Sitting on the terrace of his dream house in the south of France, staring peacefully out towards the surrounding hills, with his wife by his side and the fruits of a decade’s hard work in the bank, Gordon McAlpine could easily have called time on his working life by the tender age of 40.
He and his partner, Stephen Thompson, sold their highly successful tech start-up, BigHand, in 2006. But after building a business turning over £7.5m a year from humble beginnings in the living room of a flat in London’s Docklands (and without a penny loaned from the bank), his entrepreneurial spirit was always destined to drag him back into a new project.
Gordon founded The Sales Club in 2009, bringing together busy, under-pressure sales leaders to learn, share, network and generate ideas with their peers. The club, which is described as ‘the centre of excellence for sales leaders’, does not offer sales training or consultancy, but is a cross-sector networking club hosting events and laying on top speakers from the business world and beyond.
In the current business environment, this focus on developing people and encouraging fresh thinking couldn’t be more important. Amid increasing competition, all companies must seek differentiation and provide greater value in the way they interact with clients and customers. Products and features are soon copied or improved upon by competitors. So, to develop value that can’t be replicated, companies must develop skills and capabilities in terms of how they interact with customers. Any business that can offer help with that is worth listening to.
“I was the Sales Director at BigHand in a small, successful, entrepreneurial company, and sales is the engine room of a business,” says Gordon. “I was constantly thinking, ‘How can we get better at what we do?’ I spent my whole life thinking that, and in the meantime I was juggling selling, managing and strategy. I was sending these sales guys out thinking, ‘How do I know how good they are in client meetings? How good are they at closing? How good are they at their telesales work?’
“All the ideas for bringing new things into the business were mine. I was the vehicle and it completely exhausted me. I started searching the internet for ‘Sales Club’ and ‘Sales Forum’ because I didn’t want to get a training company or a consultant to tell me what to do. I felt like I wanted to join something to come back from that club with ideas, feeling re-energised and motivated from speaking to peers with similar issues.
“I was sitting on this terrace in France and all this creative stuff started coming out again. I thought, ‘We could go to people’s businesses and see what they do. We could put on inspirational speakers. We could bring top speakers from America to talk about the latest tools and techniques.’ I thought that surely if I launch it, and get behind it, then it’s going to be successful.”
And with his track record he could rightfully be confident. After completing a master’s degree in marketing, Gordon started out at pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca in a sales role.
“They said I must learn how to sell before I could understand marketing,” he says. “So, with a heavy heart I agreed to become a sales person. I never thought I could sell anything to anyone – ‘The Accidental Salesman’ if you will. They started me in a territory in Edinburgh known as the reps’ graveyard.”
Struggling to get his foot in the door, he showed his sales cunning with a new tactic. He took delivery of 300 unwanted lamps from his head office and started delivering them to surgeries to get himself in front of doctors.
“It sounds childish, but it worked. I found an entrepreneurial way of breaking down the barriers,” he laughs. “To cut a long story short, I got right up there in terms of performance, and eventually I got promoted to my dream job, Head Office Marketing Executive. But after two years I decided I had to set up my own business.”
That business was BigHand, which he established with Steve, a friend of his brother. They started out re-selling speech recognition software.
“We had our life savings, which totalled about £25,000 between the two of us, and we vowed never to borrow money and to be an organic success story. We put pressure on ourselves. If we were struggling we had to go out and make more sales, more revenue, more profit and take people on. To some people it might seem like a very old-fashioned model, but it worked for us.”
Photos by Anthony Upton.
Gordon recounts how he sold the software to Downing Street after an eye-catching demonstration for Tony Blair’s wife, Cherie, at a lawyers’ conference.
“I called up Downing Street the day after the conference and said that we’d met Cherie and wanted to come in and talk to her as she seemed to like our product. The IT Director said that he wasn’t interested and put the phone down. The call had sickened me, so I put the card away, but about three months later, I decided to call again, because you don’t give up in sales. ‘No’ is when the selling begins.”
Gordon and his team were then invited in to do a demonstration and Cherie herself agreed to take part in a pilot scheme for the software. “I was punching under the table. It was brilliant,” says Gordon.
The breakthrough came for BigHand when they developed their own digital dictation product and sold it to major law firms. “Suddenly, I knew we were going to be successful,” says Gordon. “But it was a question of how we did it. So from that day on, I worked on building the sales and marketing team to sell that product throughout the UK legal market, and then to go global, which we ended up doing.”
He finally sold the business in 2006 in a management buyout. “Me and Steve felt like we’d done our job. We’d got to a company of 50 people, and we’d turned over £7.5 million with a profit of £2.5 million, so we were ultra profitable with £3 million cash in the bank.
“We were sitting there in ripped jeans looking scruffy, both living in rented accommodation. We were classic entrepreneurs who had thrown the kitchen sink at it. We felt we owed it to ourselves and to our families to crystallise a bit of the hard work. We felt that it was time to get out and leave it to the management team, and move on to a different era.”
Today, Gordon is back in charge of a burgeoning business with The Sales Club now boasting 70 members (including Equiniti) ranging in size from British Airways, American Express, Audi, Toshiba and Eurostar to a host of SMEs.
Gordon says: “One of my visions was that if you put some big companies in there, they will bring best practice and some really great systems, controls and processes. And if you put in some fast-growth entrepreneurial companies, they will add some sharper operating practices.
“We’re mixing it all up, and that’s one of the big advantages. Speaking to the Sales Director of British Airways or American Express is quite aspirational if you’re in a small company. The guys at the top are quite happy to talk to fast-growth SMEs if they think there’s a good conversation to be had. It’s totally cross-sector, because one of my beliefs is that too many sales departments are too blinkered to their own field. This allows people to get their heads up, look outward, and learn from the club. You cannot Google the stuff in The Sales Club.”
David Beresford, Group Strategy Director for Equiniti, says: “The companies that are going to be successful in the future are those that have the best client interactors. The Sales Club is about building sales capability to go out and have these great client interactions and build competitive advantage.
“Clients are under enormous pressure for time. They want people who’ve got new ideas, and access to those ideas, or to people who can help them think about their business in a different way. One of the great advantages of the club is that you can practically apply the thinking that comes out of the sessions the very next day when you go and see people.
“We all have similar challenges. We need to grow revenue and profit, get in to new markets and launch new products. We need to sell more to current clients and win new clients. The club sets up buddy relationships between people with similar issues. It doesn’t matter if it’s cars or travel you’re selling, whether it’s software you’re developing or whether it’s business process services.”
Gordon says his experience on Secret Millionaire, where he donated tens of thousands of pounds to charities, showed him that making a difference is the most important thing for him.
“I need to do things that are meaningful in life. I guess in terms of business, The Sales Club is a very meaningful business, because we’re doing things to try and help organisations and people. But I’d love to be able to give more money back over time as well. I’d love to be philanthropic for years to come. If I can make this business successful, I’d love to go back to Govan and give them another £50,000 each.”
The Secret Millionaire
In the sales club pipeline
The Sales Club’s next event is a day at Jaguar Land Rover in July. Experts will share the performance strategies and best practices behind the company’s impressive sales growth. The club has also recently launched a category called ‘Rising Stars’ for sales managers managing small teams, and is growing its searchable database of articles and content for members.
Visit www.thesalesclub.co.uk for more information.
All images credited to Anthony Upton.