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Target Acquired

In Focus
NAME:Josh Cairns
COMPANY:Ideagen Op Central
LOCATION:Melbourne, Australia
From an unlikely startup to a major acquisition for a global software solutions company, Op Central has changed the game in the world of compliance and changed the life of its Founder Josh Cairns.

The acquisition of Australian independent software vendor Op Central by Ideagen in November 2023 was the third purchase of an Australian company the multinational software solutions provider made that year. It may well have been the most significant.

Ideagen believes Op Central’s innovative AI technology has the potential to revolutionize the practice of compliance among organizations.

“Productivity is a huge concern for businesses globally and is increasingly being discussed at a board level as reduced productivity impacts both the top and bottom line,” Ideagen CEO Ben Dorks said at the time of the purchase.

Risky Business

The seismic impact of what is now Ideagen Op Central is a world away from its humble beginnings. In 2009, Op Central Founder Josh Cairns was in a career wilderness after graduating university.

“I struggled through uni, working many part-time jobs,” Cairns tells The CEO Magazine. “I drove forklifts, worked in a call center, did powder coating and even manned the register for graveyard shifts at a local service station.”

With university behind him, Cairns had a hunger to make some proper money.

“I got a job selling loans at a bank,” he says. “I was on home loans.”

The role gave Cairns enough financial breathing space to buy his first property and start thinking about what he really wanted to apply himself to.

His first business venture was a digital agency, a term he says was a stretch.

“We didn’t even call ourselves that,” he admits. “We were making websites at first, and when apps became a thing, we started making those.”

Eventually, the company began to land some significant contracts.

“The notion of ‘operational consistency’ may seem very unsexy, but we know it’s deeply correlated to the success of any growing business.”

“We did some really cool projects,” Cairns recalls. “We worked with various government clients, an Australian Football League club, and even Sesame Street and the Wiggles, which made me a very cool dad to my young kids.”

But despite the success, Cairns was left with a feeling he wasn’t cut out to run such a company.

“I’d get way too attached to certain projects,” he says. “We’d quote a fixed price to do a job, complete the scope of work, but we never really managed to align the commercial expectations. We’d always go above the scope when the client requested it, which was good for building relationships, but it wasn’t commercially viable.”

By 2014, Cairns was prepared to shut up shop.

“I thought, ‘This is not for me,’” he says. “I was questioning whether I was really cut out to build a global software business.”

All it took to disrupt this plan was a chance meeting with a friend in the industry.

“I had breakfast with someone quite influential in the world of franchising, and I mentioned we’d just finished developing an app to help state ambulance departments manage and distribute their clinical practice guidelines,” he says.

“Basically, it was a bible for paramedics. I was really passionate about it because it felt like we were helping to save lives, working on something that had an impact.”

His friend was amazed. “She said, ‘Oh my God, it’s exactly what franchise businesses need!’” he recalls.

Consistency, particularly the kind afforded by the app in question, is key in the world of franchising.

“So we took the concept we’d built for the ambulance departments and rebuilt it to be more aligned with the needs of the franchising community.”

The result was a platform for managing standard operating procedures (SOPs), policies and best practices wherever required.

“The notion of ‘operational consistency’ may seem very unsexy, but we know it’s deeply correlated to the success of any growing business,” Cairns says.

“And no other company was productizing it the way we were.”

Listen Up And Adapt

Cairns admits it’s not a typical entrepreneur story.

“I didn’t have a dream or a vision,” he says. “It sounds so corny, but it was just a matter of going out into the market and asking ‘What doesn’t exist that you wish did?’ We thought if we had a bunch of people saying they wanted a platform that did A, B and C, we’d build it and then we’d have a bunch of customers.”

Oversimplified as it sounds, the approach worked. “I think if we tried that as a conversation opener today, we’d come across like a consultant trying to sell something,” he says. “But for us, we just wanted to understand what problems existed so that we could solve them.”

Thus began the next phase of what would become Ideagen Op Central.

“Initially it was limited only to the management of SOPs. Then it became training with our learning management system (LMS), then an auditing platform, then HR and people management, and then franchisee relationship management. Soon we had the whole suite built in.”

The key to this business model was, he says, listening – a trait that should never fall by the wayside.

“We were humble enough to accept that our clients understood their needs better than we did.”

“I’ve seen people have a few wins and start convincing themselves they’re really clever and they know what’s best,” Cairns says.

“I was always cautious of this. In our case, the only reason we got any wins is because we were humble enough to accept that our clients understood their needs better than we did. We’d be receptive to feedback, even if it wasn’t what we wanted to hear. I never assume that I know anything to be true unless it’s validated by the market.”

This is genuinely difficult, but Cairns says that once it’s doable, it’s the beginning of success.

“We’ve never, to this day, stopped listening.”

Listening may be the start of the process, but then comes the heavy lifting.

“Once we know what the problem is, we have to put on our thinking caps and solve it.”

The Path To Success

The transition from digital agency to Software as a Service (SaaS) provider wasn’t an easy one, however. Cairns had little experience raising capital and attracting investors.

“I knew we needed money, so I sold my home and every asset I had,” he says. “I put every single dollar into building out the platform.”

The approach gave Cairns no safety net whatsoever.

“Yes, I wanted to succeed and yes, I wanted to put fuel on the fire and grow as quickly as possible, but I couldn’t afford to fail in pursuit of growing too quickly,” he says.

“When people think of entrepreneurs, they imagine people that are just going gung ho forward. I would love to have done that, and maybe if I had grown up with money in or around my family I would have been more bold. But knowing I had everything at stake made me extremely cautious at every step. If we’d failed, I was quite literally running the risk of homelessness.”

The biggest challenge the business faced in the early days was a lack of credibility.

“No one knew who the hell we were,” he explains.

“Once you’ve made a name for yourself, it seems to snowball. If you’ve got a good product and good culture, you’re true to your word, you should win business, but we couldn’t convey that because we didn’t have any clients.”

Cairns tackled this issue by partnering with companies that did have credibility.

“Franchise consulting groups that had clients that might benefit from our service,” he says. “We’d leverage their name and market standing in order to do transactions, and everybody benefited.”

Big companies tend to avoid taking risks on small companies without a strong reputation, he says. “But they were exactly our target market. By partnering with the right people, we got there in the end.”

“If you’ve got a good product and culture and you’re true to your word, you should win business.”

Today, the platform – now rebranded as Ideagen Op Central – is seen as a game changer by clients and contemporaries alike. The versatile and robust AI-powered technology under the hood has helped SOP management turn a corner. With the help of Ideagen Op Central, businesses can easily enhance operations and work smarter.

“We took a different approach to an existing category,” Cairns says of his pioneering efforts. “Online training systems were nothing new; they had been around since the late 1990s. But this typically meant PDFs of ops manuals and policies and procedures sitting in a bunch of online folders and then having a learning management system do the training.”

Cairns and his team identified a problem in the old style: the two would often have no connection to each other.

“If you updated a policy in your operations manual, there was no way for that to automatically flow through to the learning management system (LMS),” he says.

“You’d end up with a situation where someone who joined the company five minutes ago is being trained to work in a very different way to someone who joined five years ago.”

The solution was to combine operations manuals with learning management systems.

“A single point of truth for instructional content,” Cairns says. “If anything changes in the ops manual, it automatically updates the LMS. It takes away the risk of inconsistent training.”

If training is consistent, he adds, so are the operational practices.

“Operational inconsistency is the biggest enemy we’re fighting. It was a huge gap in the market.”

Cairns feels that this unique approach is indicative of the outside-the-box thinking that sets Op Central apart.

“Our solutions are different,” he says. “And, we think, improvements over what’s already out there.”

The most effective weapon in that battle came to Cairns as a concept in early 2022, during an off-the-grid trek to climb Mt Aconcagua in Argentina.

“I realized I wanted to create AI tools within the platform to help clients create policies and SOPs which are compliant with all relevant regulatory frameworks,” he says.

This revelation was put into swift action, with the Op Central team developing and rolling out these first-of-its-kind AI tools for launch that February. The tools have expedited the speed and accuracy of client policy creations and were revolutionary to compliance and risk software in Australia.

Unconventional Leadership

While Ideagen Op Central’s journey thus far is something of a testament to Cairns’ leadership, he’s quick to downplay his role.

“I don’t really think of myself as a leader,” he says. “My style of leadership is about supporting my people with all they need to be their best, rather than micromanaging their work or outcomes.

“I tend to hire the best person I can find, pay them well and then get out of their way unless they need my help with something.”

What Cairns doesn’t do is micromanage, a lesson he learned by example early on.

“It took time for me to figure out what leadership looks like,” he admits. “In the early days, I probably tried a bit too hard to emulate other leaders that I’d worked for or seen from afar, before realizing that I had my own unique style that could be effective.”

Not helping that approach was the fact that in the beginning, Op Central was a small team by anyone’s standards.

“Early on, I probably tried too hard to emulate other leaders I’d seen from afar.”

“We were four people, even up to late 2020,” he says. “But we had an awesome culture. We all supported each other even when we were fighting to keep the business afloat.”

Naturally, the COVID-19 pandemic was a blow to the company, with many clients in the retail and restaurant sectors closing their doors.

“It was a big part of our client base, and we were all doing everything we could to survive,” Cairns says.

“But it was so fulfilling to come into the office every day. Our work was meaningful. That’s what I want from people I hire. I want people who wake up in the morning and care. You can teach skills, but it’s hard to teach people to care. Everyone that works for me has an understanding that their work is meaningful, and they’re not simply stamping the clock each day.”

When staff are united under a single mission, the business gains a clarity and confidence that can turn risk into resilience, he adds.

“There are absolutely no egos in our business whatsoever, and we hold each other mutually accountable. We don’t mess around. We focus on what’s going to drive us further towards delivering for our customers.”

The Perfect Deal

Cairns believes that this unique approach is indicative of the outside-the-box thinking that sets Ideagen Op Central apart.

“Our solutions are different,” he says. “And, we think, improvements over what’s already out there.”

The industry agrees. It quickly became apparent that Op Central was a highly sought-after acquisition target in the global tech community.

“I had the idea that if we were acquired, I could drastically change the trajectory of life for myself and my children,” he says. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

But Cairns wasn’t content to accept the first deal that came his way. “It had to be the right company with the right values to ensure that our staff and clients were in the very safest of hands.”

Cairns ended up with several bona fide offers on the table from all over the world. For a variety of reasons, he selected Ideagen as the best partner to take Op Central into the future.

Based in the United Kingdom, Ideagen has three decades of experience in the field of regulatory and compliance software solutions, a CV that’s attracted some top-tier clients over the years.

“Our pricing model has changed several times over the years, and with the help of Ideagen’s experienced team we feel that it’s now as close to perfect as can be.”

“They’ve got such a great footprint and it gives us so much reach that we can do things we’d never have been able to without the support of a global company,” Cairns says.

“Our pricing model has changed several times over the years, and with the help of Ideagen’s experienced team we feel that it’s now as close to perfect as can be.”

The global reach of Ideagen has also helped provide customers and clients with operational support that was previously unattainable. What doesn’t worry Cairns is the idea that Op Central will be diluted as part of a bigger brand.

“I was hyperaware of that risk, but within 10 minutes of my first conversation with the executive team at Ideagen, it was clear that our values, our mission and our purpose were beautifully aligned,” he says.

“It was a great outcome for myself, my family and my team, and I have no doubt it will prove to be a spectacular outcome for Ideagen and our existing customers as well.”

In fact, Op Central becoming part of the Ideagen family has had a profoundly positive impact on the team. Cairns is confident that careers can grow and excel with the assistance of best-in-practice software learnings from all around the Ideagen ecosystem, providing opportunities never before possible.

The Next Level

Ideagen Op Central’s journey from vaguely defined startup to a pioneering pillar of a global software solutions giant has come with a lot of education, but Cairns still feels he has a lot to learn.

“I started this business with no money, no clients and no idea how to build a SaaS business. It was born out of a struggling digital agency with only a talented team and an excellent culture,” he says.

“But for my business to reach the next level, this acquisition needed to happen. It needed the resources, support and investment that comes with being part of a global business such as Ideagen.”

As Ideagen puts its new acquisition to work among its impressive portfolio, Cairns is already exploring what his future looks like.

“I’m really keen to take the learnings that I’ve gained from this business and apply them to my next opportunity. I’m still as ambitious and hungry and competitive as I’ve ever been. I’m still full of ideas and I have no doubt that my best business outcomes are ahead of me,” he says.

“What matters most to me will always be my children.”

“But right now my mind goes back to what matters most to me, and that will always be my children. That’s a huge driver for me, and I want to take some time to be fully focused on my children and being present in their lives while they’re still young. It’s hard to do that while running a global technology company.”

While Cairns may feel he’s taken Op Central as far as he can, he’s left an innovative product and a strong team in safe hands.

“I feel at peace leaving Op Central with Ideagen,” he says.

“The talented team who made it what it is, they’re still there. Our Operations Manager Kayla Russell and our Head of Growth Alexandra Laurence are thriving under the new structure, and now they have a bigger team around them to help make things happen.”

As he steps off what’s been a wild ride, Cairns is confident Op Central will be one of Ideagen’s best acquisitions. In the meantime, he’s focused on the road ahead.

“I’m so excited about this next stage of my journey!”

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