Ian Herbert, Vistair
Helping airlines manage documents in order to be able to comply with industry regulations has been a brilliant move for Ian Herbert, Founder and CEO of Bristol-based technology SaaS business Vistair. The business has grown strongly and now has a turnover of £9 million.
- What was the inspiration for your business?
I had started a previous business making interactive videos and one of the projects was making crew briefing videos for British Airways, which was really successful. When the civil aviation authorities introduced a requirement for airlines to manage their documentation properly British Airways rang me up and asked if I would take a look at doing this for them. I said no because I didn’t really want to get involved in documents; it seemed complex and uncrackable. So they went off and spent a fortune with companies that didn’t really know what they were doing and then eventually came back to me and said, we are not getting on very well with this, would you have another look? So I did and I started the business in 2001.
- How did you finance the growth of your business?
I invested my own savings and vowed that I would never borrow from a bank or take an investor on board, because both events had caused me a huge amount of stress in a previous business. It was a big risk because I had two young children but I started building the business in a very prudent and cautious way. My first client was Qatar Airways which had just bought a load of Airbus aircraft and didn’t know how to manage the documents. Suddenly we had a client which was providing cash flow to cover the wages bill and we started to leverage that.
- What has been the most difficult or challenging part of growing your business?
Finding the right people to work with, who could get involved with the business and understand it.
- What part does technology play in your business and how has that changed?
We are a technology company and have invented a novel way of making systems deliver documentation to devices, so that if someone revises a document, only the changes to the document are delivered, rather than the whole document. It was quite a complex nut to crack and we have cracked it. The beauty of it is it gives us a clear differential to other providers and for users is extremely responsive and fast, and people enjoy using them. We have created a world beating technology.
- What has been the impact of the pandemic on your business and how have you dealt with this?
The pandemic has been devastating for our client base, but we produce technology that actually saves airlines money because it makes it cheaper for them to manage documents. Before Covid hit, our product was a hard sell because airlines didn’t really need to reduce their costs, but the pandemic has made them focus on cutting costs and so we have taken on several new clients and also expanded into a new market of engineering documentation, which we had been trying to do for a long time.
- What do you wish you had known from the start about setting up and growing a business?
People underestimate the level of complete commitment that you have to have if you start your own business. You have to put everything into it to make it successful. The levels of stress - and elation – can be overwhelming.
- What has been your biggest mistake?
My mistakes have always been around trusting people too much. For example I am not hard enough when it comes to dealing with my sales team. Sales people will always tell you that things are ok, even when they are not, and I always end up trusting them because it is easier to do that than having to let people go.
- What has been the secret of your success so far?
When we show people our product, we never exaggerate what it can do; we always tell the truth and tell it as it is. That has stood us in really good stead because then people trust us.
- What advice would you give an entrepreneur just starting out about how to grow their business?
Get a really good mentor. If you can find yourself somebody who has done it before, who is genuine and keen to help, it is massively invaluable.
- What personal quality or characteristic has been most useful to you as an entrepreneur as you grow your business?