For Leeds-based data analytics software developer Panintelligence, their experience of the pandemic started earlier and more dramatically than for most UK firms.
In the first week of March, co-founders Zandra Moore and Ken Miller were in the US for a week of meetings with new US partners, and to co-host a consular reception. The event was intended to officially mark the opening of their Boston office, following a Series A investment led by YFM Equity Partners, that completed in November 2019.
The outbreak was starting to become headline news as the pair headed from Boston to New York on an empty Amtrak train to join meetings with Amazon and the Department for International Trade on Tuesday 10 March. One by one, all their meetings were being cancelled and replaced by phone calls as the US locked down in just hours.
“It was eerie, and it happened so fast,” said CEO Zandra Moore. “When we landed at the weekend, the coronavirus news was mostly focused on a suburb of New York called New Rochelle, and by the time we were on a deserted rush-hour train to Penn Station, seeing a procession of emails land cancelling meetings, we knew it was becoming something really serious.”
A state of emergency was declared in Boston on 11 March and the pair decided, reluctantly, to cancel the event at the consul general’s Boston residence and fly home that night, just as President Trump announced a ban on European travel.
“We had been using our ‘Pi’ analytics and dashboard software product to model the WHO’s infection numbers that weekend and model scenarios, and the results were alarming,” said CTO Ken Miller.
“I’m something of a data and AI enthusiast, and I knew that what I was seeing was going to be horrific if it was really accurate. When we saw several days of our projected trajectory turning into news headlines, we decided to get back to our families and the team in the UK as fast as possible.”
Over the coming weeks, as Britain grappled with policy decisions, and eventually locked down on 23 March, the pair, along with their newly enlarged board including directors from YFM and Comhar Capital, had already been preparing the business and 40 staff for the difficult months ahead.
“When we chose our investment partners we did so on the basis that we believed they would be the partner to not only bring the financial resources we needed in order to scale and expand, but that they would also get to know us as a business, and would roll up their sleeves and help us if we needed it. Having people on the board who can bring the insight and experience that comes from having other investments facing similar challenges has proved to be invaluable.
“Yes, having the investment from the Series A in November was obviously helpful, but what we really needed was some extra experience and level heads to help us rapidly navigate this bizarre series of events.”
Mike Clarke, the investment director who leads the investment on behalf of YFM Equity Partners, had known the business for a little over nine months when the pandemic struck.
“We’re passionate about the businesses we support, and the close relationships we develop were particularly valuable during the early days of tough choices. We have over 40 investments across the portfolio, and shared experience and insights were being discussed within our team of 20 partners and directors that naturally accelerated the learning of our invested boards.”
YFM had made investment in a wider, deeper board a prerequisite of their own investment in Panintelligence, and experienced tech chair Howard Bell was appointed in December 2019 to help steer the business through a planned staged growth.
Zandra commented: “There’s no doubt that having Howard and our investors on board to consult and advise during a never-before-seen global crisis has been just as valuable as the funding we raised. We have got to know other YFM investments too, and compare notes, on a confidential basis.
“We have been able to maintain a focus on our longer term planning. It’s made a world of difference and, I suppose, timing is everything.
“Of course the board has helped us to think carefully about focusing resources and whether to conserve resources where sensible, and also to be very realistic about reforecasting in an unprecedented time. Throughout the process, YFM challenged but also listened to and supported us, believing in our commitment to the longer term and our knowledge of the business they backed.
“After re-budgeting lots of scenarios, we were supported to limit furloughing only to roles which saw an immediate impact, such as the events and face-to-face client handling teams, and we’ve already started bringing people back into the business. We had to set out clearly the areas we wanted to invest.
“We’ve been sensible about ensuring we have maximised assistance and grants where they applied to us, but that stage happened very rapidly, and, since then, we’ve been working on new projects, winning new business and reforecasting for the new 2020, rather than the one on paper from last November.
With increased digital engagement globally, our low code offering that gives us advantages in being used for post-COVID urgent projects to assist with pivots and safety measures, we’ve got some silver linings to the disruption we have all felt since March.
We’ve also been able to improve our remote working and pitching capability to future-proof the business if we see a second wave, and offer more opportunities when we scale so we’ve been supported in making the most of the forced lockdown period.
“These really difficult weeks, working long hours remotely, being distanced from key colleagues and missing the team environment we have really tried to cultivate, have been tougher than I could have imagined. But through all of this, Ken and I, as founders, have also been buoyed by the knowledge that we made the right decision about taking investment, and who we took it from.
“Our work to drive a culture that fosters creativity and ambition will help us recover from this with a team ethos that has made us proud. Our product’s agility and relevance and its agnostic sector use will enable us to quickly pivot our 2020 and 2021 plans to pick up the momentum we lost and take advantage of market opportunities in sectors such as grocery retailing and logistics that have benefited from these unforeseen events.”