Data dynamo: Polecat

From assessing geopolitical risks for Royal Dutch Shell to identifying supply chain security challenges for the United Nations, James Lawn outlines Polecat's business journey and future plans

​​Microsoft alumni, James Lawn and Bronwyn Kunhardt launched the world’s first comprehensive risk assessment software, Polecat, at the beginning of the recession. We speak to co-founder and CEO James Lawn nine years on.

Name: James Lawn

Location: London

Date Launched: April 2007

What does your business do?

We help business decision-makers make better decisions and manage risk to the benefit of their organisation, their customers, and ultimately to their shareholders.

We figured in 2007, before big data was a term, that businesses you could use algorithms and software to analyse all the data that’s out there – not just anecdotal or internal data – using the power of human linguistics and by automating as much as possible to provide the highest level insight that a machine can. The end result is to enable senior business decision-makers like we were in Microsoft to make the best decisions around opportunity and risk. That was our principle. We set out with the objective of delivering something that was ten times faster, ten times more accurate, and ten times cheaper than McKinsey. The reason why we do that is because McKinsey are great and the insight they provide is great. If we could provide insight like that ten times cheaper, ten times faster, ten times more accurate, that’s a damn good thing.

It’s not about replacing consultants at McKinsey or KPMG. They’re already subject area experts!  You’ve got analysts there doing a lot of research, Googling, reading reports, assessing Tweets for tonality, sentiment, and so on – all in multiple languages. They’re using intelligence to do that, along with experience.

For example, in the Middle East, conversations in French and conversations in Arabic provide differing perspectives. Also, conversations on social media are quite negative about what’s going on, whereas news in the media and trade press is really quite positive about what’s going on. Sifting through these conversations is what analysts do. What we do is automate that as much as we possibly can to enable a senior business decision-maker to access that information direct, a consultant to provide high level management consultancy on top of that, or to enable an analyst who would otherwise only be able to get over 100 pieces of content to do the same great stuff that they do with over a million or ten million pieces of content.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

We founded Polecat on the first of April, 2007. I was head of innovation in Microsoft in the UK, and Bronwyn was director of reputation, so we did quite a lot of work together as you might imagine in terms of how innovation and reputation connect for Microsoft. I certainly did an awful lot in the Valley during that time as well, and especially with the UK SME market as well. During that time I spent a lot of time with staff and certainly got a buzz to go and do something myself.

We set up the company in the beginning of probably one of the biggest industry growth areas, the nexus of big data and risk management. We picked a good time, as it turns out. To be honest, I think the recession ensured that we developed the company the way we did. We spent the first couple years largely consulting with large organisations to understand whether our proposition was where they were at, and where they were going. It was very early days. There wasn’t much discussion around big data. It was much more about the fact that we provided much stronger analytics and visualisation than your average social media monitoring solution would provide, which gave us a good foot in the door with most of these organisations.

How did you raise funding, and why?

When we’re not investing everything back into developing the company and the product we are able to make profit. We have made profit in the past, but typically we are piling everything back into it to keep growing the company.

At the end of last year, we decided look into opportunities to grow faster than we could do organically. We’ve already developed the company, we developed the product. This is about how to expand the company at the most sensible, most rapid rate possible. We took investment as growth capital, and have an outstanding investor behind us who is very much of that same impression. In fact, we’ve got amazing debt providers behind us supporting us on that as well, which is interesting since they have different levels of risk appetite.

What’s your best business decision?

My best business decision was to set up Polecat. I did a good number of years in the Royal Air Force. I ended up being one of the youngest senior officers in Royal Air Force and I loved that. I left at the right time and went to go and do something different. I joined Microsoft. Incredible company. Incredibly innovative. Incredible opportunities. I loved my time in Microsoft and I could so easily have decided to stay in Microsoft. I’m sure I’d be very happy to be in Microsoft now. I’d probably be in Redmond , but I’d be very happy.

Taking all of that that I learned from the Air Force and from Microsoft and actually doing it and actually having a company with lots of people in it who are incredible and innovative and have got mortgages and everything else. We’ve got people in Polecat that have got kids that were born while they’ve been in Polecat. It’s an amazing business with amazing people and I’m just very pleased that I took the decision to do it. I think financially it was the right decision, but that’s not number one. That’s probably number two. It’s about my life and what was the right thing to do.

Where do you want to be in the future?

We started with a consultancy during the recession, and we probably started to develop that out around 2012, and were fully privatised by 2014. We’ve seen great progress in 2015 and we’re incredibly excited about this year and the next. We’re doubling the size of the company at the moment and we will be doubling it again over the next year, so we’re motoring at the moment. To give you a bit of context on that, we’re definitely an SME and proud to be an SME, but we’re also pretty proud to have pretty much knocked our way into the medium side of that SME market.

Our focus over the next two years is on the Global 2000 in the sectors of healthcare, finance, energy, and FMCG. If you look at the global 2000 in those four sectors, then the largest market is the United States from a pure market opportunity, then the US makes the most sense.

From day one we have been looking at conversation and geopolitical risk in Arabic and French for oil companies. We have been engaged with pharmaceutical companies on conversation in China around IP. We have been engaged going East as well since day one and very much going East is on our agenda too. We have that scheduled, as it stands at the moment, to occur in around 18 to 24 months. There are things that I am still seeking advice on and learning in terms of how best to engage and actually set up operations in China, for example.

The other agenda that Bronwyn and I left Microsoft with, as well as the McKinsey agenda and the fact that we could do this using data and algorithms, was that we would ultimately be on the device of every single decision-maker in the United Nations. When a United Nations decision-maker is looking at challenges, be they conflict, famine, epidemics, whatever, they are using objective, all encompassing data from Polecat to help them make decisions.

We have done some work so far with the United Nations around supply chain and that’s definitely one of the pinnacles of our agenda. Of course we want to develop our incredible company and make it bigger and deliver great value for the company, but one of our biggest objectives is to be there right at the core of what the United Nations is looking at. We believe that the information we’re providing will help them make better decisions doing great work.

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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