Mobile app developer Coderus is every inch the Silicon Valley start-up, but it just happens to be based in Suffolk. HELEN COMPSON reports on an Ipswich company making waves in the America’s Cup.
Mark Thomas is the living embodiment of the age old irony, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’.
True, it was a brilliant stroke of luck – followed through with the gamble a big tech company was subsequently prepared to take on a tiny, unknown enterprise – that proved the making of his software company Coderus.
But it all grew out of Mark’s passion, dogged determination and Herculean work ethic. Sleep was never on the agenda!
He actually started the business, from a desk in his bedroom, 21 years ago. However, with a growing family to support, for the first decade it was very much the night job, taking second place to his role by day as a BT software engineer supporting the Open Reach broadband roll-out.
His big break – that turning point for Coderus – happened 20,000 feet above the Atlantic.
He was on his way to the annual Apple Worldwide Developers’ Conference in San Jose at the time.
“I’ve been just about every year for the past 21 years,” he said. “I think I’ve only missed one, and that was for the birth of one of my sons.
“I have always invested a lot in technology and training. Most employees, if their company won’t pay for them, they won’t go to a conference, but I did and just paid for myself.
“Friends would be going off on holiday to Spain and France, while I’d be using what money I had to go to San Jose each year.”
It paid off when, on one flight, he got talking to a fellow attendee, a senior executive from Bowers and Wilkins, manufacturer of some of the best speakers on the market.
“And the rest is history,” said Mark. “They were very interested in integrating our technology into their speakers.
“They needed mobile apps for their desktop software, so I started building some prototypes.”
Day in, day out, he would work until one or two o’clock in the morning, designing the seamless solutions called for.
All the while, the new house he and wife Alison had bought began to steadily fill with boxes of Bowers and Wilkins speakers.
Even ever-supportive Alison, who is both co-director and HR director for Coderus, has her limits.
Mark laughed. “I blame Kirstie Allsopp really for having me kicked out of my own house.
“She likes wielding a sledgehammer to knock through to create kitchen-diners and Ali said ‘we should do that’. So, off I went to get an office.”
One lunchbreak, he happened to walk through Adastral Park just as it was being opened by technology business incubator Innovation Martlesham and went in to take a look.
He re-emerged having taken an option on a three-man office, and so set about intercepting one Robin, a very experienced software developer preparing to retire. “Robin became my first employee,” said Mark. It was just the start.
Still working for BT, Mark went along to his own business during his lunchbreaks and then in the evenings, to check on his employees’ progress.
He said: “One of the hardest things about starting your own business is when to make that jump and let go of your steady income.
“BT agreed to cut my hours, so that I worked three days a week for them and two days for myself, but the demands for the Bowers and Wilkins contract became huge – I was working until three every morning and then getting up to go to the day job.”
There came a point when he had five people in the three-man office. He duly rented another one, but outgrew the space again … and again.
“Now we have four offices at Innovation Martlesham and 32 members of staff,” he said.
“We’ve had 40 per cent growth each year since and now, I’m glad to say, we’re turning a fair profit – Coderus is going from strength to strength.”
Four or five years ago, the company pulled off something of a coup when it started working with sailing ace Ben Ainslie and the British team competing for the America’s Cup.
Mark’s moment came when BT’s original partner in the enterprise let them down.
Coderus’s USP is being able to embed its software in mobile phones and portable devices so that they mesh seamlessly in the Internet of Things, and it stepped in to do just that for Ainslie and co.
“We do what we do better than anybody else,” said Mark. “The work we have done for both Bowers & Wilkins and Ben Ainslie’s team has centred on developing the highly reliable software needed.
“When Ainslie is racing around on that boat, he needs to know he is going to get the information he needs from the 160 or so sensors he has on board quickly and precisely.”
When Coderus was first asked to get involved, part way through the cycle of the 35th America’s Cup, the project was two months behind schedule. Mark and his team not only came up with the goods, but also delivered them on time.
Coderus was sharp invited back to continue pushing the bounds for the 36th, due to take place in March 2021.
“We have been working with them for four or five years now,” he said. “We are at the core of their design process – we have speeded up their data transmission process by 10 times.”
It is the finesse of the ultimate user experience that has won Coderus its clutch of headline clients.
Another one is French environmental services company Veolia. There, Coderus is improving the software support for a new water purification system.
The Coderus team were delighted the year they were shortlisted in the Business Growth category for the Mobile Industry Awards. It was recognition indeed that the company stands out from the crowd in terms of ambition, customer satisfaction and, well, just having that wow factor.
Mark said: “My passion is building great products and user experiences that enrich people’s lives.
“The technology has to be seamless and non-intrusive, but it also has to add value – it mustn’t be technology for technology’s sake.
“A product needs to be an improvement on what is already available, and we will move heaven and earth to make it as good as it can be.”
The company’s prime focus until now has been software development, but Coderus currently has two hardware products under development. “They are still under wraps while we apply for the patents,” he said.
So, watch this space!