Focused on starting his own business for as long as he can remember, Jim Hughes finally co-founded ‘IT as-a-service’ company, Innovate, at the grand old age of 25. Ten years in and rather than fine-tuning an exit strategy, his sights are firmly on growing the business and helping it to reach its full potential.
About Jim Hughes
Tell us about your educational background and early career
From a very young age I always wanted to start my own business, and would have quite happily done so after the Junior Cert. However, thankfully I was encouraged to stay at school and to study something related to business. I chose to do the BComm because it is a broad degree, and wasn’t too demanding from a time perspective, and it was beneficial from the perspective of building contacts in the business community. From that period, I always had one or two small business ventures on the go from which I was making money.
I realised that the IT sector was growing, and would therefore be a good sector in which to start a business. So I decided to pursue a career in the IT sector with a view to getting an understanding of the industry. After graduating, I Initially worked as an IT support engineer and software consultant in a large ICT services company. Subsequently, I worked as a lead e-commerce consultant and senior technical consultant, and ultimately as IT manager in one of Ireland’s largest environmental services companies.
But I was always more interested in the commercial aspects of the businesses.
What is the background to setting up Innovate?
In 2006, my entrepreneurial spirit came to the fore and I founded Innovate together with Enda Cahill, Innovate’s chief technical officer. I was 25 at that stage and I sometimes regret not doing it earlier, but I certainly felt ready to do it at that time. I often think if I had started the business earlier I would be further ahead than where I am now. However, the flip side of that is that you have to get some experience first.
Our vision in setting up the business was to provide differentiated value while delivering the highest levels of customer service, at all times focusing on attracting and retaining the best people in the industry. In 2012 we set up our communications business unit, VoiceGrid to provide integrated communication systems.
What does the company do?
Innovate's value proposition is ‘as-a-service’, meaning that we productise traditional ICT infrastructure and professional service investment into monthly operating expenditure, freeing up our customers’ capital and thereby allowing them to invest their funds into activities that are core to their mission. Uniquely, Innovate caters for all information and communications technology from the ‘desk-to-the-data centre’ and everything in between. This includes everything from the phone on our customer’s desk and network connectivity to onsite infrastructure, cloud and professional services.
What are your plans for the company going forward?
Our people and our customers have always been my two most important stakeholders. My plans for Innovate therefore will always be built on striving to make Innovate’s culture our competitive advantage. That culture is built on the premise that better people make a better Innovate, therefore Innovate must make our people better. Ingraining this into our culture means that we have always looked to be better today than we were yesterday. Through our culture my plan for the company is to deliver on our vision which is to become the market leader in transforming the consumption of technology to the cloud service model.
Meanwhile, from a technology perspective the ICT market is currently all about what is called SMAC – social, mobile, analytical and cloud – and we’ll be looking for opportunities in all of those areas.
We’ll also be expanding significantly. In the last two years, we’ve grown from 10 to 40 people and I think we can go to 80 in the next two years. And we have significant ambition to build a national and international brand.
I’m from Wexford, the company has its headquarters in Gorey, and I’ve always wanted to build a company of significance in the county, with a national and international focus. Glanbia has done it, and Kerry has done it, so there is no reason why we can’t do it.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I hope it’s inclusive. I look for everyone in Innovate to lead. I encourage everyone to improve every day so the person coming behind them has an improved experience of Innovate. I believe leaders teach, and leaders build leaders.
This involves seeking other people’s opinions and allowing them to run with initiatives. Obviously, the higher quality the person the more trust you have in their ability to make key decisions.
And importantly I believe that I lead through example.
What’s your philosophy in business and life?
Just do it. I think you need to go through the whole process in your own head so you’re not just shooting from the hip, but I think once you have evaluated the opportunity, just go and do it and then move on from that decision and never revisit it again. And definitely avoid revisiting poor decisions. Just move on and keep going.
Who or what are your greatest influences?
My wife Denise and my children. I think a lot of people get completely caught up in their business and their success in life is defined only by their business. I believe you can’t fail if you actually define your success within your own home.
My other great influence is Richard Branson. I have read all his books and have followed his career with great interest and admiration. I implement many of his ideas at Innovate.
What are your tips and advice for success?
Understand your ‘why’; surround yourself with great people, focus on making a difference and creating a collective legacy; and remain positive – always!
What have been your biggest successes and/or failures in business?
My biggest success has been my ability to continue to attract people into Innovate who are quite simply better than I am. While I have many failings and have failed many times, I don’t believe in failure. I believe in learning through experiences.
Do you have an exit strategy for the business?
Ultimately my ambition is to maximise the potential that’s within myself and the people in the organisation. If you’re continually reaching for that, I don’t think you’ll ever get there. And therefore, I don’t see an exit at any point on the horizon. I think you need to re-evaluate if you ever start thinking there’s not much left to do here. But I don’t see that happening. We haven’t built a business to exit.
What are your interests outside work?
I enjoy sport, reading and the performing arts – music, dance, and theatre.
As a company, we’re involved in several sponsorships and a lot of my time goes into attending various functions. So, even when I’m off from work I’m still on duty, because I’m talking and selling and continually promoting the business.
But I don’t believe in work-life balance and I don’t do time on and tim-off. I believe in integrating work and life as one. And that works really well for me. I do spend quality time with the family but I think – particularly in the modern world – that if you can find a love for what you do, you can integrate that into a position whereby you’re not in that struggle with on and off time.