Norfolk Network stories

The new new thing

Jane Chittenden
Format Words

James Duez, serial entrepreneur and tech investor, tells his story. He begins with a favourite quote from Robert  Heinlein, which we’ll paraphrase: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, design a building, write a sonnet, solve equations, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

That skillset captures the essence of what you need to succeed as an entrepreneur, James says. You’ve got to be multi-faceted and multi-talented, because you need a huge amount of momentum to get past the inertia of a start-up.

What inspired James to take up the entrepreneur/investor challenge in the first place? Was it his unusual childhood? His early years were spent overseas in exotic places: India, Hong Kong (and back to Norfolk from time to time) and then Angola – during the heat and chaos of a civil war, with tanks in the road and attempted coups an everyday memory.

Back in the relative calm of school in Norwich, he found an early aptitude for software engineering, something he’s excelled at ever since. While his friends were playing computer games, James was creating things on the computer instead; he says it was like an infinite bag of Lego. He loved computers, but loved science even more. His grand plan was to do an astrophysics degree, after A-levels in physics, chemistry, maths and biology. But fate intervened: he was seriously ill, requiring urgent major surgery, and couldn’t complete his A-level studies.

James Duez, serial entrepreneur and tech investor

The next stage was National Service, Norwich-style. Here in Norwich, he says, we have our statutory two years service at Norwich Union! This was James’s first proper job, as a programmer. After three to four years, he’d acquired a mortgage and a wife, with their first baby on the way: not the best time to leave the company and set up his own business…

But the gamble paid off. His business prospered. By the late 1990s James had a fairly large company (Simulus Multimedia) in Norwich’s King Street, producing training courses for the financial services sector. They had just one major client (a classic start-up risk) but they were that client’s key supplier. So they started to talk about merging the two companies. In fact, it was to be an acquisition: James joined the international board of Easy i Group in December 2000. Things were going very well.

Then 9/11 happened. “We’d just started the US business and four of our seven clients were in the World Trade Center. It was very nearly ‘game over’ for us, but not quite. That was a very tough six months, when we learned the hard way to manage cashflow.”

Quite suddenly their fortunes changed. Financial services companies had to be compliant with the newly introduced Patriot Act, which brought in huge volumes of business in a very short timeframe. They were back on track.

Easy i’s core product was James’s next landmark achievement: Learning Management System OCCAM, which provides compliance training for financial services staff. This has been enormously successful worldwide.

In 2005 the company was acquired by SAI Global, the Australian equivalent of the British Standards Institute. James stayed on until 2007, but the life of the entrepreneur/investor was becoming irresistible. He decided to move on.

The last few years have been packed with opportunities. He’s co-founded Validus, the pioneering insurance claims management portal, and now he’s involved in not one but four groundbreaking companies:

  • Proxama (next-generation digital marketing and loyalty schemes)
  • SportsQuest (a football/sports quiz app, so popular with the developers that they can’t stop playing with it)
  • Rainbird (capturing and sharing knowledge about artificial intelligence)
  • Optalysys (a spin-out from Cambridge: pioneering light-speed optical processors)

For James to invest, there are just seven criteria: there have to be great people running the company; it must be a disruptive business model that challenges the accepted ways of doing things; it’s subscription or annuity driven; the concept is easily scalable; it’s lean; the business is responsive to change – and it’s fun.

And how has he done so far as an angel investor? He knows that six out of ten angel investments fail; three out of ten might get your money back; and maybe one in ten will be a ‘wow’. But he knows how to spot that ‘wow’; in his current portfolio it looks as if every one’s a winner…