Norfolk Network stories

Driven to disrupt

Shaun Lowthorpe
Content Connective

When Adrian Melrose tells the story of his business journey one thing becomes very clear – here is a serial tech entrepreneur, a man who can’t help but set up a new venture, and who seems driven to disrupt.

It has brought both successes – he sold his first business while in South Africa before moving to the UK – and failure too, by his own admission he has ‘euthanised’ businesses which weren’t working out.

“If you speak to anybody that’s worked with me over the last 25 years, they would describe me as a digital magpie,” he says.

To prove the point during a presentation to Norfolk Network members at the Ideas Factory, he reels off a list of ventures he has been involved with, and he is quick to spell out to the audience that being a digital disruptor is not a straight line to success, fame and fortune.

Instead, there is a lot of effort and uncertainty which brings its own rewards as well as financial success.

But the next big thing could be just around the corner with Inn Style, an online booking system for independent hoteliers, B&Bs and campsites.

Building the business has proved impossible at times, the market is complicated and fragmented, while online bookings are dominated by a couple of big players and small accommodation owners are prone to following the herd.

However, the venture, which secured £150,000 of funding through SyndicateRoom in 2015, has experienced impressive growth and last year exceeded £5m in bookings.

It is soon set to unveil a major partnership with an, as yet, undisclosed media partner.

“I’ve got some amazing investors on board, but it has been a difficult road,” he admits. “We haven’t built revenue nearly as quickly as we hoped. Every day there is a fork in the road. It all sounds deliberate but only now are the chess pieces starting to fall into place. If we can scale this thing and get there – it will be massive.”

So how did he do it the audience is keen to know?

“Growth hacking,” he said. “We made ourselves look bigger. We pitted people against one another, we bought people out of our competitors’ contracts.”

The answer is softly spoken, yet also frank, and hints at a steely resolve and determination.

“You have just got to live with the uncertainty,” he adds.

“I was pretty miserable because I wasn’t disrupting anything,”

His enterprises to date also appear to follow a similar philosophy which he sums up like this:

“It’s better creating something that makes money while you are sleeping than selling your time and creating value for others.”

So has he ever felt like giving up?

“So many times,” he admits, adding that though he might have ‘cracked it once in 2003’ replicating that first success has not been so straightforward, or “pants” as he puts it.

Because of those downs as well as ups, he once tried to quell his digital ambitions by herding pigs on a farm in Woodbridge, in a failed bid for a more straight forward business life.

But he ended up setting up Rosery Farm, a business selling sloe gin and rare breed free range pork.

And the draw of digital disruption once again proved too strong.

“I was pretty miserable because I wasn’t disrupting anything,” he notes.

His ambition to disrupt and set up businesses which cut out the middleman underlines a sense that there is also something of the outsider about him, too.

He was born in South Africa, but now lives and works in Suffolk. As a boy, he grew up playing the cello which by his own admission made him stand out in his homeland where playing rugby was the norm.

And he endured working as a chartered accountant – a career he was steered into by his father – until he got a taste for being an entrepreneur while at Deloitte where he worked with the likes of Nando’s founders Fernando Duarte and Robbie Brozin.

“What a privilege working with all these delusional entrepreneurs,” he says. “I had the privilege of seeing them warts and all and I really can’t thank them enough.”

“That’s where it started. After doing my own thing, I was unemployable. I woke up every day with a bright idea!”

During one slide, he quotes Tesla CEO Elon Musk whose love affair with digital technology began after spotting a computer in the corner of a store at the Sandton City mall in Johannesburg.

“Elon Musk and me share many things in common. We were both born in 1971 in Johannesburg South Africa. I know I was in that very same shop.”

Event photo: Joe Lenton Photography