In our latest NE tech spotlight we turn our attention to Mesma, a Sunderland-based Software as a Service (SaaS) specialist enabling clients in the technical education, employment support and youth sectors to gain insight into their quality assurance activities. 

Mesma’s insightQ application is used by around 400 colleges, apprenticeship training providers, universities, and governing agencies across the UK, to help them to target resources where they will have the greatest impact for both learners and employers.

CEO Louise Doyle shares learnings from the business’ evolution from consultancy to tech company, its exciting growth plans and discovering the value of the North East’s tech ecosystem. 

Starting up

Far too often people assume that startup journeys are straight-forward, linear processes. You have an idea, you build an MVP, you gain market traction, maybe raise some money and sooner or later you get pretty rich doing it. Sounds a doddle, right?

In reality, overnight successes are few and far between. Successful founder journeys come in all shapes and sizes, often spanning a number of years with just as many steps back as strides forward. Most successes are in fact the summation of hard work, dedication, iteration and continuous learning. Mesma is one such tech startup carving its own path to success.

Founded by education consultant Louise Doyle, Carole Loader and Neil Donkin in 2011, the business sprung to life on a shared belief that the technical education sector was crying out for a better way of doing quality assurance. Realising no such solution existed, the trio knew they had to build something themselves. 

However, as Louise reveals, it’s only been in the last two years that the company has truly found itself undergoing a more typical high potential startup journey, focused on high growth, improved product development and increased customer acquisition. 

Louise explains: “We started in 2011 with three original co-founders although it’s only Carol and I who are still working in the business today, alongside the team we’re growing.

“Ten years ago, when we first started talking about Mesma, we all had very full-on jobs. So bringing our idea for a quality assurance-based software company to life was something which we could only do in our spare time.

“Neil built our MVP and we actually stayed in this phase for a long time. We had a product that was being used and people liked it. Plus our time was mostly filled by the consultancy side of the business which we specialised in.

“Carole and I aren’t technologists, we’re known for our experience and knowledge in the education and training world. We found it hard to move out of our MVP stage because it was enough to service our clients at the time. Yet we always knew what it was and the potential of what Mesma could be were two very different things.”

A tech-first focus to scale

2018 was a pivotal year for Mesma, arguably the year that the company really began to feel like a startup. With Neil moving away from the business, Louise and Carole attended an accelerator and shifted their focus into evolving Mesma’s InsightQ product to support more clients in taking control of their quality assurance needs. 

Louise comments: “We decided to do what we set out to do in the first place and build a tech business. Attending the Natwest Accelerator helped us gain clarity of thought and this is when we really shifted into the tech-first mindset, pushing us to move away from being a consultancy-first business.”

The past 24 months have seen a big upheaval at Mesma. Securing a six-figure investment from the North East Small Loan Fund at the back end of last year, the company is evolving its software and looking to grow its client base to over 1000 organisations within the next three years. 

Louise continues: “We’ve gone from being a consultancy with a bit of tech to a tech business with a bit of consultancy!

“We believe that people should have access to high quality education. People having the right to live, thrive and be happy in employment and beyond is what runs through everything that we do.

“If we really want to make a difference to the delivery and quality of technical education and employment services, then the way to do that is to help people to help themselves. 

“We’ve always had the mantra that if we do a good job then we’ll put our consultancy arm out of business. We want to empower people, to enable people to manage their quality improvement processes in-house.”

Recent hire Ola Awobona, who joins Mesma as a product owner, is a significant addition to the team, supporting the company’s plans to grow its presence in both the UK and other key global markets.

Louise adds: “Ola’s role is pivotal in helping us to ensure the customer is championed in any product development decisions we make and managing the priorities of our software development team.” 

Advice for early-stage founders

Top tips from Louise to help boost your startup...

Listen to and learn from your customers

Louise says: “Don’t make the assumption that you know what your customers want. Have the humility and honesty to listen to what your customers think, it’s the best way of building a product that people will want to use. 

“Listening to customers influences how our software is built. When we started out with InsightQ originally, we just saw a problem and developed what we thought would fix it. 

“Based on learning from our customers, we’ve now moved to the other end. We’ve asked ourselves what does the output need to look like and how do we build the software backwards? There is lots of layering in that from AI and machine learning to reduce subjectivity, stripping out inefficiency and allowing providers to compare their quality outcomes to each other in an anonymised way. We know this from listening.”

Find your confidence and allow it to flourish

Louise says: “Fundamentally at our core we are a software business but we didn’t self identify as one for a long time, due to our expertise in consultancy. However, we knew growth would lie in the software and feeling confident to own that and to now self-identify as a SaaS company has been a big thing for us. 

“Don’t wait to have complete confidence in your ideas or you’ll get yourself stuck. Know that for every entrepreneur, confidence-building takes time and can change by the day depending on how things are going. I’d go as far as saying resilience is the most important skill to work on. 

“However, as a first step to building that confidence, spending your energy confirming that there is a market for what you do and an appetite to pay for it."

Plug into the North East's tech ecosystem

Louise says: “I wish I had engaged with the North East tech scene sooner, we’d be further along in our journey if we had identified as a tech business in the region.  

“Be part of the North East tech scene. Gain insight. Gain connections. Go to X or Y to help you. We now have a subcontractor in Teesside which we didn’t have previously and that’s extremely helpful for us. 

"I didn’t know it was here or even how important it was until I started speaking to people who have been there and done it. It can be hard to know where to start or to get into what’s happening but you don’t need to be a software developer to be a part of it.”

To find out more about Mesma and the company's InsightQ software, head to https://mesma.co.uk.