A disability has proved to be the springboard for success for Ross Linnett, as Peter Jackson discovers.
ROSS Linnett watched British athletes triumphing in this summer's Olympic Games with mixed feelings. He shared in the patriotic jubilation, but there was also a sense of regret, of what might have been.
He was joint second fastest sprinter in the UK at the 100-metre sprint in 1999 and is still fourth or fifth fastest in the North East and held the Gateshead Harriers’ 100-metre and 200-metre records for two years and the North East 200-metre record for a year. He was well known in the sport, appearing on BBC’s Grandstand.
He says: “I’m constantly reminded by people who knew me then saying, ‘I was thinking about you when the Olympics was on, you could have been there Ross’, and I think: Oh God!”
University put paid to his athletics career.
“At the time I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices for sprinting. It’s not living a university life, it’s eat well, sleep well, don’t drink alcohol, don’t party and I kind of wanted to do all that, if I’m honest,” he says.
In that he was no different from millions of other young men and, this young entrepreneur is still engagingly normal and down-to-earth.
Yet he has had no shortage of success which might otherwise have gone to his head. Athletics may be a missed opportunity but Linnett, 33, owns and heads a Gateshead-based software business that has a world-beating product, has raised £400,000 in finance and has attracted the interest and admiration of giants such as Google and Microsoft.
His childhood and background were unremarkable. Born and raised in Stanley, County Durham, his father was a joiner and his mother worked in a supermarket. He went to Stanley Comprehensive where he got decent grades but was unhappy with English and subjects requiring much use of language.
This prompted him to do engineering at New College and an Engineering Degree at Northumbria University. It was there that he was to make a discovery which would not only change his life but explain a great deal about himself.
He explains: “I was doing a presentation at university and there was a girl whose father specialised in dyslexia. The presentation had a flip chart and I was writing things on the board and she told me every spelling mistake I made was a classic sign of dyslexia. So I got myself tested at university. They had five tests and they finished at the fourth and said, Ross we don’t need to do any more, you are dyslexic.”
He realised that throughout his academic career the subjects that had involved less English had been those in which he had done best. But, apart from that, he reacted with a shrug of the shoulders.
“I’d love to say it had a massive impact on me but it was almost like a non event at the time. I think I always knew I was dyslexic really.”
After graduating he spent a few months in California and then returned to Northumbria to set up his own web design business, Arch.
“I remember having a conversation with my granddad. One of the great things about the family is that they always care for you but they always want the safest option for you. He said, why don’t you get a decent job?” says Linnett.
“Well, for one, I would have had to have moved away for a decent engineering job. Two, I think that if you are good at your job you can be twice as good but you’ll only get an extra 10%. But if you are in business for yourself and you are really good you can get a whole lot more. You achieve as much as what you are worth.
“But now, when I look back I think: what were you thinking? What made you think you could leave university and start a company? It was tough going. For the first two years I survived on £400 a month. The only fun I had was walking the dog, I couldn’t afford anything else.”
He worked out of temporary office space at Northumbria University and lived with his mother. As a former president of the students’ union he had good university contacts and picked up work through those. After 18 months he was able to move to Gateshead Business Centre where he was able to get more work from other tenants.
“I realised that we could knock out websites easily and we could make good money but where the true value lies is in doing complex stuff, the stuff that most people couldn’t do – that’s where I positioned the business,” he says.
There came a point – due to the credit crunch and too many web designers – when the market contracted and many web design companies went to the wall. Arch however, had established itself in the value-added sector of the market and had a lot of clients outside the region and overseas and survived. By this point the company had four employees.
Around this time Linnett had the idea for Recite. When he had been identified as dyslexic at university he had been provided with software which he could download to his computer to read websites aloud and change background and text colours. But it had to be installed separately on each computer.
Linnett’s inspiration was to have a web-based cloud system which could be accessed from any computer with internet access. He didn’t embark on any market research but took his own experience of dyslexia and how the problem might be fixed, a process which might sound straightforward but took two years of development.
“I ran it past the director of IT at Northumbria University and straightaway he thought it was an amazing idea,” he says. “I kept it under wraps for a year and a half and it had almost come to a point where I didn’t want to release it in case it was a stupid idea. When I released it, it was the most nervous I’ve ever been about the business or a product. I’d spent two years of my life and invested a lot of money into this. Maybe the idea was only good in my head. So many people create things that work for them but don’t work for anybody else.”
But his fears were baseless and Recite received an enthusiastic reception. It was taken up by the Difference Engine, a programme to increase the growth of start-ups and funded in the North East by One North East and Sunderland and Middlesbrough councils. This led to an introduction to Google with which the business still has regular meetings.
Then Recite, a separate business to Arch, secured investment from North Star Ventures and others worth about £400,000 and has been all over the world presenting the software. Linnett still owns 92% of the company.
The latest investment deal completed six weeks ago when Linnett was on holiday on Las Vegas.
“I was out on the drink and got a call from my solicitors telling me there was still about four or five hours worth of work to do. So I was drunk in Vegas closing a £250,000 deal. I started work at 1am and finished at 7am.”
Now Recite and Arch employ eight people. It pitched at South by Southwest, the world’s biggest technology conference. Out of hundreds of companies that applied in a presentation competition, Recite was only one of 12 selected to present and, of those 12, Recite finished third. “The judges were Microsoft, Google, Apple, it was massive,” says Linnett.
Recite has only been trading since January and has about £100,000 of sales. It already has an office in Australia and plans another in California.
“We are launching a product that is disruptive to the market. Generally if you are dyslexic you will buy a bit of software that will cost you £200. We are charging £3 to £4 a month,” he explains.
He is confident sales can reach £3m to £4m in two or three years. Given that there an estimated 54 million dyslexics in the US alone, that does not seem unreasonable.
How does he feel now that he is on the verge of huge success? “It builds up so gradually it almost becomes part of your everyday life, but every now and then I walk in and think: I’ve built this. The great thing about it is that I’ve built a team of brilliant but nice people. But, I’m perpetually disappointed in myself, that’s not an exaggeration or dramatisation. I always look back and look at things I could have done better.”
He sees himself as a serial entrepreneur in the mould of digital entrepreneurs and plans to sell Recite within the next four years.
Then he has other ideas he wishes to develop.
But whatever he does, he is a true son of the North East and could not bear to leave the region. “My ambition is to be happy. I’m just motivated by doing stuff. I fancy a nice car and a big house but apart from that I’m still fairly simple and I’m still at my happiest when I’m walking the dog in the middle of nowhere.
“Steve Cram said when he finished athletics he struggled waking up in the morning without a mission. I’m exactly the same, when I get up in the morning I have a mission to build a company that’s international and global, based in the North East.”
He adds: “I’m very much a starter and builder of businesses. It’s a completely different skill maintaining a good business from building a good business. Building a good business is all about creativity and inspiration, maintaining a good business is all about processes.”
Linnett may have regrets about not being an athlete, but he has none about being dyslexic. He is, after all, in good company, along with Winston Churchill, Michael Heseltine, John F Kennedy, Richard Branson and Alan Sugar.
He says: “There’s a book called The Dyslexic Advantage which focuses on the strength of dyslexics. Dyslexia comes with advantages such as working memory, analytic ability, creativity and an ability to step outside the box. I didn’t realise until I started studying dyslexia how much it changed my life and shaped it.”