Former banker follows his dream to go it alone

Philip Salter
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IN RETROSPECT, Barbecoa – Jamie Oliver’s attempt to introduce the UK to BBQ food – was not the ideal setting to meet Daren Cox, chief executive and founder of Project Brokers. As a committed pescatarian he doesn’t live up to the stereotype businessman portrayed in such shows as Alan Sugar’s The Apprentice. Sadly, combative television shows are many peoples’ only insight into the world of business – as such, people could be forgiven for thinking that running your own company is always and everywhere red, in both tooth and claw. In fact, as Cox demonstrates, it is an intensely cooperative undertaking.

Having been a director at UBS for over two years and Deutsche Bank for over six years on the institutional client sales side of the business, Daren Cox took a step back from the front line, freelancing while weighing up his options – like many people he had a dream to start his own business, but unlike most, he took the time out to do it. The break came when he got around to looking at QlikView – a Nasdaq-listed company – software that his friend had been impressing upon him to use. He was sold, describing the software as “Excel on steroids” in its ability to visualise massive volumes of data – such as the millions of trades that happen on a daily basis in an investment bank. And so, Project Brokers was born in April 2005 as a training, analysis, design, development and support service for QlikView projects. Inspired by growing up in the 1980s, Cox always knew he would work with computers and one day own and run a computer-related firm. Having studied computer science, he found working in an investment bank great, describing it as a “paid MBA”, although he feels he got lost in it. Among other things, reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist reminded him not to give up on his dream.

With sales central to the business model, Cox led from the front – taking personal responsibility to pitch the product. The technology, he says, proved to be disruptive enough to result in a rapid return on his investment: “People just got it.” During the boom years everything went well, but when Lehman Brothers went down growth went on hold – banks froze spending on IT. By 2009 the money started flowing again – then he employed 12 people, now he’s up to 80. The protracted Eurozone crisis has once again put the cat among the pigeons, but Cox is confident about coming out the other side. Particularly with the US – which Project Brokers has offices in (as well as South Africa and a support office in India) – “still doing a lot of business.” Cox is looking to grow east: Singapore is looking the favourite destination to base his operations. He thinks it’s a great place to do business, with low barriers to entry.

Cox says that to be successful startup companies “need something unique to get a foot in the door.” Although he thinks a business like Project Brokers could have been started by someone without his tech background, he believes the credibility and networks built up through working in the industry were invaluable: “This is business-to-business, not Facebook.” Although currently based in the City, it is a tech business and Cox is seriously weighing up the option of moving to Shoreditch – to the heart of what has come to be known as Silicon Roundabout, as he is impressed with the innovative environment.

Being an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone; Cox says the initial process “tested every sinew.” But with hard work dreams can come true: Cox is a tech entrepreneur by working week and Cornwall-dwelling Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall inspired surfer on weekends.

Turnover: £5m

Number of staff: 80

Age: 42

Born: Plymouth

Lives: Cornwall / London

Drinking: Not drinking January (else organic red wine preferred)

Reading: Food Politics by Marion Nestle

Favourite business book: The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson

Motto: “Don’t ask permission, but beg forgiveness if it goes wrong”.

First ambition: Own a software company (I plotted this since 1983)