Stories of Growth

Paramjit Uppal, AND Digital: “Risk is all relative”

As part of our Stories of Growth series, we interview the founder of one of Europe’s fastest-growing technology companies.

21 March 2022

In 2020, BGF invested £11 million in AND Digital, to support its continued growth and international expansion. The following year, we invested an additional £8 million of follow-on funding to accelerate growth plans. Read the story of AND Digital’s founder, Paramjit Uppal, below.

Paramjit Uppal, founder of AND Digital

I was born in India, came to England aged seven, and got interested in technology in the good old days of the BBC Micro computers. Later on, I worked for some of the big consultancies. I was at Arthur Andersen when the Enron crisis brought down the whole firm. That was a tipping point for me. If it hadn’t happened, I might have stayed in the corporate world, but it made me realise that risk is all relative, and that I should challenge certain assumptions and believe in myself.

That’s when I decided to set up own IT consulting business, which grew to over 300 people in ten years. That journey ended with sale to a buyer in the US. I learned a lot from the experience about the growth of people-based businesses and the emerging power of tech, and it made me wonder, what if I had a clean sheet of paper and could intentionally create a company to solve problems of growth and client tech in a different way?

Joining the club

We established AND Digital in 2014. Our goal is to help organisations be great at building software, and great at building the capability they need for it; after all, every business is now a software and data business, and this means every organisation needs its own people at its heart. We guide, build and equip – helping clients to scale their permanent tech capability. Today, we work for tier-one banks and small companies alike, employ 1,400 people, and our revenues are nearly £100 million.

My experience in the big firms and my own business showed me that it’s hard to grow fast while maintaining that small company feeling. In a business of, say, 80 employees, people know each other deeply and make the right decisions for the team. This benefits clients through a personalised service, achieved by motivated and happy people. When you get to over, say, 100-200 people, it is hard to retain that essence, and people start to feel they are ‘just a number’.

We designed AND Digital to overcome this problem. The business is made up of clubs and business units, which each have 80 people or so, as well as a leader and management team, their own clients and their own office, or clubhouse. We now have 16 clubs and units across different locations, each operating like an autonomous, small company.

Big AND small

Here’s an example of how it works: we don’t have a central human resources function. Each club has a ‘people lead’, who is responsible for everything that may be done by a traditional HR team, from absences to grievances, from career development and rewards through to wellbeing and communications. It means that the person closest to each ANDi – as we refer to our people – decides whether they get promoted, not central HR. This creates a heightened sense of belonging.

Some of our locations are in big cities like London, where we currently have five clubs; others are in smaller location like Halifax and Reading. We opened a club in Amsterdam.

We are essentially building a business that blends the best of a small company with the impact of a big company. That’s why we named the company with “AND” – how can you be both big AND small at the same time – helping clients grow capability AND grow ourselves.

Paramjit Uppal, founder of AND Digital, sat in front of a branded backdrop

Extra horsepower

We have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal to be a half-a-billion-pound company – we set this when our revenues were at £50 million, so we felt 10 times was bold enough. We want to make a global impact, and so are planning to grow to over 50-60 clubs and business units around the world. This means we can build tech with our clients that will be used by over 200 million people every day.

This includes upskilling 200,000 people. Five thousand of those will be ours, the rest will be clients’ people and the rest are those working in or wanting to get into technology. We are creating skills in the world.

In the beginning we were self-funded, but in 2019 we realised that if we wanted to achieve our Big Hairy Audacious Goal, we needed extra horsepower. That’s when we went to BGF. We had heard of them and had a few contacts there. I had an internal director charged with looking at options and we looked at lots.

I reached out to other founders who had taken investment from BGF and understood their experience of it. I collated lots of data points and decided BGF was the right organisation for us. They invested in a first round in 2020 and again the next year.

Riding it out together

The biggest challenge for us was the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. In many ways, it tested our model. In 2020, we had taken money from BGF and set sail for our 2025 Big Hairy Audacious Goal and, within a couple of weeks, many of our clients such as Premier Inn, British Airways, Lloyds – all paused work. We must have had 700 people at that time all around the country, wondering what’s going on and how we were going to stay afloat with a lot of work and revenue suddenly halting.

In some ways, having local leaders helped ensure there was a personal touch on how we dealt with the crisis and helped our ANDis through it. The distributed nature of clients and spread of clients across each club also balanced out the struggling clubs with others who were busy, so overall we were able to ride it out together. We kept everyone employed and even continued to grow our headcount as we knew what the world needed at this time was even more digital skills.

Finding the sweet spot

As for myself, I have always tried to carve out my own way. You could say this started at a young age when I discovered the BBC Micro and it sparked my curiosity. I created a computer program that won a competition and that motivated me to do more.

I got into a good university, where I found my sweet spot in technology. I wanted to prove I could get to the next stage, and I got a First. I’m not gifted, but I work hard. When I put my mind to something, I know I can do it.

“I’m not gifted, but I work hard”

Everyone in AND Digital has a title that says something about themselves. My title is “founder and foodie”. I love experiencing different kinds of food. I live in a “foodie” village and enjoy travelling.

While running a business can be all-consuming, I have learned that what really matters in life is people and relationships, and the journey. Companies can collapse and you can always form another one. Clients can leave and you can always find another. I sleep well at night, because while short-term business results are important, it is not at the expense of everything else.

I’m not a control freak, I don’t have much ego. I like to give people space and accountability to drive results for themselves by themselves. I let people learn, discover and make mistakes and grow.

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