Thursday, December 8, 2011

Happy Birthday to Sage!

Much has already been written about the fact that Sage has just reached the "grand" old age of 30.

I would like to focus on some of the drivers to success from a more personal perspective.

The backdrop to the founding of Sage by my Dad, Paul Muller, Graham Wylie and Phil Lever was the early days of Thatcher's rein, deeply depressing economic times, and continuing industrial unrest, with the printing industry being of specific relevance to my Dad. In the North East of England (Newcastle, where the company still has its HQ), there was a dramatic period of de-industrialisation, bringing unemployment and recession.

Specifically my Dad had been running Campbell Graphics, a smallish printing company, specialising in 3-colour magazines, a far cry from computers and hi-tech! Anyone who knows the printing business knows that it is mucky to say the least and somewhat un-glamourous.

I guess (other than marrying my Mum) the most momentous decision of my Dad's life was starting the process that lead to the founding of Sage, ie computerise some of the key elements within the printing process. Not the technology of printing, but the business of printing. For this he needed some outside brains, and by bringing a NASA boffin and computer undergrad (Paul and Graham) in as consultants, this could be solved.

Here is the key moment though: having solved it for his own company, he figured that there may be other David Goldman's who might find it useful. Thus it turned from an innovation into a business. Fortune favours the brave and this band of early eighties entrepreneurs found themselves selling the printing package in its entirety and investing the proceeds so that Graham could write a generic accounts package for small businesses.

Sage was born!!

Initially Sage Systems (as it was known at the time), sold systems (hint is in the name) which included the software and also relevant hardware (names from the museum such as Osborne, Apricot, Superbrain and others).

The next key decision was to withdraw from the hardware business and stick with software. For the un-initiated, margins for pure software vendors tend to be somewhat higher than hardware, not to mention the working capital requirements of building a hardware business from scratch.

Thus Sage Systems became Sagesoft!

This brings me onto one of the key fundamentals of the business in my Dad's eyes. It's all about the brand, not the technology, or in other words, Sage is just a marketing company that happens to sell software. The customer is the key, or perhaps the King, and keeping a very close ear to their requirements, problems, challenges etc is the key to understanding how to drive the business forward.

There were many other key milestones along the way; the realisation that Amstrad will change the world of computing for small businesses; creating and focusing on paid maintenance and software assurance; entering the business of bespoke stationery (ironic for Sage to have made so much money out of printing); first acquisition in the US and using it as a platform for multiple additional acquisitions (credit for this to Bernard Fisher, a non-exec at the time who pushed for this move), and of course these successes have continued since my Dad retired in 1997 and passed away in 1999.

I promised a more personal view and shall certainly make good!

During the early years of Sage the main driver for my Dad was to reach financial security for himself and family, a situation he had not experienced to that point. My Dad was no Marc Zuckerberg (in oh so many ways) and started Sage when he was already passed 40. Whilst never EVER complaining about it, my Dad grew up in difficult economic circumstances and worked hard for every penny he made in adult life. This is why reaching financial security was of such importance to him.

Having successfully floated the company in 1989, and reaching (for him) the crucial milestone of joining the ranks of the independently wealthy he set about the task of building Sage into a world beater with even more energy and ambition. I have often wondered why this is, and I have no scientific reasoning. Perhaps having "unburdened" himself of the need to reach financial security there was an unleashing of new energies which expressed itself in even greater ambition for the company, without the worry anymore of paying the domestic bills.

My Dad was very much a people's person. Frankly it didn't matter what type of person he met, be it Bill Gates or the caretaker. He treated everyone the same; polite, to the point, with respect, and with a unique brand of humility and humour. Success did not change my Dad. He believed that doing the right thing was also good business practice, and he did not have a different set of values for his personal and professional life. He loved to be surrounded by motivated, creative and young people, and indeed brought the average age of Sage up by a couple of decades! Even in the 80's technology was perceived as the domain of young people.

There was nothing my Dad liked more than to walk around the Sage offices and talk to as many employees as he could on an almost daily basis. Beyond the pleasure he took from shooting the breeze with the people he loved to work with, he also knew that their success was his success, and that businesses that want to grow and succeed can only do so if everyone feels part of the team. This was his way of showing it!

For somebody who could barely use a computer he did not do a half bad job building a software company. The irony is that had he been in love with technology he may not have had the success he did.

If I had to single out what I believe are the secrets of his and then Sage's success it would probably come down to two key elements:

  1. Absolute dedication to the principle that the customer is King and that business must be driven by the desire to fulfill the needs of the market (rather than one's own fantasies). In the long run strong brands will prevail and to dominate a market requires continued investment in the brand
  2. Absolute dedication to the idea that all companies (and especially tech companies) are only limited by the desire of the entire team to succeed and that leadership starts from the top. My Dad always made sure that everyone in the company felt part of the success, from Chairman to the guy shrink wrapping the software.
I am very proud to be the son of David Goldman and even to be associated indirectly with the success of Sage gives me continued pleasure. I also know that there are many extremely talented and dedicated people at the company who carry forward the basic ideas that my Dad laid as the foundations 30 years ago.

I wish Sage many happy returns (including investment returns!) and in particular that they claim their rightful position as a beacon of growth and innovation, both for the North East, but the UK in general. My Dad is a role model as an entrepreneur, and there is no reason why Sage cannot be a great role model as a company leading the way through the next thirty years!


  1. Happy birthday Sage.

    I still remember writing its first cheque writing program during one of my Sage summer jobs. Language used of course: Basic

  2. Sage had the benefit of some unusually gifted founders, but its continued success as an independent company is something to which many start-ups should aspire. Now we appear to be in another rather grim period for the economy and employment, it would be great to see a new generation emulate David's entrepreneurial spirit.

  3. An excellent article Daniel. It was nice to read your personal views on what was obviously a rewarding and personal journey for your Dad (my Uncle). Regards, (The other) Andrew Goldman

  4. Daniel, your synopsis is spot on.
    It truly emphasises the foresight and the marketing skills of David.
    SAGE will continue to prosper as the current management continue to follow the path that David established.

  5. Terry Whitenstall asked me to post this to the blog:

    I was Campbell Graphics first apprentice and remember the day I started. On my first day at work I had a black eye from playing football (one of my own team kicked me by accident) he never even commented.
    He certainly changed my life, he gave me (a 16 year old lad from the Blakelaw area of Newcastle) the chance to achieve a good living and much higher standard of living.
    On my first xmas lunchtime drink I fell asleep in the toilets, remember me only16 and not used to drink, I woke up to find your dad locking up for xmas, he asked me where I had been and I told him about falling asleep he never said anything, presumably he didn’t want to spoil my xmas, back at work in the New Year he just smirked and said I was lucky to have a job still.
    You are rightly proud of your dad, when ever he walked in the factory there was a buzz of anticipation, he had a very rare charisma, I remember driving back from Rugby with him and him saying he could outsell any print salesman, and he was right.
    I sent him a card when he was Ill thanking him and pointing out how he changed my life, I probably would still have been in Blakelaw if it was not for him, apparently he told Maurice Summerfield (who also helped me start in business compiling his Classical Guitar magazine, which I am still working on), he was very touched.
    I know of at least 4 businesses including my own which sprang up from the remnants of Campbell Graphics which he helped by giving work to, he never held a grudge with the staff.
    He left a lasting legacy for the North East and I can honestly say doing well never changed him one bit as far as I could see.

    best wishes
    Terry Whitenstall

  6. I am delighted to re-post with permission, Richard Holway's post for the 30th Birthday. Richard was a great fan, and I know that the feeling was mutual for my Dad. Please visit his site at to sign up!

    • 02 December 2011
    In praise of 'Boring' Sage
    On Thursday Sage presented its full year results for FY11. As we said in Sage juggernaut on the move, the results were rather good. A term used many times over the last couple of decades to describe Sage.
    Those results also marked Sage’s 30th anniversary since David Goldman founded the company in 1981. In 1984 it saw the opportunities presented by Amstrad. Goldman, now teamed up with Graham Wylie, Paul Walker and Tom Maxfield, saw that users could do much more than just word proces sing on these computers and launched a low cost accounting product for small businesses. Sage is now a world leader in this field with revenues of £1.33b. And, unlike other UK software companies we could mention, it is still head-quartered here in the UK in Newcastle
    But Sage has a very special place in my own heart. It is the only quoted UK software company to hold a Holway Boring Award. Indeed only two companies in our firmament hold the award – the other being BPO player Capita.
    You can only get a Holway Boring Award if you have had at least 10 years of uninterrupted EPS growth. Sage not only have 10 years – they now have 25 years of uninterrupted EPS growth as shown in the diagram.
    Indeed since Sage’s IPO, in 1989 at a share price equivalent of 2.6p, their EPS has grown c150-times. Their share price has grown by an equally impressive 112-times from 2.6p to 293p today. Mind you, in 2000, Sage’s share price had hit £10 – which a certain analyst referred to in the FT as ‘North of Stupid’. Valuation on IPO in 1989 was £20m – valuation today is £3.84b. Some 192-times higher.
    This is a unique record. It is now pretty much impossible for any UK listed software company to achieve a similar record in my lifetime.
    Happy Birthday ‘Boring’ old Sage. Many happy returns.
    Footnote – The Boring term was born in 1992 when Alan Cane, the then technology correspondent of the Financial Times, misquoted me saying ‘Admiral’s results are boringly consistent’ as ‘Admiral is Boring’. The term is now widely used to describe a company with consistently good financial performance. One day I will get my place in the OED.