Back in 2013 when the AI buzz was in its infancy, Mark Sheldon co-founded a predictive analytics software company called BrightTarget. After helping B2B organisations gain more value from their data using cloud computing and machine learning for four years, it was acquired by Paris-based customer relations software specialist Sidetrade, which tasked Mark with evolving its software-as-a-service (or SaaS) products using AI.
In joining Sidetrade’s technical leadership team, Mark became group CTO with responsibility for more than 85 staff (out of a total of 250 across six offices in Europe). Sidetrade’s platform serves B2B enterprise companies in every sector to augment their revenue – from upsell/cross-sell to customer retention and cash collection. Its clients are spread across Europe and North America and include big-brand names like Expedia.
An advocate for tech in the West Midlands, Mark is now involved in a trio of new projects that includes building and recruiting talent for Sidetrade’s new tech hub in central Birmingham. He tells us more about Sidetrade’s activity in the region while sharing advice for scaling founders who have their sights set on being acquired.
How are you supporting Birmingham’s local digital tech ecosystem?
My whole life and professional career have been focused on the West Midlands, so giving back and making an impact is important. Although we have an international footprint in terms of clients, and a team spread across two countries, our local ecosystem is the West Midlands. And we’re doing a couple of very crucial things. First, we’re opening a tech hub in central Birmingham a stone’s throw from New Street Station. That’s important in terms of being an AI presence in the centre, and it reflects that fact that we’re growing fast, with lots of new jobs in the pipeline.
Sidetrade’s R&D team is spread across England and France; they’re the technical hubs of the company. In terms of size, I oversee approx 85 staff and that’s set to grow over the next three years with newly created jobs from entry to senior level. Our Birmingham team is expected to grow to around 40 R&D staff, possibly more, hence the need for a bigger office in Birmingham to be our new tech hub.
What is The Code Academy, and how is it helping develop AI skills in the UK?
We piloted The Code Academy in 2018 and launched Year 1 in 2019. It’s a coding programme, but we’re determined to do things differently. First, we offer it in-house, with the course designed and delivered by our more experienced staff. Second, it’s training for a job role, rather than just imparting a skill; we want our trainees to be job-ready. Third, we created five new, full-time jobs at the end for trainees to apply for, so it’s more than just a training course – you can become a data or software engineer with an AI firm.
It’s also unique in that the programme is offered in a rapid way over four weeks, and there’s no cost to the trainee. And we welcome diversity: nearly half the trainees this year were women, and a number of trainees had degrees in subjects like sports science, physics, and business, but could demonstrate interest and potential.
What are the West Midlands ecosystem’s biggest challenges, and how can it overcome them?
Tech companies and talent in the West Midlands can be drawn to London and Silicon Valley in the US. It’s a temptation when a startup or small business wants to scale. I think there’s a lot of focus on startups and ‘unicorn firms’, meaning the challenges and opportunities faced by mid-size firms wanting to scale can be overlooked – but that’s a country and sector-wide thing, rather than about the region. It’s something to address for sure. I think leadership by the tech sector, together with local and national government support, will help raise the profile of the region within the UK and internationally. I’d like to see Birmingham take its place as a global beacon for tech excellence.
Sidetrade’s new Birmingham tech hub will be a stone’s throw from New Street Station
What advice do you have for scaling entrepreneurs looking to be acquired?
Focus on being a leader and innovator in your field and shout about it. For example, nothing speaks louder than industry analysts such as Gartner or Forrester; they influence buying decision-makers and give tremendous international visibility. Sidetrade identified my previous company, BrightTarget, after being recognised by Gartner in their 2016 ‘Market Guide for SaaS-based Predictive Analytics Applications for B2B Sales and Marketing’.
Most often, scaleup companies get acquired from a buyer because they are offering an accelerator – like technological advances or competitive conditions in terms of jump-start growth, product category and/or geography. But whatever your exit strategy, you need to be as visible in your market as possible.
“Whatever your exit strategy, you need to be as visible in your market as possible.“
What are the key differences in developing AI as the founder of BrightTarget, versus as CTO of Sidetrade?
As well as working in large corporates, I’ve had a lot of experience starting and building businesses and getting from 0 to $1M annual recurring revenue. Some people say this is the “impossible” part, but it doesn’t get much easier once you get that far, in my experience. The main difference working at Sidetrade is the pure scale. For any AI technology, you need data – massive volumes of data. You need customers or partnerships to be able to train your algorithms.
In any AI startup, this is the biggest challenge. At Sidetrade, we process 350 billion Euros of transactions on our platform every year, so there is no shortage of data. This is a huge opportunity and a unique selling point for us and another aspect that attracted me to the role. Sidetrade’s DNA is marked by innovation right from the start; being a cloud-based SaaS, capitalising on big data, and now AI.
How did the acquisition affect company culture for the staff that remained?
It was definitely a big change for the staff that remained. Moving from a small team that make decisions between themselves on a daily basis, to being part of a pan-European engineering organisation was a shift. This is the same with any acquisition, but I’m glad to say that the majority of the team did remain and are still part of Sidetrade three years later, so it was generally a positive experience. We’ve recently re-organised the R&D department to bring the English and French teams together and to align the way we work. It’s definitely not perfect, nor the finished article, but we are continually learning, improving and scaling.
What’s on the horizon for you?
As mentioned, we’re in a hyper-growth phase right now. That means lots of hiring at junior, mid and senior levels across all our offices. There’s also some exciting new things to reveal in 2020, but I’m keeping them under wraps!
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