The path towards a true calling

October 2, 2020

Paul Drake’s first brushes with the working world were inauspicious to say the least. Having left a milk processing role for a job removing scampi entrails, he returned to the dairy sector, only to find cottage cheese production a similarly lacklustre endeavour. Crucially, however, he didn’t give up on his ambitions and a chance musing of magazines in WH Smith set him on a digital path. Today, Paul is co-founder of Stockton-based Sapere Software, which continues to grow as it supports clients’ technological transformations. Here, he tells Steven Hugill about his career, the harsh realities of early employment and the importance of never giving up on a dream

Sometimes in life, it’s not where you start but where you finish. For Paul Drake, that maxim could easily read as a precis of his CV.

As co-founder and director of operations at Stockton’s Sapere Software, he today sits at the vanguard of digital innovation as the company designs, develops and rolls out mobile and web platform technology for clients including the NHS.

But it wasn’t always so.

As a fresh-faced teenager, Paul gutted scampi at a factory in Whitby, North Yorkshire.

It didn’t take him long to realise the job, quite literally, stank.

“All I did every day was remove entrails,” he says.

“My hands would get stained from curry- infused scampi and you couldn’t even hold a conversation because the big speakers were always blaring out the local radio.

“It was like being in a really cold, smelly nightclub – I was only there a few months.”

For all his repugnance, it wasn’t the first time Paul, who originally hails from Guisborough, in east Cleveland, had found himself in a less than desirable job – nor would it be the last.

He began his working life as an 18-year-old in a Whitby dairy after the realities of impending fatherhood altered his plans for a career in civil engineering.

“I re-sat my school exams at college and then did a diploma for two years,” he says.

“However, we then found out we were having a baby, which obviously meant I couldn’t go away to study civil engineering, so I tried – but failed – to get a job in the sector,” adds the former Laurence Jackson School pupil.

What it meant was an agency role moving pallets of UHT milk off a production line.

“I couldn’t do it,” laughs Paul, “the crates kept stacking up and I was forever pressing the button for someone to help me.”

But when his scampi venture foundered, Paul returned to where he’d started, cleaning equipment used to process milk and make yoghurt, cottage cheese and cream.

Things, though, failed to improve.

“The first time I reached into a vat for machine parts, the top of my arm got covered in caustic soda because my gauntlets only came up to my elbows.

“It’s no fun when something is burning the hairs off your arms.

“We also had to fill buckets with hazardous liquids out the back of the factory – hoping they didn’t splash everywhere as we did.

“On one occasion though, it was so dark I had to move my visor to see and I ended up with caustic soda in my eye, which made it clamp shut.

“I thought I was going to lose my sight.”

After speaking to management, Paul was offered a role making cottage cheese, which, although “one of the best jobs in the creamery”, only reiterated an ever-growing desire to find true career fulfilment.

“I’d been there for about three years – by this time I’d bought an ex-council house and I kept thinking to myself, ‘I’ve got to do something better with my life’.

“I remember being in Middlesbrough shopping one day and looking at the magazines in WH Smith.

“There were tonnes of computer publications with loads of jobs in them and I began imagining going for something like that.

“So I signed up for a business computing degree course with Stockton and Billingham Technical College, which was in conjunction with the University of Sunderland, and started night classes.

“I transferred to Teesside University to complete my studies after a year.”

Around the same time, Paul – who was still working at the creamery – discovered The Data Processing Company, which operated out of a three-storey house overlooking Staithes’ harbour on the North Yorkshire coast.

Ran by Lawrence Stroud, it had developed the Zipcount software application, which managed data and mined information for operators such as travel agents.

When the firm advertised a junior development role, Paul applied, but what ensued was another tumultuous period.

“I had an interview but then failed a test,” he recalls.

“I was distraught, so I emailed Lawrence back, asking if I could come in for some unpaid experience.

“He took sympathy and offered me a job. I was the happiest man in the world – but things soon started to unpick.

“I just didn’t have the basic knowledge and Lawrence offered me a role on the data clearing side of things, which removed people’s information when they’d moved on.

“But that began to unravel too, and I was let go.

“I was so embarrassed that I told everyone I’d been made redundant.”

Though scarred by his experiences, Paul doubled down and began self-tuition, which was when a Lotus Notes software development job arose with Wilton Centre-based operator DuPont Knowledge Management.

“I’d bought a computer and was teaching myself the basics of software development,” he says.

“I was still studying for my degree too but had a great intern at DuPont who taught me the ropes.

“Things snowballed from there – I was given projects ahead of others and they moved me into a side office with my name on the door,” smiles Paul.

It was, however, to prove transitory as sweeping changes to DuPont’s global network brushed Paul’s role from its roster.

He quickly found work with Kirkleatham-based Data Images, impressing clients with his diligence and technical nous.

But, when the firm changed tack and began writing software for local authority disabled transport services, so too did Paul.

Working with future business partner Shaun Merifield – who had previously departed Data Images for contractor work with steel firm Corus – Paul began sowing the seeds for Sapere.

“I was getting jobs with chemical companies like Johnson Matthey and Huntsman,” he says,

“and wrote a platform for the latter that the chief executive called world-class and wanted to roll out across the whole firm.

“However, companies using Lotus Notes began to change direction and I wanted out of where I was.

“So, one day Shaun and I just said, ‘let’s do something’.

Having engaged the services of a Redcar-based business support organisation, the duo launched their endeavour in 2009 from Shaun’s dining table, though they were soon left to chew on something rather unpleasant.

“We went into it completely blind and it was a huge learning curve to understand accounts, finance and legal documents,” explains Paul.

“We’d called the business Logica Software and had cards printed, but then one day a 50-page legal document thwacked through the letterbox.

“It warned us the title was already in use, which was a huge shock.

“We needed a new name fast and consulted the Latin dictionary, which is where we found Sapere Aude.

“It means ‘dare to know’, which we thought summed up the business well, so we took off the Aude and went from there.”

The pair secured space at Teesside University’s Victoria Building – a known hothouse for innovative start-ups – and tapped into advice across areas such as sales and marketing, before moving into the institution’s Phoenix Building around 12 months later.

“The business changed after about a year,” says Paul.

“We saw the emergence of Apple and the momentum with apps and we thought ‘let’s get into this mobile world’.

“From that point, Sapere began growing into what it is today.

“We worked on a proof of concept project for Procter & Gamble pretty early on and that helped us find the recipe for us as a software company.”

The formula Paul refers to goes beyond simple software creation, with Sapere offering comprehensive consultancy packages that tailor technology to a business’ individual needs.

“We look at organisations in detail, which helps identify how we can improve services,” says Paul, who reveals the business recently delivered a workshop to support Stockton-based Jacksons Law Firm’s efforts to raise efficiency and competitiveness while generating new revenues.

“Another good example is our work with the Wilton Centre’s Absolute Antibody, which has helped them move from spreadsheets and Access databases to a web application.”

However, Sapere – now based in Stockton’s Fusion Hive – is also a company of social commitment.

Its free Quevel app, unveiled in the summer, aids social distancing in the COVID-19 world by providing users with live updates on how busy stores and offices are.

“One of the guys developed it in the time we offer staff to work on their ideas,” says Paul.

“It is a very simple solution to a problem that is going to become more important as we move towards winter and the possibility of queuing outside stores in the cold, wind and rain.

“Any business can access Quevel and users don’t need to pass on their personal details either.

“It shows what kind of business we are,” he adds.

“We want to be involved in everything where software will be a crucial part going forwards, be it COVID-19, 5G, decarbonisation, machine learning or artificial intelligence.

“We want to be the go-to guys, the first name on customers’ lips, the conduit to success.”

Sapere Software

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