David Barker is Technical Director of 4D Data Centres Ltd, a Tier 3 colocation company with data centres across the UK. David, who started the company when he was 14, talks to inspiresme about the challenges of being a young entrepreneur, and the path he’s taken to build a sustainable firm.

Q: You started the business at a very young age, had you always planned on being an entrepreneur?

A: I always wanted to do my own thing but to be honest I don’t think I knew what an ‘entrepreneur’ was when I started; I just wanted some extra money in my pocket and I had an aptitude for computers. Before setting up 4D as a hosting business when I was 14, I had tried to do other things on my own. I’d started a school magazine based around PC game reviews that I sold for £1 a copy and created a search engine/content portal that I sold a little advertising on in the days before Google.

Q: How did you set about turning your idea into a viable business?

A: Being quite young I didn’t really have a set plan when I began; the business just came out of doing what I enjoyed and making sure that any clients I had were happy (usually through me helping them out for free where I could). I found that clients stayed with me and even recommended me to other people. It wasn’t until I was 17 that I decided I wanted to do this full-time and by then I had a fairly substantial hosting business already. A summer spent focusing on growth convinced me that it was the right thing to be doing.

Q: Did you have any great concerns when starting the business or were you confident from the start that you could be successful?

A: Being a teenager when I first set up 4D Hosting on the back of some web design work I was doing, I had no idea what to be concerned about; I didn’t know what I didn’t know and there was no one to tell me what I should be worried about. It’s great starting something when you’re young as you have no bills or mortgage payments to worry about so you can just get on with it.

I was pretty confident that I could sell the hosting space as I had a couple of design clients that I’d just begun working with. I knew that they would at least cover the first year of the hosting account, so all I had to do then was to create a website and wait for the clients to line up at my door (or so I thought!). As it turns out I did get quite a bit of interest in the hosting packages I was offering as it was much easier to get to the top of the search engines 13 years ago and I spent a lot of my spare time posting on forums offering advice along with a link to my website. Simple marketing, but it worked.

Q: How did you fund the venture?

A: Initially it was funded with £30 that I borrowed from my Dad to get a reseller hosting account. This covered about one month’s service and gave me somewhere to put the websites I was designing until they were finished. After that the web design clients paid enough for their own hosting to cover the account and the extra I made from that I put into a bit of advertising (which I quickly learnt needed to run for more than a couple of months to be effective). From there on it was very much self-funded as I managed to get a few new hosting clients each month. They all paid in advance so that I had the money to pay for the hosting before I had any invoices to pay.

Q: How have you set about marketing 4D Data Centres?

A: 4D Data Centres today is a very different company to the hosting company I started 13 years ago and the way we’ve marketed the company since opening our first data centre in 2007 has also evolved.

When we first opened the data centre we relied very much on our existing client base, word of mouth and inbound requests via search engines (pay per click and SEO). As the business has grown, so has the ability to spend more on marketing as well as a dedicated sales team to follow-up leads. The focus has shifted to various online and offline direct marketing campaigns which bring in highly qualified leads as well as general brand building activity.

Of course, nothing beats word of mouth and we still get a lot of existing client referrals for new business.

Q: Today’s young entrepreneurs are often described as being extremely passionate. Is passion essential to building a successful company?

A: Of course, if you’re not passionate about what you’re doing then you will very quickly grow tired of the 24/7 nature of a start-up business. If I wasn’t passionate about 4D Hosting in the early years, especially when I’d grown the business a bit and we were reselling colocation, then I wouldn’t have enjoyed working at 3am or doing 24 hours straight to get new services online and I probably would have decided that university was a better route!

I don’t think the passion ever fades. 4D has become an integral part of my life and I still do the odd 3am finish even though we’ve got 27 employees.

Q: What has been the biggest challenge that you have faced so far and how have you overcome it?

A: Learning to delegate is probably the biggest challenge I’ve faced and to be honest I can’t say I’ve quite overcome it yet.

When you’ve started a business from the ground up and you’ve done all the jobs there are to do, you have your own way of doing everything; so it’s very hard to accept that someone else may have a better way of doing a task, or even that they might not be doing it to your standard but that it is more than good enough.

As a business grows, learning to let go of the small tasks and the day to day fire-fighting so that you can focus on the bigger picture of strategy is probably one of the hardest things that any entrepreneur has to go through.

Q: If you could give future entrepreneurs three pieces of advice, what would they be?

A: I think everyone has to make their own mistakes, especially if starting at a young age. It helps you to realise that not every mistake is a disaster and not every disaster will be the end of your business – “It’ll all come out in the wash” as my Gran used to say. However, if I was to offer three pieces of advice they’d probably be:

  • Look after your cash. It’s the life blood of any business. It doesn’t matter what your revenue is or even the profit you’re making on a sale if you don’t have the cash to pay the bills. Always try to get paid in advance if possible and be very careful about offering credit.
  • You don’t need to have an idea that no one has had before, you just need to do something better than anyone has done it before. Of course it helps if your idea is brand new but even businesses like Facebook and Google were old ideas just done better.
  • Try to be sociable. It can be very lonely in the early days of starting a business, especially if it is just you and you are working 18 hours a day, six to seven days a week without seeing many people. Whether you find a mentor, a business partner to share the burden with, or just find a networking group you can go to a couple of times a month, it not only keeps the spirits up but you can sometimes find a good idea or two.
Q: What are your plans for the business going forward?

A: With the current economic situation we aren’t looking to take big risks with the business over the next few years. That said, we are still aiming to continue our current growth of around 40 percent per year.

One of the big projects we have on the go is to expand our facility in Byfleet so that we can continue to grow the data centre services, but we’re also building on the technology skills we have in the business in order to branch into new areas. The main area we’re growing services in is connectivity, which I personally feel is going to be the driving force behind a lot of business decisions over the next 10 years, and we’re now able to offer a wide variety of connectivity services from DSL through to leased lines.