Thirteen years ago, while working as an IT consultant in Nottingham secondary schools, Jonathan Valentine, chief executive of software company Impero, had an idea that would spawn a company that is forecast to turn over £7.5m in 2015
“The teacher struggled to get the attention of his pupils,” he recalls. “They were browsing the internet and playing games on the classroom computers. That night I went home and wrote a basic program, which gave the teacher a button to press to blank the kids’ screens and lock their keyboards.”
After adapting the program for 30 other schools, Valentine launched Impero in 2002, offering a friend and fellow programmer a 50 per cent share to help the product evolve.
“We didn’t know how to sell so we started selling through spammy emails and that worked well in the early days. Growth was steady and by 2007 we had 250 schools. We took on a reseller, gave them a 50 per cent margin – high, but it motivated them – and sales shot up.”
Three years later, the duo agreed to sell a third of the business to the former owner of the reselling firm. Decisions had to be agreed by all three.
“In hindsight I might have done things differently. Or at least sought proper legal representation,” he says.
Sales have doubled each year to £5m and staff numbers have climbed from 10 to 87.
The company’s main product is Education Pro, which combines network management, desktop management and digital classroom management. A third of UK secondary schools and 27 per cent of colleges are Impero customers and the products are available in 42 countries.
In May Valentine led a £10m management buyout but insisted that investors let him retain leadership. “I didn’t need help with the business, I needed help to stay in control… I thought ‘why should others dictate how I run my business when I’ve got it this far?’”
It has allowed him to retain a sense of fun that he encourages at the Loughborough head office. “I’m a serious guy but I like to have a laugh. I want to make sure everyone enjoys their time at work. If you can’t have a good laugh at work, you don’t want to come to work.”
Valentine interviews every prospective member of staff to assess their personality. “If the person running the company is the visionary, they need to be involved in every interview… Others can decide if they’re qualified for the job, you decide if they’re right for the business.
“We interviewed for a chief financial officer, and the investors were responsible for qualifying whether he was technically capable. I asked what he did in his spare time. I didn’t ask about finance because who am I to question them? They’re experts.”
Reporting to a board has taken some adapting to, though. “I wasn’t a fan initially. In the first few months I spent too much time working in the business, not on the business… I appointed a chairman who’s the opposite of me to bring my feet back on the ground.”
With headquarters moving to nearby Nottingham as part of an expansion drive, a US office opening and 50 new accounts a month, Valentine has reason to be upbeat about the future.
Who? If it wasn’t for my dad, David, a single parent who went back to university, I wouldn’t have been a programmer. As a child I copied programming code from his textbook to an Atari computer.
Media I like the movies. I don’t read that much. My favourite film is an inspirational film called Powder about a bullied albino boy who is empowered to focus on his abilities.
Favourite place Paradise Cove in Malibu. It’s very tranquil but only minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Social media I’m on everything. I use LinkedIn daily, I post philosophical sayings on Twitter, but I find Facebook pollution.
I can’t live without… The internet. You feel naked without it.
Product My HTC mobile phone. I’m very loyal to the brand.
Notable figure [Inventor] Nikola Tesla. Without him a lot would be missing in the world today, yet we hardly hear about him.
Favourite saying “I don’t believe people should learn from the success of others, they should learn from their failures and make their own success.”