Sara Murray OBE
No business ever fails except when…
Briefly losing her child in a supermarket led Sara Murray to devise tracking system Buddi, which is now used to track vulnerable people – and criminals – all over the world. She talks to Smith & Williamson’s Hall of Fame about building her third successful business.
Sara Murray had already founded and sold two businesses and had no immediate plans for a third, when she lost her five-year-old daughter in a supermarket. It was a heart-stopping five minutes before her child was found and at that point she wondered why no one had come up with a tracking device to avoid these problems.
The same feeling struck her on a skiing holiday when she was asked to provide her name and telephone number should her nine-year-old daughter get lost on the slopes. How much help would a mobile phone number be if her daughter was lost? This prompted the creation of Buddi, a satellite navigation tracking device.
Ironically, this had been the point at which she was taking a little time out from a previously glittering entrepreneurial career that had seen her create a marketing software product for giant corporates such as GlaxoSmithKline and P&G, and then persuade global insurance giants to work together to create comparison site confused.com.
This was something different. She had no experience in building ‘hardware’ and knew this would be a major challenge. A US group had a similar product, but it was only set up to work in US metropolitan areas. She had to draw in a team of engineers and designers to build a prototype. By 2008, they were ready to go live.
She says: “We watched who bought it. In the end, it found a market among local authorities. If there was a granny who probably needed to be taken into care, but didn’t want to go into care, a Buddi system could help. People could go and find her and bring her home.”
Thames Valley police started using Buddi in domestic violence situations and for witness protection. This spread from force to force: Thames Valley talked to Bedfordshire police, who asked “why aren’t we using this?” That spread to Hertfordshire and so on. It also helped with securing mental health patients, enabling their rehabilitation.
Then it went global. Sara found herself sitting with the New Zealand Department of Corrections discussing what Buddi might be able to do. Six weeks later, they were using it. The group now works with a dozen Ministries of Justice around the world to help with the remote monitoring of people.
Sara is as surprised as anyone that she is now monitoring criminals all around the world. She is still keen to get out a consumer proposition to help parents with the ‘lost child in a supermarket’ moments. This is on the radar, she says, with some “very exciting” technology coming out within the next couple of years.
She has always been a little bit entrepreneurial, she says. After university she went into management consultancy, wanting to know how to run a business. Instead, she found herself sitting in front of a spreadsheet.
At twenty three, she decided to set up on her own, believing there was a market for management software to optimise the sales function of business. She cold-called the head of SmithKline Beecham and built her business from there, ultimately selling to Publicis.
An early experience of being wrongly sued was galvanising, with hindsight. She was accused of copying a line of code, which was subsequently shown to be published in a book. The judge threw it out. The experience showed her she had the mettle for entrepreneurship. She didn’t, for a moment, think of giving up.
Building confused.com started with a project for Norwich Union. She couldn’t persuade them that instead of spending £6 million on their own marketing in 1998, they should team up with five others and each spend £1 million, so she did it herself. Consumers had more choice in one hit.
She has always sought external counsel, whether through non-executive directors or external investors, and believes that has been important: “It can challenge your thinking,” she says. “‘Do you really want to go into the US?’ You are so sure of yourself as an entrepreneur, irrationally optimistic! It can be good to have some balance.”
Her advice for budding entrepreneurs? “No business ever fails except when it runs out of cash. You need to be well-funded or not to spend. Also, you can always get it cheaper, make sure you fight for the best price.”
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