This week, hot on the heels of the 20th anniversary edition of the FastTrack 100, a league table of the UK’s top-performing private companies, which is published every year in a Sunday Times supplement, Virgin Media Business identified its 10 most “disruptive” businesses from Fast Track’s list.
The list contains few surprises for avid start-up watchers, although Virgin’s reasons for choosing the companies in question displays sound judgment.
The criteria for being amongst the “Virgin Media Business Disruptor 10” include being a company that is “creating new markets”, “making significant waves in existing markets”, “being driven by their innovative thinking”, “investing in technology”, and “finding new solutions to old problems.”
In addition, Peter Kelly, Managing Director of Virgin Media Business, which “helps large enterprises innovate, evolve and keep pace with the disruption that they face in their industry by architecting, installing, and managing high-performance digital platforms and solutions”, commented that:
“these disruptors are re-writing the business rule book – at the core of the disruptive forces in all these businesses are digital innovation and technology platforms. Their success shows how digital has progressed in just one generation and is now the backbone of successful companies who are taking market share away from companies who are less digitally focused.”
Kelly also points out that “most of our 10 have gained an edge over larger companies by using the crowd to attract customers, develop new products or secure funding, and primarily rely on social media and word-of-mouth recommendations to help them gain traction in new markets.”
These are admirable start-up qualities indeed; pretty much essential for any start-up that is struggling to attract the attention of a VC firm or large corporate incubator / accelerator to inject funds and introduce founders to a new network of contacts. It’s fair to say, however, that none of the below are exactly struggling for funds or big-name founders.
Who Made The List?
Despite Virgin’s focus on the digitally disruptive side of the businesses it has named amongst the ten, it is refreshing to see that Brewdog, the unashamedly hipster craft beer maker that has raised more than £30m from more than 53,000 equity investors, or “punks” as the company likes to refer to them, makes the list.
Brewdog, based in Aberdeen and founded in 2007 by James Watt and Martin Dickie when they were both 24 years old, now sells its beer in more than 60 countries and has navigated the revolution in craft beer production and sales that has occurred in the UK, and more recently, across the world, as well as any firm, disruptive or otherwise.
Blockchain is perhaps the most topical selection on Virgin’s list – the Bitcoin wallet provider already hosts 10m bitcoin accounts and is responsible for approximately 50% of the digital currency’s global transactions, says Virgin. Blockchain, “the world’s most popular digital wallet”, secured £25m of financing in 2014, from 9 investors, including Lightspeed Venture Partners, Mosaic Ventures, and Richard Branson himself; at the time, it was the largest ever fundraising for a digital currency. Blockchain was founded in 2011 by Nicolas Cary and Ben Reeves, and is headquartered in Luxembourg.
AlphaSights, a platform which connects experienced subject-matter-experts with companies that require specialist knowledge, disrupting the consultancy industry in the process, is one of the more unfamiliar names on the list, alongside Ecotricity, a company that describes itself as “the world’s first green energy company”, with an “electric highway” of more than 300 charging points across the UK, housed at service stations, that it claims is the largest in Europe.
Alphasights has completed just one round of funding, back in 2008, but has scaled successfully and now has offices in New York, Dubai, and Hong Kong as well as in London, working alongside “the world’s leading private equity firms, hedge funds, strategy consultancies, and corporations”, who “turn to us when they need to navigate unfamiliar markets or evaluate new commercial opportunities”, says their Crunchbase profile.
Ecotricity raised $43m in a Venture round completed in 2007 and are based in Gloucestershire – Dale Vince is the founder – the company prides itself on its ethical pricing, customer service, and “Britain’s Greenest energy”.
Notonthehighstreet.com, PureGym and Made.com represent the shopping and leisure markets – Notonthehighstreet has completed 5 rounds of funding since it was founded by Holly Tucker MBE and Sophie Cornish MBE back in 2007, the most recent being in August this year – a $27.65m Series E led by Hubert Burda media, bringing total funding to $68.09m. The company hope to challenge the likes of Etsy and Amazon by selling alternative, hand-made goods from independent suppliers through its curated online marketplace.
Made.com are a similar style company with a well-known entrepreneurial founder, Brett Hoberman, and $73m in VC fundraising in the bank. The firm’s website puts consumers in direct contact with designers, cutting out the middleman and allowing for made-to-order products to be built and sold to consumers for lower prices. The company shot to prominence when it was first launched in 2010, displaying genuinely disruptive credentials ahead of their time (Tech City itself was only launched in 2010), and remains ahead of the game 6 years later.
PureGym offers contract free membership to more than 800,000 customers, which has enabled it to take a 37% share of the value gym sector despite only being launched 8 years ago. The company operates a low cost, no frills model which appeals to austerity-struck consumers, running 170 gyms across the UK – PureGym completed the UK’s first post-Brexit stock market float in September, giving the company a valuation of over £500 million.
It Wouldn’t be a Disruptive Top 10 Without Fintech!
And finally, 2 Fintech and one Crowdfunding site complete the list. Transferwise, another Richard Branson-backed company to find its way onto the list, is the runaway London Fintech success story, founded by 2 charismatic Estonians, Taavet Hinrickius and Kristo Kaarmann.
Tranferwise, perhaps more than any other company on the list (although Brewdog must run its close) is a Virgin-style company, differentiating itself through the media as a supporter of the little guy, battling the nasty, money grabbing banks who refuse to give you a good deal on your overseas transfers. The strategy has worked a treat, although winning more than $116m of investment across 6 rounds of funding has also helped. Although Transferwise experienced a tougher than expected 2016, facing accusations that it was not making a profit or that it was failing to sign up new customers or justify its hype, the company remains one of London’s most celebrated start-ups – it would be a tragedy for the start-up scene in the UK if Transferwise were to divert its operations to another country or city, such as Berlin.
Crowdcube was responsible for more than 10% of all the equity fundraising completed through crowdsourcing platforms in the first half of this year, helping start-up of the moment, challenger bank Monzo, complete its round of £1m, from 1,800 investors in just 96 seconds.
Hype aside, Crowdcube, founded by Darren Westlake and Luke Lang, and headquartered in Devon, are at the forefront of a vanguard of crowdfunders, including Syndicate Room, Seedrs, and Funding Circle, battling to bring crowdfunding into the big time. Crowdcube, backed by Balderton Capital, will have to answer tough questions about some high-profile failures that have lost investors’ money, but get it right and this site could just as easily grow exponentially.
Finally, LendInvest, the online financing platform “is reinventing the £1.3 trillion mortgage market by cutting completion time to just 7 days, taking a 10% share of the short-term mortgage market in the UK in the process”, says Virgin. LendInvest, founded by Christian Faes and Ian Thomas, bagged a $24m Series B round in March this year, from Atomico, the VC fund run by Skype founder Nikolas Zennstrom.
Not Bad, But Not Quite Snapchat Either!
It’s hard to argue that any of the above companies do not deserve their place on the list, although it’s also interesting to note that most have been in existence for more than 5 years, and have taken in significant funding.
Perhaps this isn’t surprising, given Virgin Media Business is a company that is focused on protecting SME companies from even younger disruptive companies and trends. Hopefully, and surely, this is more of a virtuous, than a vicious circle.
There’s no doubt that these 10 companies represent some of Britain’s most promising “scale-ups”, companies that have made it out of the start-up vipers’ nest and into the public consciousness, even if they have not, with the exception of PureGym, gone public themselves.
To put things into some kind of global perspective, however, when it comes to tech start-ups – Snapchat, (heard of it?), an American app that allows you to share funny pictures with your friends for just a few seconds, founded in 2011, after all of the above companies, plans to raise $4 billion dollars in an upcoming IPO, and was valued after its latest funding round in May at $15 billion.
In the start-up world, very little is equal. Secret sauce is all very well, but more than not, its who you know that counts.