Dragons’ Den star Piers Linney is sitting pretty

Piers Linney has got it all: millions in the bank, a spot on primetime TV and a cloud-computing business that was valued at £35m when it floated last year. But it’s all thanks to dogged determination, he tells Hannah Prevett

Dragons' Den star Piers Linney is sitting pretty

When nearly 3 million viewers tuned in to the first episode in series 11 of Dragons’ Den last August, most were meeting Piers Linney for the first time. Introduced to the nation as a ‘cloud computing pioneer’, those who did their homework would quickly have learned that Linney was a wealthy investor with a stellar background in the city. But just as success in the Den is not guaranteed for those who pitch for investment, Linney was not always on course for fame and riches. 

Linney was born to his Barbadian mother and English father in Stoke-on-Trent in 1971. “Me and Robbie Williams,” he jokes. When he was nine, the family relocated to Bacup, a small mill town in Lancashire, to enable his father, Derek, who worked in ceramics exports, to begin a new job in Manchester. He describes the town as picturesque but says it had “social issues” and hints that it wasn’t all rosy. “It was quite interesting being a mixed race kid growing up there,” Linney says. 

His mother, Norma, who had come to the UK with her sister in the 1960s to work as a nurse, got a job as the local health visitor. “She became a pillar of the local community; this black lady going around this little mill town,” recalls Linney. “Then she set up a local health centre, slimming club and did all of these things in the community. I think that was her entrepreneurial spirit coming out.” 

If Linney was encountering any problems at school, they certainly weren’t reflected in his grades. “I was always quite bright,” he says. “There were something like 60 kids in this tiny Victorian school. It was like something out of a picture book.” 

Yet despite his apparent academic aptitude, Linney failed the 11-plus examination which would have snared him a place at grammar school. “To my mum and dad’s dismay, I ended up going to the comprehensive,” he recalls.

Throughout school and into the first year of his A-levels, Linney played the part of a typical teenager, treading the fine line between having a good time and getting the grades when he had to. “But then I started thinking that it wasn’t just about partying and members of the opposite sex: I realised that my dad went to Cambridge and my mum went to university to do her nurse training.” There were overachievers in his extended family too. “My auntie has two daughters, one is a consultant respiratory physician and one is a partner in a very large law firm. So you could say there was a bit of family pressure,” he laughs. 

Linney scored a place at Manchester University to read accounting and law. But his degree course wasn’t the only thing on his mind. Since he was 13, he’d been involved in entrepreneurial endeavours. His first business was cutting out the newsagents to deliver newspapers that had been sent directly to his house from the wholesaler. “I did that for a couple of years until it wasn’t cool to have a paper round any more,” Linney smiles. 

At university, Linney turned his attention to the nightlife scene. He ran club nights, bars and then worked in promotions. “Through university I was probably making more money than I did as a trainee solicitor,” he says. Though his wallet may have been bulging, his studies were suffering. “I did a four-year degree which was lucky really – I always say that if I’d done a three-year degree I probably wouldn’t have got into law. Fortunately, my friends, who were a major distraction, left in the third year.”

For the final year, Linney knuckled down. He harboured ambitions of working in the professions. “Where I grew up, there were lots of entrepreneurs in the manual labour kind of space. A family friend had an aluminium shaping business, another had a very large trailer manufacturing business. When I did my careers choices at school, they asked what work experience you want to do and I replied that I wanted to go and work in Barclays. They looked at me like I was insane.”

Now in his early 20s, having finished his degree and shortly to be graduating from law school, it looked as though Linney’s dreams of working in the City may finally be realised, if only he could get a job. “I sent 68 applications to big law firms and I got one and a half offers,” he recalls. He blames the tendency to plump for applicants from a certain scholarly background for the apparent lack of interest. “Me on paper didn’t stack up. I didn’t go to the right school or have the right background.”

The one law firm that offered him a job was SJ Berwin. “Once I’d got into the interview room, I could talk the talk, and I told them to give me a chance and they did. That’s how I got into the City.” Linney is fiercely critical of the recruitment processes in London’s financial district. “There’s a very, very tight restriction when it comes to getting into the City. It’s like a very narrow gateway – if you don’t get through it, then you don’t get through it.”

Law may have offered Linney the keys to the City, but he wouldn’t stay long. “I realised at the end of year one I wasn’t going to be a lawyer long-term. I asked a friend from law school what he thought I should do and he said I should consider investment banking as that’s what he was applying for. I literally bought a book called Investment Banking – I’d never heard of it – and started reading this pink newspaper, the FT.” Having decided that he wanted to pursue a career in investment banking, Linney faced similar challenges to those when he approached the law firms a few years earlier. “I applied to Credit Suisse but didn’t even get a look in, not even a formal response for their graduate training programme. Nothing.”

Barclays de Zoete Wedd offered him a job in September 1997 – shortly before its investment banking arm was acquired by Credit Suisse. “I ended up at Credit Suisse in quite a senior role when only four months earlier they wouldn’t even give me a job on their graduate training programme,” says Linney. He’s currently setting up workinsight.org, a charity that’ll pair local employers with teenage seekers of work ‘insights’ and removes selection criteria from the process. He hopes this’ll remove the barriers for people who don’t attend elite schools and come from privileged backgrounds.

Back in the City, alongside his lucrative day job, Linney couldn’t resist tinkering in projects in his free time. “I was investing in film finance, organising companies, helping friends to start businesses.” It was clear to him that it was time to go it alone and the ideal opportunity presented itself in bonus season 2000. “In those days, as soon as your bonus cheque cleared in the bank you resigned and you were given a box. Everyone asked me what I was going to do. I said, ‘I’m going to start an internet business and it’s going to look something like this.’ I raised £750,000 leaving the building.” 

Linney’s first post-City venture was in online medical research, a business he set up with an acquaintance. After the company struggled to get funding in the aftermath of the dotcom crash, Linney was back to square one. “Only a year after I left the City, I was sitting at home with my phone and my rolodex thinking ‘what am I going to do now?’ I couldn’t go back to the City because the wheels had fallen off, not that I wanted to, and I couldn’t go back to law as I’d been out of it too long, and I didn’t want to do that either. A lot of entrepreneurs will tell you what drives them forward is the fact that there’s nothing behind you to go back to.”

Over the next seven years Linney became a serial entrepreneur operating predominantly in the finance space. The knowledge he’d acquired specialising in venture capital in the City stood him in good stead. Initially he worked with companies to raise them capital before going on to buy and sell his own assets. In 2007, he and business partner Simon Newton, who he’d met at Credit Suisse, bought Genesis Communications, a mobile phone business, from Dixons. “We built the largest independent provider of business mobile solutions in the UK. We got to £45m in revenue and 300 staff but we wondered where it was going. It didn’t excite us any more.”

In the interim, Linney and Newton had snapped up another couple of businesses and integrated them into the larger company. “We couldn’t help ourselves,” laughs Linney. “So we had quite a big mobile phone company with a very, very nascent hosting business bolted on the side of it.”

The pair bet big on cloud and sold Genesis. “In our industry, few people have the cojones to actually part company with the legacy, the past and their traditional business in order to sell something new,” he says. 

Linney and Newton poured cash from the sale into the cloud business, Outsourcery. “We spent a year building infrastructure, people, processes and systems. There was no revenue addition at all. We realised to scale the business we had to be gold-plated in many ways and very credible.” Indeed, as cloud services began to capture the attention of the big corporates that were looking to reduce IT budgets and reduce reliance on proprietary systems, Outsourcery began to gain traction. In 2010, the company received the Microsoft Hosting Solutions Partner of the Year award.

Another way of bolstering credibility was to go public: Outsourcery listed on AIM last year. “The decision to go public was taken to raise our profile and to make us very, very credible,” says Linney. “Now we never get asked about our finances or our balance sheet because we’re a public company.”

The IPO was hard work, he concedes. And it happened to coincide with the filming of Linney’s first series of Dragons’ Den. “We finished the recording of Dragons’ Den on the Friday, there was an Easter weekend and on the Tuesday we started our IPO roadshow. I did 40 pitches myself in the space of two weeks. It was like going from watching it to doing exactly the same thing, though in a different format obviously.”

Dragons’ Den wasn’t the first time Linney had appeared on screen. In 2010 he featured in the BBC’s Secret Millionaire, which depicted him spending time in a young offenders’ institution in Wolverhampton. One of the former prisoners he met is now one of Outsourcery’s cloud consultants. Following this, he was asked to do several more TV shows. “I’m mixed race, I went to a normal comprehensive in Lancashire and now I’m running a technology company. It’s quite a journey and I’ve learned there aren’t too many Piers Linneys around. I’d get asked to do TV stuff quite a lot but it had always been around social mobility and commentary. At the end of the day I’m not an expert in social mobility,” he says.

Dragons’ Den was more his cup of tea, he explains. Though he still had to think long and hard about it. Initial talks in 2012 broke down and when producers came knocking again the next year, Linney was on safari in South Africa with none other than Richard Branson. “I asked Sir Richard what he thought and we went through the pros and cons. The main con was the loss of anonymity but in the end he said, ‘screw it, just do it’.”

Having just finished his second series of filming with the Dragons’ Den crew, Linney is optimistic about the future. He says viewers and participants have sussed out what excites both him and fellow new Dragon Kelly Hoppen. “The first series, with myself especially but also Kelly, was about people working out how we fitted in, whereas in the next series I’m going to be doing things that are proper tech,” he says, hinting at things to come. 

It seems that Linney and Hoppen’s arrival in the Den has given the show a boost: it’s up for a BAFTA this year. “It’s quite nice to show even after ten years we’ve done something that’s reignited interest in it,” says Linney. Yet he’s not letting his newfound celebrity status go to his head. “People often say to me, ‘you’re on Dragons’ Den, you’re so successful and established,’ but I think, ‘you know what, I’m not. I’m just getting going.” 

Hannah Prevett
Hannah Prevett

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