From Government procurement to a new private sector advisory firm: an entrepreneur’s story

We’re delighted to feature a guest article from David Shields, who until last May was Chief Executive of the Government Procurement Service. He is a founder and director now of Apsiz, a procurement technology and advisory firm. We persuaded him to write a piece about how it felt for a lifelong big-organisation procurement person to leave and become an entrepreneur. Perhaps it will inspire more readers to do the same!

It’s nearly nine months since leaving GPS, and when I met up with Peter he asked what it had been like setting up my own business and going through such a change. It was a good question, and one which I hadn’t really thought about too much. Peter thought it would be an interesting story to tell, so here goes. On the off chance that anyone reads this or even more unlikely passes a comment, please be gentle.

Firstly, it was a big decision to leave and do something new, and not one I took lightly. I knew I would miss the work, its diversity and the different teams in GPS, the suppliers and the people we worked closely with on delivering solutions across the Public Sector. Also, the underlying purpose of the Public Sector, that we are undertaking a public service for the public good not for profit, something I think we are sometimes in danger of overlooking. And of course these things I do miss.

Anyway, Day 1: registering a company is pretty straightforward and quick right up until you need to pick a name -- hadn’t thought about this. Found a name (not a lot of creativity or thought) that is OK; went to register it and found it had been taken. At this point, and already losing patience, I deleted an ‘s’ stuck in ‘z’ and moved on -- probably not text-book creative marketing but there again it didn’t cost me a million pounds.

What am I going to do? Well this was pretty straightforward. For some time I have felt that the effective use of technology related to commercial or procurement activity has been pretty sporadic across both the private and public sector -- pockets of good practice, many more areas with limited deployment and many areas with no systems or technology solutions deployed. A personal belief is that we are pretty much behind the curve of what can be achieved by using technology as a function, which if you think about the future and how we buy individually is slightly alarming.

Day 2: get some IT set up, buy some kit, a mobile phone, and get some web-based apps up and running. Fast forward to day 5: (missing the GPS IT team a lot right now) kit arrived, nothing working, taken half a day to download everything, still not working. Using a catchphrase, ‘phone a friend.’ Friend fixes everything, go buy another mobile which will actually work with the apps I need -- but up and running.

Please at this point don’t stop reading - we are not detailing everyday through to number 261.

So some principles -- I was determined to try to achieve a few things: no infrastructure, i.e. everything in the Cloud (this has worked pretty well apart from my inability to use the stuff); no property or fancy branding, keep everything as simple and as flexible as possible; work with some great people I know, trust and want to deliver (one of whom has to be able to fix the IT issues); work with customers who I respect and trust and want to get solutions delivered; work with partners who I respect, like and trust and who have great products and services and will also deliver; no bureaucracy; and no written briefs (all Civil Servants will get this one) and generally work collaboratively.

It is now day 261 as I write this and things have gone pretty well and fast. We are a great team, which is growing (people with ‘real’ and serious jobs have joined despite the risk of it being a new company). Working with our partners has been a really good experience and we will be working with a few more in the coming weeks. And we have pretty much stuck to our principles. We have a diverse customer base, private and public, UK and overseas, and a number of different sectors, we have focused upon technology, but are also providing assistance on broader commercial and procurement management, improving delivery and efficiency and helping some suppliers make sense of Public Sector requirements and bidding processes.

The overwhelming feeling, however, is how generous and collaborative people have been. Our web site has been built and designed for free, and many people have been in contact to help, offer work, advice and support in all sorts of different ways. Customers have been exceptional and thoughtful, simple things that make a huge difference for a start-up, like ensuring paying early, yes early, helping with technology, offering to provide references or make calls if work is part way through.

It’s been a huge amount of work for everyone involved, very rewarding, and lots of new things to learn and consider, with the only real stress being trying to ensure we get the best outcomes for customers, partners and the Apsiz team, and not let anyone down.


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