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British Startup Targets 'White Van Man'

Powered Now offers tablet-based administration solutions to U.K.'s small service businesses.

The founders of one of the very first British e-commerce companies, Actinic, have set up a new venture in what they say is a promising niche market: Britain's army of small traders.

"Our addressable market in the U.K. is an annual £72 million [$111 million] we estimate, based on the fact there are 150,000 field service companies out there," Ben Dyer, chief executive officer of the new firm, Powered Now, told Information Week.

By "field service," Dyer and co-founder Chris Barling mean what is often referred to in the U.K. as the "White van man:" small (often one-person) service companies comprised of builders, plumbers, heating engineers, gardeners and electricians.

Small companies like these don't typically have formal offices to work in, but they still need to deal with large amounts of paperwork. The way these workers currently manage administrative tasks is unnecessarily time-intensive (perhaps done evenings, on a laptop) -- if it's done at all (many small companies use hand-written quotes and invoices).

[ British creative industry needs to embrace technology more fully, according to Nesta. Read U.K.'s Prized Creative Industry At Risk, Study Says. ]

Hence the Powered Now platform, a mobile app running on iOS or Android tablets that's designed to handle all aspects of business administration for field service traders. Such tasks include invoicing, generation of business quotations, CRM and product management, along with sector-specific needs like producing the appropriate paperwork for doing home utility jobs. The company says the system does not need a constant Internet connection to function, although everything is backed up when a connection is available.

The service lets service providers generate quotes, invoices and certificates within minutes of leaving a job, from a single app on a single device -- no more need to crank up the ancient laptop at home.

Barling has over 35 years' experience in the IT industry, holding senior positions in firms including Reuters and Cable and Wireless. Dyer has 17 years of experience, including as CEO of Actinic and at firms such as BSkyB and BAE Systems.

Founded in 1996, Actinic became a dominant supplier of ecommerce and Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) software to U.K. small and midsize businesses. Dyer and Barling sold half of the company and the Actinic brand name to French company Oxatis in 2011. However, they kept the half of the company centered on desktop e-commerce solutions, re-branded as Sellerdeck, and Dyer currently serves as CEO and Barling as chairman. The two plan to run Powered Now in addition to those roles.

In terms of funding, Dyer and Barling utilized some of the proceeds of the Oxatis sale to launch Powered Now, and they now plan to begin the process for a venture round. The pair clearly feel they can make lightning strike twice. "Having spotted the e-commerce revolution that was to come in the early 90s, we are now betting on the tablet market as the future of multiple [business] sectors," said Dyer. "We believe that in the next five years, the majority of field service companies will be operating on tablet-based infrastructures -- and we want Powered Now to be the platform of choice."

Field service companies represent a hugely underserved community, one that the IT revolution has largely passed by, so it's reasonable to ask whether this notoriously tech-adverse market would respond to Powered Now. "The question about tech conservatism is a very interesting one," said Dyer. "Like every industry, there are early adopters and laggards. However, talking to lots of these guys, one of the core reasons is there simply isn't an appropriate solution to do this; these companies have had to make do without what we can offer -- until now."

Interestingly, Powered Now isn't so much a Silicon Roundabout/London Tech City story as a more traditional software entrepreneurship narrative: Start a firm, sell it, and move on.

Indeed, Dyer is not comfortable being lumped in with the latte-drinking Old Street crowd at all. "The U.K. market is our home one and we are passionate about it," he told InformationWeek. "The point is, there are startups, entrepreneurs and people doing great things everywhere [in the U.K.] -- not just in Tech City. We feel that, like the hundreds of other innovative startups across the country, we are in a sense part of the Tech City movement, yes. But because we don't have a physical presence in London, we are no less significant than those that do."

Two tech experts square off. A CIO compares working without IT standards to anarchy, while a CTO claims that standardization stalls creativity. Also in the new, all-digital The Standardization Debate issue of Network Computing: Next-gen data centers and the politics of standards. (Free registration required.)

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