Weekend Interview: the lawyer turning good ideas into digital products
If you’ve ever had an idea for a new app but lacked the know-how and wherewithal to make it happen, help could be at hand.
Earlier this month, a new facility called Dezign Space opened in Pudsey with a £15m campaign to translate digital concepts into working technology. It aims to support new inventors with up to £150,000 of financial backing for each of 100 new app prototypes.
The initiative is a typically dynamic way to introduce new Excelledia Ventures, which owns the Dezign Space concept, to people not yet in the know. The Dubai-based company is an “enterprise digital business transformation company” – in other words, it helps tech firms to grow using tools including artificial intelligence (AI) – and already works with over 2,000 clients in eight countries. It opened its UK base in the Nexus Building at Leeds University at the end of last year.
“We’re very much about creating the culture to release potential, but innovation shouldn’t just stop with good ideas – they need to be made, and they need to be taken to market,” managing director Mark Burns told The Yorkshire Post.
“Being active in the innovation space moves things on a bit. It encourages people to have those ideas but then also gives them the resources to go and turn those thoughts into things.”
For Excelledia founder and CEO Muhamed Farooque, hiring Burns must have been quite a coup. He was formerly the managing partner of Clarion Solicitors in Leeds, having been made partner at the remarkably early age of 27, and helped build the law firm into one of the top 200 in the UK.
Mr Farooque chose him to lead the Leeds office – which is intended as the company’s centre of operations in Europe – due to his “proven experience of driving transformation and managing technological disruption”. But the admiration is mutual – Mr Burns said it took him “all of 30 milliseconds” to say yes.
The two met through peer-group membership organisation Vistage International, where Mr Burns was UK chair for the “most enjoyable four years” of his career. He sees his new post as a natural progression.
“It’s a leadership role and as a consequence, a big part of my job every day is coaching. So, in a sense, a lot of what I’m doing with my team is what I was doing when I was at Vistage.”
The approach, he says, is particularly appropriate for the current times.
“We’ve never lived through a global pandemic before, and we’ve got to extemporise our response to that unexpected challenge. You don’t do that if you can’t see the challenge coming; you can only do that if you can widen your view and see more of the big picture, and enable you to respond more effectively to what’s coming your way.
“My experience of coaching people is that if you get them making better decisions in their business, in times when they need to be resilient, they survive.
“It’s one of the most exciting things to see – asking open questions, that you don’t know the answer to, which suddenly turn on a light switch, and they arrive at the solution, which they wouldn’t have done had you not asked those questions. To see the change in their eye-shape when they’ve just had a moment; it’s very electric.”
Such a person-centred approach makes for an interest-ing contrast with the company’s tech-driven stock in trade. Its flagship product is called Isorobot, a piece of software that automates the process of remaining fully compliant with the standards that apply to a client’s industry. At one of Excelledia’s Middle Eastern customers it has reduced overheads by around $15m a year.
“If you compare it to others on a feature-by-feature basis, we win,” says Mr Burns “But if you go to companies and ask if they’ve ever heard of Excelledia, this Middle East-based company, they’ll say they’ll buy something they’ve heard of, but not something they haven’t.
“So my job is to be really helpful and educative and just tell people what we do, why we’re special, why they can trust us – and people are starting to do that now. We run an ISO project out of Leeds for a government department in the Republic of Ireland. We’re already scaling.”
Another string to Excelledia’s bow is its AI Centre of Excellence, which takes innovative ideas and develops them into tangible digital assets.
“Where people have a great idea, we’ll look at it, analyse it for them, test it, and build a prototype for them. That enables them to either go and implement it themselves, or to go and get funding to get it implemented, or in a lot of cases, they’re a business that we’ll invest into by developing the product for them.
“With our marketing, sales, finance team we can then build essentially a ‘go to market’ strategy for them. As a coach and a consultant, we can help them develop their leadership team to take that product to market.”
Mr Burns’ aim is to make Excelledia at least as successful in Europe as it is in the Middle East, where its clients include Qatar Airways, the universities of Dubai and Sharjah, The Dubai Mall (the world’s biggest shopping centre) and Qatar’s Olympic and World Cup bid organisations.
“I’d say our direct competitors are the top five accountants and the top three management consultants – all those people we compete with for our niche in the Middle East,” he says.
“There are some great performers out there – we’ve got some really worthy rivals out there – so we just have to be different, and we have to just get better every day at what we do, and people will cotton on to us and start using our service.”
Mark Burns grew up in Derby and studied law at Nottingham Trent University.
After graduation and law school, he worked at Clarion Solicitors in Leeds, eventually working his way to the top.
He was managing partner at Clarion for more than eight years, before leaving for a stint at Progeny Corporate Law.
A long-time member of Vistage, the international peer mentoring membership organisation for business leaders, he became chair of Vistage UK in 2017.
He joined Excelledia Ventures as Performancer Director in November 2020 and took over the reins as managing director for the UK and Europe last month.
He is also a partner at Gunnercooke LLP and a part-time director of The Leadership Team, a professional training and coaching company based in Leeds.