Alistair Houghton speaks to CHARLES SHARLAND, co-founder and chairman of Warrington technology firm AppSense
IT’S good to see a ray of light bursting through the dark economic stormclouds.
Charles Sharland, founder and chairman of software developer AppSense, is unashamedly positive about his firm’s prospects.
That’s not surprising, given the Warrington firm’s recent results. In the year to June 30, it reported sales of $71m – up 54% on the previous year.
They are truly global sales figures – half of AppSense’s revenues now come from the US.
Sharland’s optimism is backed up by cold hard cash from Goldman Sachs, who pumped $70m into the business in February.
And Sharland’s role in AppSense’s success was recognised in June when he was named Ernst & Young’s Entrepreneur of the Year for the North and Midlands.
AppSense’s corporate literature at first seems like a bewildering swirl of jargon – “The AppSense User Virtualisation Platform enables enterprises to transform their desktop estate” is one example.
But it becomes simpler as Sharland explains that it’s all about making life easier for employees and their IT departments.
AppSense’s software means companies can ensure that their employees can access their IT systems from any device from desktop PCs to laptops and smartphones. Wherever they are, people whose employers user AppSense technology should be able to access the same software and resources that they can at their desk.
The jargon may be dense on paper but, on the telephone, Sharland’s vision is clear.
“We do genuinely have exceptional technology and exceptional opportunity,” he said.
“We have the infrastructure in place that will enable us to grow. We have a market that’s massively open to us, that’s worth $2.4bn a year.
“We’ve got great talent. We’ve got leadership in technology.
“I truly believe that we will be a major player, full stop.”
AppSense sells to large businesses in the finance, telecommunications and healthcare sectors. Its customers include United Airlines and JP Morgan Chase, while it works closely with software giants including Microsoft and Cisco.
Unsurprisingly, Sharland is particularly proud of AppSense’s success in the US.
He said: “The number of UK tech companies that have made it in the States is terribly limited – it’s a small handful.
“We’ve broken that barrier first and foremost because we’ve got an excellent commercial proposition and we have leadership in technology we’ve developed that is relevant to large global organisations. “They’re running software across their global estates across all sites.”
Keen motorcyclist Sharland hails from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.
His first job after leaving college was at a recruitment agency, but after 18 months he switched sectors.
“I noticed that, if you were in IT, you earned twice as much as if you were selling other stuff,” he said. “So I moved to selling IT.”
He moved to Sun Microsystems and then to HP. But, in 1991, after 10 years working for software giants, he decided it was time to start his own business.
Sharland set up internet security specialist Vistorm, which, after a decade, became a $50m-turnover business with hundreds of staff around the world.
In 2008, that business was sold to Texan giant EDS. Today, it forms HP’s information security division.
But by then, Sharland had already moved on. In 2003, AppSense was spun out of Vistorm to develop technology Vistorm had created.
Sharland, who at first led a team of just 20 staff, said: “To me, Nirvana in the technical sense is to own your own software and own your own intellectual property.”
AppSense’s growth, says Sharland, was not down to a handful of big wins, but was instead due to a steady stream of contract wins with some of the biggest players in the IT world.
“There was always an absolute belief that we had the right people and the right technology to make something very special,” he said.
“I’ve always employed people who have an element of magic – people who are competitive and ambitious. We employ people who want to win – who expect to win.
“We’ve been smart at ensuring that we focus our resources towards our customers to ensure we provide a level of support that delights our customers.”
Sharland sees Goldman Sachs’s decision to take a stake in AppSense as an endorsement of the company’s strategy.
“Goldman Sachs came here in February,” said Sharland. “So far, they’ve been exemplary partners.”
AppSense’s rapid growth has come despite turbulent economic conditions. But Sharland is convinced that growth will continue as the company’s technology goes mainstream and is adopted by more large and medium enterprises.
He said: “First and foremost, we’ve got something that saves people money. We’ve got the right answer at a time when people are looking to upgrade their infrastructure and save costs.
“But also, we’ve been very smart when it comes to selling. We’re a smart commercial organisation.
Today, the group employs some 380 people, with 200 in Warrington, 100 in the States and 80 around the world. Its main US base is in New York, though it also has an office in Silicon Valley – the area Sharland calls “the technology capital of the world”.
He added: “It’s worth noting that our primary business is here in Warrington. That will not change.”
That Warrington workforce includes 100 developers, testers and researchers, with some 40 salespeople and a team of admin staff keeping AppSense running.
As AppSense keeps growing, it will offer more job opportunities for North West software developers.
Sharland said: “If you’re a developer and want to work on the best and most interesting technology projects in the North West, we are unmatched in terms of providing smart developers with an exciting environment. We’re a significant player that’s growing.
“We’re desperate to find more and more people. We’re investing more and more in research here.
“We have an opportunity to become one of the most successful software companies of the decade.
“We’ve invested heavily in the team. For example, Harry Labana, who was chief technology officer at Citrix – an $11bn company – is now our chief technology officer.
“The development engine will always be headquartered here at Warrington. I would suggest in time that the 100 people employed here will dramatically increase.
“Genuinely, AppSense in Warrington has the potential to be a global technology leader.”
Outside work, Wilmslow-based Sharland spends time with his four children and, when he can, rides his Triumph Rocket motorcycle.
He may be proud about the company’s success, but he is modest when quizzed about the Ernst & Young award he received in June.
“I think that was predominantly down to the success of the company, rather than just myself,” he said.
“It’s an endorsement of the people who work here.”