Sara Murray, founder of GPS tracking device company Buddi, received an OBE in the Queen's birthday honours list for services to entrepreneurship and innovation. Here she talks about the challenges of bidding for a Ministry of Justice contract, how the government could keep talent in Britain and her dream of global growth
Sara Murray was only six years old when she landed her first job. Perhaps it was a sign of things to come for the serial entrepreneur, who had applied for a paper round at her village shop and was outraged when the owner chose her 10-year-old brother
"I kicked up a huge fuss," she recalls. "We both had bikes and I was equally hardworking. I thought it was ridiculous that my brother should be chosen over me.
"The shopkeeper calmed me down by saying I could stay and help him out while my brother did the paper round. He let me sort out the magazines and tidy the shelves, and I stayed all day. He asked if I could come back the following day and I ended up working there for five years. I was too young to understand what having a business meant at that point but during that time I developed a really good work ethic."
The reason Murray went into business after university, she says, is due to her mother. "She mistakenly told me that if I had my own company I would have more time to spend with my family and children. She'd never owned a business so didn't realise that this is the complete opposite of the truth."
Murray, founder and managing director of GPS tracking device company Buddi, has launched a string of businesses including Inspop, the insurance comparison website (later renamed Confused.com) that she sold to Admiral Group in 2001. In 2005, she set up Buddi, which has an annual turnover of over £4m.
The idea for Buddi, says Murray, was born out of a personal experience. "When my daughter was little Ilost her in a supermarket and it got me wondering why there wasn't a product to give to people so you can find out where they are," she explains. "I began looking at the growth markets in the US and discovered a company that had developed a tracking device, however it wasn't on sale and it only worked in the US so I decided to get one made myself."
The idea, she says, was simple – just make a device small enough for a child to carry. However, it took two years working with engineers and £200,000 of her own money to develop the technology. "The device was ready for market by 2007 but I had to devote about five years of my life to the venture before I earned a penny."
The success of the GPS tracking device in the security and health sectors has been huge – 20 of the 43 police forces in England and Wales now use the technology to track offenders who have been released back into the community while more than 200 councils across the UK are using it to help dementia patients and the elderly, who wear the device voluntarily.
But according to Murray it is the company's most recent endeavour – a bid for a large and lucrative Ministry of Justice (MoJ) contract – that will help propel the business forward globally.
"We're bidding to replace the curfew tags that are used nationally for offenders being rehabilitated into the community," she says. "The ones that are currently used can't actually track where the individual is when they aren't at home but our device maps out the person's movement against crime to prove they aren't offending. It tells you exactly where they are.
"The great thing about this bid is that if it hadn't been for Buddi it would have been a case of competing bids from FTSE-100 companies. Luckily the government supports SMEs being given a chance at government procurement and encouraged the MoJ to allow us to bid. So it was split up into four parts, which means we've got the chance to bid for different elements of the contract. We're bidding for two – the software and the tags that go round the ankle.
"If we win it'll be hugely significant because it will show other SMEs that smaller businesses have a chance of winning large government contracts. It's important not only because the UK government is a huge customer but because it will show governments in other countries, who are looking at technology globally, that marketleading British technology exists."
Despite her evident excitement Murray admits there have been hurdles. "There are lots of things that are making this bidding process difficult for us. For these big contracts it's about having the quality processes, the logistics and testing procedures in place. It's expected of you. As a small SME with only 35 staff we don't have enough people to do that. We've had to build everything in the hope of winning the contract, which is a dangerous game, but we believe we're well placed to do that so we've taken the risk."
But, she says, the recent investment in the business from Odey Asset Management – the £4.4bn hedge fund run by Crispin Odey – has given Buddi the financial backing the company needs to deliver its bid to the ministry. "If the MoJ are going to give us this contract they need to know that we can finance it, which is funny because they are the ones with the solid balance sheets and should be able to pay us on time. But in the absence of them wanting to do that we need to have financial support, and now we have that in Odey."
Murray, who sits on the government's Technology Strategy Board, Seedcamp – an early-stage mentoringand investment programme for start-ups – and business secretary Vince Cable's Entrepreneurs' Forum, says that her team shares the company vision.
"I've got a carrot-and-stick approach to motivating my team but everyone believes in what we're doing, which is really important. And everyone feels that we have a high chance of winning the MoJ bid."
So what's her leadership style? "I tend to delegate, which is quite unusual for an entrepreneur as most of us are very OCD. But you have to be able to let people who are better than you do the things that they are good at. That's something my mentor told me 15 years ago."
And Murray admits that her mentor of 15 years – John Kay, founding director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies – has been invaluable. But, she says, he thinks that she should now be working out the problems for herself.
"I met John on a plane in 1997 and we started chatting about business and after that we would regularly meet up for lunch and I would talk to him about any difficult decisions I needed to make. He would never tell me the answer. Instead he would give me an example of a similar case that had happened to a different company in the past and it would help me work out the likely outcome for my business. It's useful to have someone objective to bounce ideas off.
"There are so many strategic decisions you have to make in business and it's like Robert Frost's poem The Road Not Taken – there are two paths and you'll never know what the answer will be but as long as the path you take isn't completely stupid you'll be OK."
Murray, who doesn't mentor anyone officially, says many people ask her on an ongoing basis for business advice and guidance. "If someone asks me I will try to help them. Even though I have less time for it these days, I try my best. And certainly within my own team I will always find time for people."
When I congratulate Murray on her OBE, she says modestly that the award came out of the blue. She was honoured in June for her services to entrepreneurship and innovation. "I honestly had no inkling it was coming and I am utterly flattered. The great thing is I have been recognised for my entrepreneurship and innovation, it's not for the charitable stuff I've done.
"Chief executives and large corporations seem to get these things as standard but entrepreneurs – the people who grow the economy – don't. They have to do a lot of charity work before they are recognised.
"For example, Charles Dunstone, co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, recently received a knighthood partly for his business endeavours and partly for services to charity. I think he should have received the honour simply for launching Carphone Warehouse, which provides an income for thousands of people and has undoubtedly helped grow the economy. I was glad mine was just for the delivery of technology and innovation."
So does Murray, like so many others, agree that there is a lack of technology and engineering skills in the UK?
"No I don't. We've got the skills in this country. The problem isn't the lack of talent it's that all the bright young things disappear to Silicon Valley, and why wouldn't they? If you're a user interface designer and you can get a $20m (£13m) package from Facebook why would you work for a company in Cambridge?"
But what's the solution? "I came up with an idea and suggested it to government but it hasn't been taken up yet. It was an idea for a government scheme to fund young companies. These businesses would be given a chunk of money upfront but in return would have to remain in the UK for three years.
"A lot of successful companies move to Silicon Valley between the 18- and 24-month point because that's when they need the next round of funding. But if you manage to retain a company in the UK for three years the business will have started to put down roots. It will have built up a team of people with homes and families in Britain, and it will be harder for them to move."
Murray has big plans to grow Buddi globally. The company has recently won a share of a £360,000 Design Council grant to develop a new GPS tracking wristband with designer Sebastian Conran, and has struck a deal with a major US technology company that will help take the brand global.
"We'll be launching the device in western Europe and North America," says Murray. "It's a wristband for the elderly that uses similar technology to the one we've already developed but you can wear it all the time and it'll be a lot more comfortable than the current device. We'll produce it in multicolours and it will be available in the shops later this year."
With the MoJ contract and the launch of the wristband does Murray ever have a moment to reflect?
"This year I'm just having to work, work, work. I've got two very big tasks on my plate at the moment and I'm aiming to take the company to the £100m point and after that I'll worry about the next stage.
"A few weekends ago my team and I spent the whole weekend working night and day. We went to bed at 7am and got up at 8am to carry on writing the MoJ bid, which means I don't have a chance to relax at the moment."
But on the rare occasion that Murray gets a moment to herself she doesn't put her feet up – that doesn't appear to be in her nature. "I fly helicopters in my spare time. I got my licence two years ago after having a couple of lessons and finding I really enjoyed it. And now every chance I get I dash off to do that – it's really cool."