It would have been very easy for Tim Whiston to have ducked my question but the 54-year-old refuses to run away from his past.
He’s just launched an online platform for SMEs called isme|&|co that he says will help business leaders get the information that want in one place, saving valuable time and money.
He’s co-founded isme|&|co with William Maughan in response to the problem of UK SMEs wasting billions of pounds every year trying to get the right advice.
“We’re creating an unashamedly business-focused platform that provides the opportunity to share experiences and advice for mutual benefit, helping each other avoid making the same mistakes,” he explains.
It’s then that I hit him with the big question.
“What about your experiences at iSOFT, the two trials and subsequent investigation?” I ask.
As any experienced journalist will tell you this is the moment when you fear the questioning will be cut short by the irate interviewee.
Not running away
But after a short pause Whiston says not talking about the ‘most difficult period’ of his life will look like he’s running away and he doesn’t want to do that.
“Looking back on iSOFT it’s a cautionary tale about running too far, too fast,” he explains. “By the by time you realise, it’s too late. You’re already over the cliff edge, and there’s only one way to go, and that’s down.”
At this point it’s worth recapping the iSOFT story.
iSOFT was a former Manchester-based NHS software supplier. It started life in KPMG’s consulting arm before a private equity-backed MBO.
Whiston joined in 1997 as finance director before becoming the CEO and overseeing an IPO in 2000 before taking the business into the FTSE 250, making him the second-youngest CEO of a FTSE 250 company.
The value of iSOFT soared on the back of major contract wins and they secured a significant role in the NHS IT modernisation programme. Then things started to unravel.
An ill-fated merger with Torex followed and the company was engulfed in a high profile accounting scandal.
Whiston resigned as CEO in 2006 but that wasn’t the end of the problem as he – and a number of fellow directors – found themselves the subject of a Financial Services Authority (which later became the Financial Conduct Authority) prosecution.
The investigation was launched in 2006 but didn’t come to trial until 2012, which resulted in a hung jury. A retrial in 2013 collapsed when the prosecution case was thrown out by the judge.
The end of the court proceedings wasn’t the end of the matter as the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) carried out their own investigation, which reported back into 2015 – nearly a decade after the first investigation was launched.
Whiston reached a settlement agreement with the FRC, which resulted in him being banned from practising as an accountant, although he’s since been reinstated.
“We recognise we made mistakes,” Whiston tells TechBlast. “The FSA and FRC proceedings related to the accounting for one contract. With hindsight we suffered from growing too quickly. The subsequent demise of the iSOFT business was unrelated. Things came to a head after we had become too exposed to the government’s failed NHS IT modernisation programme.
“I’m absolutely not looking for sympathy but the FSA investigation was hard to go through.
“It was great business that was competing with much larger US corporations. It ran into problems for a number of reasons and some of the directors, including myself, were blamed.
“The whole process took nearly a decade and it’s hard to tell your side of the story when your legal advice is not to comment. I look back at iSOFT with sadness and regret but my focus is on looking forward.”
After iSOFT Whiston joined Kent Periscopes in 2009 as managing director and latterly chairman, helping build it into a recognised international market leader before then selling in 2016.
Fast forward to 2021 and while networking he met his now business partner William Maughan and the pair came up with the idea for isme|&|co.
“What struck us from our time networking, was just how many people we met were owners of businesses providing advice and services to SMEs, all trying to find business development opportunities, vying for attention trying to promote their businesses,” he recalls.
“We started researching the SME-2-SME advisory and resource market and were struck by reports that UK SMEs spend around £60bn each year on external consultants.
“Small business leaders spend an average of more than three weeks every time they try to find the right provider. It’s estimated that SMEs waste around £12.6bn a year on inadequate advice. We decided there had to be a better way.”
The pair spent a year creating a business model for isme|&|co, which will be an online platform to help leaders of independent business get access to better information from like-minded people to make the right decisions.
£2m seed raise
The isme|&|co platform was first launched late last year and the cofounders are now looking to raise seed funding of £2m in order to build out and promote the business.
Whiston explains: “It could help with everything from being GDPR compliant to helping someone with bookkeeping requirements. Your first port of call will be your own network but where do you go after that?
“Setting up and growing your own business is hard enough. It doesn’t need to be made harder by struggling to find the right information, advice and resource. Our mission is to make that easier, and to save as much of that £12.6bn wasted each year, as possible.
“We’ve already launched a content hub, which includes articles and insight pieces from trusted partners about their areas of expertise. This will soon be followed by a marketplace for providers of advice, service and resource to showcase their talents. It will being a subscription-based model for providers.
“I know from my own career about the highs and lows of businesses and hopefully I’ll be able to share my experiences to help other people.”