Trampoline’s Charles Armstrong

The editor has asked me to drop in the occasional profile of an entrepreneur. Here goes then:
Charles Armstrong thinks he’s had some lucky breaks on his way to securing a £3M …

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24th June 2007 at 12:26 pm

The editor has asked me to drop in the occasional profile of an entrepreneur. Here goes then:

Charles ArmstrongCharles Armstrong thinks he’s had some lucky breaks on his way to securing a £3M investment in his social software company, Trampoline Systems. Like most luck, it comes to those who’ve prepared well.

If he didn’t know his subject (ethnography) well enough, he would never have secured research grants to study how small communities communicate so effectively. If he hadn’t produced some software with potential, he would never have secured his early rounds of seed funding.

He notes that the very earliest fund-raising stages were easily the toughest. He spent six months writing applications to secure his first grant.

Had his prototype software not been so clearly useful, he would never have had a high-placed friend of a friend ‘donate’ his own meeting with the Foreign Office to Armstrong, giving him an astonishing break which led to his first real customer.

At every step of the way, Armstrong was begging for money, explaining his ideas and testing the markets. He even went to America for a month to see if his ideas resonated over there (Seattle, San Francisco, Washington and Boston). Not to mention creating some useful contacts.

He returned with his confidence boosted and the knowledge that he had something pretty special. This was in 2003 and he formed Trampoline Systems on his return.

Various bits of IP were transferred from his think tank and he was on his way. He secured his first seed funding of £130k from family and friends, some of whom were in the investment business and, within three months, he’d secured the Foreign Office deal.

His prototype software, called Collaboration Engine, quickly turned into a real product under the capable hands of software whizz, Craig McMillan. According to the blurb, it is: “all the key systems a business needs, linked together to multiply the value of every piece of knowledge. Email, file sharing, contact management, extranet and search for mid-sized businesses, networks and virtual organisations.”

The next couple of years saw the acquisition of more customers and the sidelining of his original grand vision in favour of the day-to-day requirements of Collaboration Engine and its client base. “We were trapped under a huge weight we’d created.”

It wasn’t until the beginning of 2006 that Armstrong stepped back and took stock. The first on-screen visualisation of information flows and connections was working by then. Web-based software tools had matured and the market was waking up to the value of social software. It was time to re-prioritise and expand the business.

A further £200k was raised (there had been another research grant somewhere along the way) and SONAR was conceived. Armstrong says, “it mines installed enterprise systems, extracts semantic and social network information and does its mojo on it.”

Jolly useful mojo, as it happens. Last October, the company made a very smart move. Having run SONAR against the Enron emails, it decided to make the results public. (Select a name and then turn on the Visualiser.) Says Armstrong, “It brought us to the attention of new audiences. It was a compelling explanation of what SONAR was.”

In his modest way, he was really saying “suddenly, we became hot”. The company had already attracted the attention of venture capitalists. The Raytheon Company was expressing serious interest and, as Armstrong says, “we’d need resources to support them brilliantly.” He knew it was time for venture capital.

In March this year it completed a £3m funding round with the Tudor Group.

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David Tebbutt is an award-winning columnist and feature writer who specialises on the subject of using software and technology to increase business productivity. He's an analyst with Freeform Dynamics but, in previous lives, wrote for Director magazine, Real Business and was also editor of Personal Computer World. http://freeformdynamics.com

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