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16 Aug 2019

Thirty Years of Cobalt Sky

Raz Khan - Articles, General - 0 comments

When we started Cobalt Sky in 1989 there were just two of us, intending to provide IT consultancy to the market research industry. We offered training and project design services and even dabbled in neural networks at a time when it was an emerging technology. In business you need some luck and ours arrived with companies embarking on global roll-outs of software in which we were experts, so our first year was spent travelling round Europe delivering training sessions, ensuring that we managed to pay our bills.

Over the next two years we started getting more and more requests for project design and management, as well as emergency help when things were running behind schedule. This led to us employing our first staff, some of whom still work here today. Very often our clients were in Europe so we spent a lot of time commuting to Sweden and Germany.

This was all pre-internet so we had to set up our own private electronic communications with clients in order to exchange e-mails, otherwise the alternatives were phone, courier or post. We even had an account with a cab company to deliver sets of tables to clients.

Over the next few years we grew to 12-14 people and our main business areas were software training and overload data processing, with the occasional CATI script programming thrown in.

After 8-10 years we took up an offer of business consultancy subsidised by the government. It was an interesting exercise. The consultant thought we had a great business, but that we had no strategy – we were just doing the work that came in, with no management structure (other than employing people to make tea or coffee and then training them in DP – they often went on to be very successful in the industry).

Eventually I bit the bullet and went on an intensive course at Cranfield where I learned a lot about running a business, so many things that I wished I’d known at the start. We introduced a management structure, systematised our recruitment processes and started behaving like a “proper” business. I so enjoyed the business training that I joined an organisation which provided small groups of CEOs with continuous training and problem-solving sessions, and kept learning a whole lot more.

The internet arrived in the late 1990s and software companies scrambled to adapt their CATI systems to run online surveys and we duly jumped on the bandwagon. At the time the internet was so new that people took surveys at the drop of a hat without any incentive. That changed fairly rapidly. Just like with CATI there was much soul-searching about the validity of online surveys and many papers published in learned journals evaluating the results.

The internet enabled globalisation and that became a potential threat to our business. Many IT companies had already started to take advantage of programmers from other countries who cost less and were very capable. The big companies started setting up their own teams in India and Eastern Europe, so our competition (especially on price) became challenging. We worked hard to differentiate on quality and service so that clients using us would do so because we made their life easier and gave them more time for research.

Recessions have been part of the economic cycle and we have been through at least three. The research industry felt that it might be recession-proof, as clients needed to know what to do in bad times as well as good. There would be an initial downturn followed by an early uplift and effects were mitigated by the timing of the cycle in different countries, and even the split between public and private sector work. However the 2008-9 downturn was completely different and seemed to hit the market research industry hard. We certainly noticed it as our clients cancelled long-running contracts and we had to cut staff to remain in business. We’ve done a lot of rebuilding since then and continued to recruit graduate trainees who we can train to work in the “Cobalt Sky way”.

We still run a lot of data processing projects, though these can be very complex involving multiple systems and software. Internet surveys have become the standard for most projects and respondent engagement is key to getting people to complete them. We now spend a lot of time ensuring our surveys look great and are easy to complete and work with our clients to ensure they’re as efficient as possible.

It’s now 30 years since we started and I’m delighted to see that our trainees are now occupying the senior management positions, or taking on additional responsibilities such as training and marketing. Our more recent graduates are formidable and will occupy senior positions in time. I’m especially pleased that Rebecca Cole, who started as a trainee in 2006, has taken on the role of Managing Director with such skill and enthusiasm. She really embodies the spirit of Cobalt Sky: great customer service and technical excellence.

I’m now at the stage where I’m planning my retirement from Cobalt Sky. I’m proud of what it’s become, due entirely to the great team that work here. I am sure this next generation will continue to make it a great success.

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