through the cemetery gates and he said 'here you go, these people don't have problems - they're dead... The more problems you've got, the more alive you are.' My dad used to do subtle things like that. So I can, I will, I must and if you've got problems you're more alive than anyone else.'

And wouldn't that be a fine place to finish, except there's one more stellar bit of advice; 'Execution! People don't execute, they come up with ideas, they play at execution. I've got some great friends who come up with fabulous business ideas; I can't think of ideas, it takes me ages, but it's execution, it's doing it and keeping doing it, and persisting and trying to find out why it's not working? I always remember I was doing a presentation to about 2000 school kids who were just about to do their A-levels and at the end one of the business teachers came and said, 'I would love to build a business, what do I need to do?' 'You've just got to do it,' I replied, 'Find the business that you want to do, put the passion into it and then you've got to do the hard work; put everything that you know into practice. People don't do that, they don't execute.' What more is there to say apart from the obvious; his mum must be really rather proud.

Alice Kahrmann

April 2014