It takes a particular type of entrepreneur to build a business and remain after a £40m acquisition, but then 28-year-old Alistair Crane readily describes himself as tenacious. Thirteen months ago he sold the four-year-old mobile app design business Grapple to £95.1m turnover, AIM-listed mobile payments firm Monitise.
A former advertising executive, it was while working in agency sales at now-defunct mobile network Blyk and digital mapping provider Navteq that Crane was exposed to the mobile technology scene.
“People raising $10m to $30m (£6.2m to £18.5m) for a business that had barely even started trading – for a 20-year-old that was hugely appealing,” he says.
Frustrated at Navteq owner Nokia’s reluctance to develop apps, Crane struck out alone in 2009, raising money from friends, family and angel investors, including serial investor Jamie True.
Grapple proceeded to woo multinationals including BSkyB, Procter & Gamble and Whitbread with Crane’s promise of “building mobile technology that would make them money rather than being marketing-led”. Yet rapid growth brought cashflow problems for Crane.
“Very exciting long-term but in the short term you’re thinking ‘how are we going to fund all this growth?’ when you’re not on unlimited VC money… My shareholders always knew we were going into a super-hot, highly contested space, and you were going to do one of two things: sell or go bust. It’s unlikely you go from zero existence to global dominance in a space with such enormous players,” he reflects.
It was an approach by Alastair Lukies, founder and chief executive of Monitise that convinced Crane it was time to sell – even if the name change to Monitise Create tugged on the heartstrings.
“We were doing good work in financial services but the solid foundation that Monitise has along with our innovation smarts would put us in a different league to everybody else. We were no longer just an agency and Monitise was no longer just a tech company – it was a combination of the two.
It allowed us to fight on a lot of new fronts and win a load of new business that neither of us had had access to previously.”
So what stopped him banking his share of the cash and starting afresh? “No other plc was going to let me sit at anything close to the top table at my stage of life and experience. It’s only ego that tells you to go and do your own thing again and be the chief executive,” he admits.
Crane has relocated to California to oversee global content including opportunities arising from the June purchase of Markco Media, the company behind MyVoucherCodes.co.uk. Crane wants to feed retail offers to banking clients’ apps – using the banks’ “phenomenal” big data to offer new homeowners, for example, tailor-made home improvement loans to be spent at partner DIY stores at the touch of a button.
“All of the new stuff we’re inventing, I won’t have done my job properly if it doesn’t become the business as usual,” Crane says. Experience suggests he’s unlikely to be proved wrong.
Who? My dad, Ray, for giving me a business background. Aged 11, I sold my first advert to a Chinese cargo company for his B2B publishing business. It led to a full-time job with the Daily Express classified desk at age 16.
Which media? You’d be amazed at how much you can draw from New Scientist magazine when thinking about technology and new approaches to the company.
Favourite place The Hermitage [B&B] on the Isle of Wight – there’s no mobile signal and when the fog comes in it’s just you and your thoughts. Or Grizzly Peak in California (above right) for the stunning scenery.
Favourite brand I think it’s really important for a man in business to have great shoes, so it has to be Herring Shoes for quality, well-designed, great English heritage.
Social media I like the app ‘Sup’, a mix of Snapchat and Wassapp that allows for 10-second live video connections. How they’ll make money out of it, I have no idea.
I can’t live without… My tennis racket. Playing tennis twice a week keeps me sane.
Influential figure I read books about [Sir] Winston Churchill and listen to his speeches.