Last week, he was featured on the BBC and in the Daily Mirror – and the headlines tell you the story is impressive: by 24, Heavens was driving a Ferrari. Now, aged 33, Heavens tells me his business is “only worth what someone will pay for it”. And two years ago, that was $30m for a 30 per cent stake.
That figure is made even more staggering when you consider this: Heavens owns 100 per cent of his electronic point of sale company – he’s never taken any investment. Twelve years ago, the then-insurance salesman had just moved into selling mobile phone handsets.
Having persuaded the firm to take him on, he quickly found he couldn’t sell anything. “It was the most intense environment I’ve ever been in. When I arrived I watched them say to another guy ‘f-off and go home’. I rang up my parents and just cried. I thought, ‘this is one of those moments. Yes, I’m crying on the way into work, but if I don’t man the hell up now, I’ll never be able to deal with stress.’ So I just dealt with it.”
The self-confessed “crap salesman” devised a plan. “I noticed one thing. When I called people, they’d tell me to get lost. But it was because I was calling them at the wrong time. It’s all about timing.” Heavens went and bought himself a computer, then began collecting data from colleagues. He started painting a picture of when phones were due for renewal, and began ringing people then.
“I went from the five hundredth salesman to the second, then the first. I was just sitting there over my computer – they all used to call me the secretary.” A few months later, and Heavens has been headhunted by Three to launch its business network. Within a couple of years, he was earning £130,000 a year and still living in Norwich, working from home. A couple of friends announced they wanted to buy a bar, and pointed out that Heavens had the money to do so.
“I wanted to do food, but no-one was interested. Customers just wanted to come and get mashed, it was awful. I’m probably not the best person to own a bar because I’m really sociable – I’d just be in there every night having a good time. It was barnstorming. But then I thought, ‘hang on, we’re having all these big nights... where’s the money going?’ I asked the others if they were nicking all the money. They said, ‘no, maybe a little bit, but nothing massive.’ We were drinking away a lot of the profits. It was then I realised we needed an Excel sheet and a business meeting.”
This is where Epos Now began. “I put my head round the door at Pizza Express and asked what they were using.” Heavens realised he needed an epos – electric point of sale – system, but no-one was selling them. “I couldn’t even get one off the internet, and that’s when it hit me: people were paying thousands for old systems from shysters. These things didn’t have cloud access. There were a couple of startups doing something basic but it didn’t do what I needed. I thought, ‘this industry’s due for a shakeup’. That’s when I knew I could make some serious money.”
Strength to strength
Fast-forward five years, and Heavens owns the UK’s biggest cloud-based, POS, SaaS fintech company. “I didn’t know what any of those words meant. Someone told me what ‘fintech’ was two years ago, and we just put it on the internet – ‘cloud’ – because it made sense. I knew I needed to build a product with enough margin on it. Technology gets cheaper and cheaper, and so can the cost of acquiring each new customer. Then, you’ve got a scalable business.”
In the last six months, Epos Now has grown by 70 per cent. “We really know what we’re doing now. When we started, we were a bunch of kids jumping around every time we made a sale, going to the nightclub next door and breaking downstairs’ chandelier. We still jump around, but now we’re entering our golden age.”
Having cracked America, Heavens is about to move into Australia and Germany. “There’s a certain amount of luck, because I happened to pick an infinitely scalable model, but still – every nine months, the business is doubling in value. God only knows what it’s worth now.” I announce that I won’t ask what it feels like being, well, so rich. “Why? It’s great! People don’t set up businesses because they’re Mother Teresa – and if they say they are, they’re lying.”
I ask Heavens what Brexit meant for him – lots of entrepreneurs have been downcast. “There are all these news items saying Brexit hasn’t had an impact. It does have impact – the impact is there’s uncertainty. Equities might not be too affected because people think they’re getting a deal, but the currency effect is quite a big thing. The day after Brexit, I got on a plane and thought, ‘I need to make more dollars’. I went over to Orlando and said, ‘we need another sales team’, so we hired them and started selling more.”
Heavens chose Orlando for office number two because it’s “similar to Norwich in terms of cost – and you can sell into anywhere. I checked out San Francisco early on and it was just madness. I was looking at $600,000 a year for the office and $150,000 per sales person. I’m thinking ‘bloody hell’. Out comes the calculator – it would’ve cost millions.” Moving to the Valley would have meant taking investment for Heavens: “I caught myself and thought, ‘why mess with the formula? Just keep doing what you’re doing.’”
He points out that, while he’s making money, a good number of high-profile firms that’ve taken large sums from VCs aren’t. “Because interest rates are so low, there is a lot of cheap money flying around. So for some of these businesses the party never ends – they just keep acquiring and keep growing, and as long as their investors know enough people, and they tell everyone it’s worth a lot, and people are willing to put the money in... it just keeps going.”
Built to last
Back in Norwich, the businessman is proud of having the “best office in town” filled with a team he can’t praise enough. “You have to remember that the impact you have with any member of staff can define their whole career. If you don’t treat them with respect, they won’t treat the business with any. Always be there for everyone, and be tactful. If you’ve got a meeting in the morning, don’t go into the office. If you’re turning up at 10am, it doesn’t matter where you’ve been – it looks like you’ve been swanning around.”
And by the sounds of it, Heavens goes quite some way in single-handedly maintaining the local economy. Take talent, for instance. “When I started, I just went into the local university and spoke to the professors there about taking on young developers once they’d finished studying.” A couple of years ago, he was after a “decent head office”. Rather than rent, Heavens decided to take out a commercial mortgage and buy it. From there, he set up his own property firm. “It just tides itself over. Yields are so high; I’m looking at London property now.”
Heavens has “lots of ideas and projects” he’d like to pursue – “but one of the biggest risks to my business now is dividing my efforts. If you divide your efforts, you’ve got a war on two fronts. You have to give it 100 per cent.”
He starts listing ideas he’s come up with in the past – “you have ideas, then someone else does them. Fair play to them. Some people are just better at other things than you are; that’s fine. I’ve had loads of failures – loads. I’ve tried to do businesses online. I tried to set up a pub. That failed. I did a mobile dealership. That failed. Luck counts for a lot of it too. And if you want to make your own luck, you have to try multiple times – until you catch the right place and the right time.”
What would Heavens say to someone dreaming about having their own business? “Just start small. Go and open a cafe and see if you can actually handle working for yourself. Do you even like it? The worst thing you can do is sit there thinking the idea for next global SaaS company is just going to fall from the sky and into your head. You’ll be sitting in that office for the rest of your life.”