Huddle is one of those companies that started from a bedroom and then expanded fast. Established in 2007, it was widely regarded as one of the UK’s leading start-ups. Based in London, the company now employs 120 people.

Co-founder and CEO of Huddle Alastair Mitchell, a physical engineer by trade and still only in his early 20s, is confident that the high-tech company will span the globe. His confidence comes from the fact that Huddle, his third start-up, is at the cutting edge of the latest technology, pioneering the use of intelligent recommendation technology for content management.

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Rapid ascent

More than 100,000 organisations worldwide use Huddle, including Sega, AKQA, Unilever, KIA Motors, Procter and Gamble, Saatchi & Saatchi, NASA, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Rockwell Automation and numerous Fortune 500 companies. Its business is to securely manage projects, share files and allow collaboration with people inside and outside of a business.

Besides London, Huddle operates offices in Chicago, San Francisco and New York, and in May 2013, it announced the opening of a fourth office in Washington, DC, where it will take advantage of contract opportunities with the US government. 

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Mr Mitchell. “We already have a series of customers at the federal level – most of which we cannot talk about. And there will be many more announcements on the horizon.”

Key to this development is Huddle’s backing from In-Q-Tel, the Arlington, Virginia, not-for-profit venture capital branch of the US Central Intelligence Agency that allows companies to develop technologies for the US intelligence community. Currently, government and defence work represents 30% of Huddle’s business.

Go west

Huddle started in London, a city that Mr Mitchell, a native of the UK capital, calls, “the premier technology start-up centre in Europe". "It was the best place to start a business for me," he says. “In London there is available venture capital and talent in terms of development, and marketing and sales. London is our core development and operation office.”

But the company needed to have a US base in order to grow internationally. Mr Mitchell and his business partner, Huddle co-founder Andy McLoughlin, realised that the US software market represented an estimated $7bn to $8bn per year alone; $50bn to $60bn if including hardware.

“More than 60% of the software and burgeoning software distributing market resides in North America,” says Mr Mitchell. “Only about 20% resides in the UK and surrounding countries. It was obvious we would get more traction if we moved west.” Consequently, Huddle opened offices in Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Chicago was chosen for its location between the east and west coasts of the US. New York, particularly the burgeoning tech area surrounding Times Square and Broadway, was an imperative location, since the company was beginning to attract large accounts.

“The main point is, when Huddle started out we always knew we would be focusing on moving west over time,” says Mr Mitchell.

With 40 employees, Huddle’s San Francisco office is now its largest base. The company's co-founders chose the city because they saw it as the US equivalent to London, with the added bonus of having Silicon Valley on its doorstep. 

“Then there is the weather, the scenery, the lifestyle, and the fact that Silicon Valley has at least 10 times the number of investors as Europe – in one place,” says Mr Mitchell. “There are 1 million early adopters [of cloud computing] within 50 miles of San Francisco alone. You can build a massive business without ever leaving Highway 101.”

Today, Mr Mitchell and Mr McLoughlin, who is head of corporate and business development, both live and work in San Francisco. “San Francisco is where our latest stage of investment money is located,” Mr Mitchell says.

Helping hand

The company raised its initial funds (some $15m) from a UK venture capitalist. Then it received an additional push in the form of a $10.2m series B round of funding in 2010 from Matrix Partners, with participation from existing investors Eden Ventures and Charles McGregor, Huddle’s chairman.  

The company used the funds to expand its US presence and build its California team. In December 2012, the company hired Dr Chris Boorman as chief marketing officer, himself a former CMO of Informatica, a large publically traded provider of enterprise data integration software.

“We hired him to build out our marketing function as we expand in our vision to deliver intelligent, cloud collaboration to organisations worldwide,” says Mr Mitchell.

While Huddle has never received assistance from economic development agencies, Mr Mitchell says that the UK Department of Trade and Industry did assist the firm by offering trade missions. “Through it we learned about markets focused on software services, the internet and digital,” he says.

Consequently, company executives participated on trade missions to New York, Washington, DC, and San Francisco, prior to locating offices there, to familiarise themselves with the markets and meet customers, partners and suppliers. “The missions were worthwhile,” says Mr Mitchell. “We used them for everything from finding an office to meeting customers. They also enabled us to get our first partnerships.”

Huddle actually landed its first major partnership during one of the trade missions to San Francisco. “We signed the deal with In-Q-Tel while we were in Washington, DC, for a mission last year,” says Mr Mitchell.

Future direction

Now, the company is considering expanding further afield. “We are just starting to see very strong demand from the Asia-Pacific region,” Mr Mitchell says. In April 2013, the company landed its first government customer in Tasmania, Australia. Mr Mitchell anticipates that this business will grow. For the time being, however, Huddle will service those clients from the US.

“We’ll do it from San Francisco rather than London because it is easier to manage time zones,” says Mr Mitchell. “Perhaps in the next year we will open an office [in Asia-Pacific]."

But to open a facility there, Huddle will need a sufficient base of customers. “Meanwhile, we can do initial pilot deals virtually from anywhere. In fact, the deal we did with the Australian government was done remotely.”

Already, however, Mr Mitchell is seeing demand expand further into the Asia market. “We are confident that is where our future lies,” he says. “We’ve already seen customers there.”

While China offers vast market opportunities, there remains an issue surrounding intellectual property. Consequently, if the company enters that market, it will do so gradually via Australia. “For now we are interested in staying English-speaking countries,” says Mr Mitchell.

But language is certainly not an issue, particularly since one advantage to Huddle services and products is the ability to 'huddle' in multiple languages. “You can work in English with someone else who is working in Japanese and actually work together,” Mr Mitchell says. He does admit, however, that from operational and sales perspective, it is easier to work in English.

“Building a multilingual sales team takes time to grow,” he explains.