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Matillion co-founder Ed Thompson on the pressure of being one of Manchester’s only tech unicorns

Matillion team

Now established as one of the North’s tech giants with a valuation of over $1.5bn, cloud data company Matillion has had a meteoric rise.

Set up by CTO Ed Thompson and CEO Matthew Scullion, the company has grown to 650 staff with a major presence in Denver, but its heart remains in Altrincham in Greater Manchester.

That’s a source of great satisfaction to co-founder Thompson.

“We’re very proud of the fact that we were able to launch a tech business in Manchester, with Manchester’s tech heritage behind it,” Ed Thompson, Matillion’s co-founder and chief technology officer (CTO), told Prolific North.

Matillion works with global organisations of all sizes from Slack, Cisco and TUI to integrate and transform data.

In a nutshell, he explained the key driving force behind Matillion is to “help customers make their data useful by improving the productivity of data teams”. He explained there’s “a real crunch in all businesses that want to compete with data”.

Although more than 70 percent of Matillion’s customers are now based in America, which has helped the company to unlock investment from Silicon Valley to expand into those territories, the company champions its roots as a Manchester-founded company.

“There’s really a great tech ecosystem in and around Manchester,” he said. “We definitely didn’t want to lose that, that’s what drives the dual headquarters decision.”

Since securing $150m last year in a Series E funding round led by global growth equity firm General Atlantic, it marked an “incredibly proud moment” in the company’s history.

It led to the company reaching a key milestone with tech ‘unicorn’ status, where a ‘unicorn’ is a tech company with a valuation of over $1bn, cementing its position as a leader on the Northern tech scene.

But there are equally “important things” happening across both locations in Denver and Altrincham. 

Whilst both co-founders live in Manchester and are primarily based in its Northern HQ (for the most part – Scullion spends a large amount of time in the US) the engineering team operated solely out of the UK until recently.

“During the pandemic, that became a little less true. We started to take advantage of remote working, not just in the UK but Ireland and other locations in Europe. Since then we’ve doubled down on that, we want to open a development centre in Madrid, for example.”

The evolution of Matillion, striving for success and how the company works with customers

Fresh out of school, Thompson kicked-off his career as a software consultant and first met Matthew Scullion at a small consultancy firm in Altrincham.

Ed Thompson, CTO and co-founder, Matillion
Ed Thompson, co-founder of Matillion

“We’ve worked together for a very long time,” he reflected. After a few of his colleagues faced redundancies, he decided as an 18-year-old his next best step was to head to the University of Salford to study computer science.

“University of Salford has a great computer science course, it’s not overly academic, it’s quite practical,” he explained. Following university, he teamed up with Scullion once again and ventured back into the world of consulting. 

“The great thing about consultancy is it allows you to get thrown in the deep end over and over again and in lots of different projects. You see things done really well and you see things done really badly,” he said.

“You go and work for lots of different companies with great cultures and you work for lots of different companies with bad cultures. You get to experience the whole gamut of the industry really, really quickly and the trials and tribulations along the way.”

Following these experiences, Matthew Scullion opted to start what he always wanted to do – launching a company from scratch.

“At the end of 2010, he left and then I shortly followed. That’s when he tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘do you want to come and come and help me found this company’.”

The initial “simple and ambitious” idea behind Matillion was to support small to medium enterprises in the UK to help them access business intelligence.

“We were going to do that cheaper than everyone else and we were going to do it using cloud technology. The cloud technology was going to allow us to support small companies to access what big companies already had access to in terms of business intelligence,” he said.

“That’s not quite where we ended up!” he jokingly remarked. “It set us off on the journey to working with data, really understanding deeply what it means to work with data in the cloud.”

Over the course of three to four years, the company began exploring delivering business intelligence in the cloud. 

“We built the system that was required to get the data out of a company’s core systems and into the data warehouse, where we could make it useful for them.”

“Pivot in the direction of the company”

“By useful, it was providing dashboards and analytics that they [companies] could then interpret to run their business. They got the heavy lifting of getting all their raw, messy data and turning it into useful data. Then using that to drive analytics, we were providing that as a service,” he explained.

Turning “messy data into useful data was increasingly becoming a massive bottleneck on the success and growth of the business,” he said.

“That informed what became a bit of a pivot in the direction of the company in 2014 to 2015, because we decided to build an ETL tool that was more productive. That allowed us to be more productive in delivering our core business. So we innovated from scratch,” he said.

The ETL tool, which stands for “extract, transform and load”, doesn’t require the user to write any code, which has helped to fuel the company’s success.

Matillion team

“At the end of 2014 to the beginning of 2015, we thought if this tool we built is useful to us it could be useful to other people. That happened to coincide with Amazon launching Amazon marketplace, their new way of selling business software.”

Matillion was one of the first companies to exclusively sell through Amazon’s marketplace, helping the tech firm with visibility and to rapidly start selling its software. 

“We thought that would be a great way for us to deliver Matillion ETL as a cloud tool,” he said. “It allowed us to start immediately selling it internationally because we had a whole reach that Amazon had at that time with its web services offerings.

“ETL grew steadily, customer by customer and then eventually it became what it is today, which is Matillion’s data productivity cloud.”

Pressures and reality of becoming a tech ‘unicorn’ and Matillion’s key to success

It hasn’t always been an easy ride for Matillion though. Despite the company’s success, there’s a huge amount of pressure that comes with being a tech ‘unicorn’ following its incredible sums of investment.

“When you get through all of the complexities of doing a series A or series B fundraise, it would be really nice to go and have a massive party and say, ‘Hey, we did a fundraise, we became a unicorn’. 

“The reality is that you might have a bit of a party but the very next day, you have to start thinking about how you’re going to reach the goals and expectations that the company has, either for the next funding round or the next stage of the business.”

A huge amount of work goes on behind the scenes, whether it’s building on its existing services, working on retaining clients or hiring new staff.

“There’s kind of no getting off once you’re on,” he emphasised. “There’s no getting away from the pressure.”

But it’s a pressure that entrepreneurs thrive on, to a certain extent.

“My way of dealing with that pressure is to think about the next most important problem that I have to solve. If I look at all of the problems that need to be solved, then that’s pretty terrifying. 

“If I can figure out which problems are the most important for the business, solve that and then move on, you get yourself into a nice rhythm and you look back and you realise you’ve come some distance.”

The key to Matillion’s success though is “tricky” to nail down. 

“Matillion, Matthew, myself, the entire Matillion executive team, and then everyone that works for us, has just worked incredibly hard and performed really well to achieve the growth that’s necessary,” he explained.

“When you decide to become a venture-backed business, the expectations of growth are incredibly high and to succeed, you need to maintain that year after year. 

“That means the product has to be on point, it has to have great moderate product market fit and it has to be growing along with your customers, the demands of those customers and the demands of the market. You have to have a great marketing engine to make sure that everyone in the world has heard of the product.

“If you have data, and you operate in the cloud which pretty much applies to all businesses these days, then you can make use of Matillion. It was all about the speed at which you can sell to the people in that market. You need that venture money to be able to create the organisation and create the processes as quickly as possible.”

Matillion CEO and co-founder, Matthew Scullion
Matillion CEO and co-founder, Matthew Scullion

As a venture-backed business, the biggest enemy is “time”. 

“Everything needs to be done faster, everything needed to be here yesterday, you just need to move as fast as you can. Then you need a great marketing engine, a great sales engine, that whole go-to market engine needs to work pretty seamlessly in a predictable way.”

Tapping into Manchester’s thriving tech ecosystem and future of Matillion

Despite a “significant” presence in America and Spanish expansion, Manchester has played a vital role in the company and founders’ success.

“A large cohort of the technical side of the business but also on the sales and go to market side, are people that have either grown up in Manchester, live in Manchester or are educated in Manchester. What has been particularly important for Matillion’s success has been our relationship with Manchester universities,” he said.

“One of the things I’m proudest about at Matillion has been some of the work that we’ve done around early careers. We spend a lot of time working with placement students, graduates from Salford and Manchester.”

It stems from his own experience at the University of Salford.

“It brokered a relationship with the universities that has lasted as long as the company and has now turned into more of a two-way relationship where we feed back into them about how we would like to see students’ early careers develop.

“That means that we get the higher quality of students and graduates coming through and joining Matillion but also joining other tech companies,” he explained.

He was keen to point out the importance of Manchester’s thriving tech ecosystem and element of “friendly competition”.

“There will be people at Matillion who’ve worked at Autotrader or MoneySuperMarket or AO and vice versa. There are people that have benefited from different companies, different cultures, different ideas but it’s really all part of a Manchester tech ecosystem.”

The reason for Silicon Valley’s success is its ecosystem, he explained, driven by top universities which is exactly what’s happening in Manchester too.

“It’s well positioned to become a fantastic tech hub. Hopefully, that can be driven by companies like Matilion as well as other great pure tech enabled businesses.”

As there is a skills gap for those who can work with data, there are “lots of ways” Matillion plans to solve this but the important issue is making sure its technology is accessible to everyone – regardless of skill.

“The best thing we can do right now is make working with data as productive as possible. We want to make sure that we’re building tools that are ready for everyone.”

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