How a love of technology made Debra Charles a million

Debra Charles turned her love of gadgets and her business experience into a multi-million pound venture in Novacroft.


Technophile Debra Charles

Debra Charles (now 52) has always been "fascinated with technology and how it can make life better". From an early age she grew interested in the gadgets her parents liked to buy, and her first jobs were with the likes of Apple and Westinghouse. At Westinghouse sherose to a senior position, overseeingco-ordination of the firm's business activities in Europe.

However, while working there, she began to question whether she really wanted to work for a large organisation. The death of her parents in 1998 got her thinking about life's big questions and proved to be a tipping point.

Debra decided to go it alone and set up Novacroft a company dedicated to developing systems and technology that could help the public sector cut down on waste and increase transparency.A £90,000 inheritance from her parents got her started, but getting public-sector bodies, used to dealing with large conglomerates, to take her seriously was difficult to begin with. At the same time, the technology boom of the time meant that she struggled to convince skilled programmers to take a chance on her start-up. Despite these hurdles, she "never seriously considered going back to corporate life".

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

Instead, she simply worked harder.Her passion to "make things happen" sometimes had her working 48 hours straight without sleeping. This dedication paid off as her firm began to make rapid progress, securing a £300,000 contract with the Energy Saving Trust within eight months. This contract was large enough to enable Charles to expand her team and move to bigger premises, a change that she remembers with pride. It was something like skiing, she says: difficult and painful to get started, but hugely enjoyable once you've got the knack.

Her big breakthrough, however, came in 2002 when Novacroft won a contract with Transport for London (TfL).At the time, TfL had been facing severe criticism for the fact that it took it up to 48 days to process requests for its Oyster photocard scheme for concessionary users. Novacroft supervised a move from hardcopy to electronic applications, cutting out a large amount of waste. This allowed people to apply online and reduced processing times to as little as one working day.

Since then Novacroft has continued to prosper, concentrating mainly on the transport sector. It is also working with charities to use technologies to cut administration costs, which currently consume a large proportion of most charities' budgets. From a team of only six in its early days, Novacroft currently has around 200 employees and a turnover of around £7m. The main challenge for the company is to make sure its technology remains cutting-edge, which demands investment.

Charles has advice for those who wish to follow in her footsteps. First, keep it simple. "Simplification is the height of sophistication," she says. Secondly, you should "take a long, hard look at your idea" and "listen to what people are saying about it". It it also vital to "make sure that things work from a financial standpoint" ie, you may have a good idea, but will it make money? To answer these questions honestly, make every effort to "leave your ego at the door".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri