Owen Gleadall, Merlinsoft
Helping British farmers to pick their fruit and spotting other new revenue streams has transformed Owen Gleadall’s ticketing software business Merlinsoft, tripling its revenues from £2 million to £6 million over the past year.
- What was the inspiration for your business?
At the age of 35 I resigned from my job designing barcode scanning systems for the retail sector and decided I couldn’t work for anybody else again.
A friend in America had created an accounting software package that he was looking to market so I developed it for the UK market, adding in retail functionality.
We started out selling the package to retailers in 1984, my wife Vickie joined the business after a year and then in 1995 we won a fairly large contract to put new retail systems at Chester Zoo. At a project meeting with them, one of the guys asked if we could sell tickets through our system as well. On the basis that nothing is impossible, I said I was sure we could do that, so we worked with them to deliver a system that they wanted. Other visitor attractions started asking us for the same thing and so in 2009 we decided to switch from retail to providing admissions and ticketing for visitor attractions such as theme parks and heritage railways.
- How did you finance the growth of your business?
We financed it with our own money and a loan guaranteed against our house.
- What has been the impact of the pandemic on your business and how have you dealt with this?
On 23rd March we were dead in the water; all our staff were on furlough because all the visitor attractions, venues and events were closed. We had no income at all and it was looking absolutely bleak. What changed was we thought, well ok we are in a mess but there have to be opportunities somewhere.
We realised that fruit farmers had a big problem because their fruit was ripening in the fields and the European fruit pickers couldn’t come to this country because of the pandemic. The Prime Minister went on television and told everyone to go out and pick fruit to save the famers, which on the face of it was a great idea, but the fruit farmers were then presented with a problem because they needed to restrict the number of visitors to their farms to maintain social distancing. In the past they had literally put a board up outside for ‘PYO’ and people went and picked. We developed the very first ‘pick your own’ voucher based system where people could book a time slot online, buy a voucher and go and pick fruit, that revolutionised the market.
We developed another income stream with the government’s ‘Eat out to help out’ scheme to support local restaurants. Restaurants had to control visitor numbers and the times they could eat, and they also had to have a system that would capture contact details for the government’s Track and Trace programme. So we developed the Merlin iFood system where customers can book their meal and time online and also pay for it online too.
It has grown our business phenomenally. We went from having no income in April and May to £6 million over the next five months.
- Have you learnt anything in particular about yourself or your business as a result of the pandemic?
We have learnt that whatever the situation is, you should never give up. There is always an opportunity; all you have to do is find it.
- What has been your biggest mistake?
We won a contract in Saudi Arabia to develop a touchscreen system for a burger chain, which would enable people to order food at the entrance of the drive-through and collect it at the window. We invested very heavily in it and took it to market here in the UK - and nobody was interested. People told us there was no market for a touchscreen system in retail. We had to write off all our investment and lost £400,000. Of course ten years later we would have made a fortune from our touchscreen technology, but we were just too early.
- What has been the secret of your success so far?
Having a ‘can do’ attitude and having a team who have the same ‘can do’ attitude. We recruit on attitude far more than on aptitude. People can learn but you can never change a person’s personality.
- What advice would you give an entrepreneur just starting out about how to grow their business?
Make sure you keep a tight rein on the cash. And choose a really good mentor – someone who has been there and done it and who has got the experience that can really help and support you.
- What personal quality or characteristic has been most useful to you as an entrepreneur as you grow your business?