WHEN Debra Charles lost her parents to cancer 15 years ago, her world changed. She quit her job and moved house — and took a huge risk by launching her own business.
“It was such a shock,” said Charles. “I remember lying in bed thinking that life is short and I need to count in this world.”
In 1998, three months after her mother died, she founded Novacroft, which processes and prints travelcards for use on public transport. Based in Northampton, the business, named after her mother’s labrador dog, turned over £6.8m last year and expects to report revenues of more than £7m when it files its accounts next July.
Travel smartcards have a chip allowing pay-as-you-go travel on buses and trains. Since its foundation, Novacroft’s technology and online database have cut down the application process and delivery time of Oyster photocards, for concessionary travel in London, from 48 days to 24 hours. The company also supplies regional smartcards and National Rail cards.
Those who have benefited from the fast turnaround include students, children, the over-sixties, army veterans and athletes. September to November is the busy period, when staffing can increase from 140 to 200.
“When I started I assumed that everybody knew about the internet and how to make use of it,” said Charles. “But local councils and transport authorities knew as little as I did.”
It was a steep learning curve. Charles invested £90,000 of her inheritance into Novacroft, only to see much of it squandered during a disagreement with her technology provider. “I gave the software writers too much leniency and the first program we made to process applications online didn’t work. That mistake cost me the bulk of my parents’ estate, which they had worked damn hard for.”
She reinvested, taking on her first employee, Daryl Hurst, who is still with the company. With his help, Novacroft’s new technology was put in place, allowing those who are eligible for travelcards to apply online.
“Initially it took time and effort to get people to realise that applying online would solve the problems they had had with postal forms and delivery. In 15 years we have educated and enabled the public sector to embrace the change.”
In 2007, Charles invested in facilities to print and encode the cards. “Now we not only create the software, we make the cards and are able to deliver them straight to the applicant,” said Charles, who is the sole shareholder. “We are also able to advise clients, such as Transport for London, on the latest technology.”
Charles, 51, was raised in Shropshire. Her father was an RAC patrolman and her mother showed and judged labradors. Her younger brother Lawrence is an IT manager for a housing trust.
Charles attended Newport Girls’ High School, and later she was diagnosed with dyslexia. “People used to say, ‘For goodness’ sake, you’re so thick sometimes’, and I believed it.”
She wanted to be a choreographer, following in the footsteps of her aunt, who directed the Top of the Pops dance troupe Pan’s People. Her headmistress wanted her to join the Royal Navy. “I found school difficult as there were loads of things they said I couldn’t do. It was only after leaving that I started to be inspired.”
Following what she described as a “breakdown” at the end of school, Charles decided against university. She worked at Debenhams in Telford for 18 months, and in 1982 joined John Lewis as a manager, commuting to Birmingham from the village of Edgmond in Shropshire.
In 1989 she became a sales and marketing manager at Apple before securing a job as head of European agent co-ordination at Westinghouse in Coventry.
She left in 1996 to work for an agency but regretted the move. “The organisation, which processed applications, was poor at communicating with clients and dealing with their personal information. I found their approach difficult to comprehend.”
Her way out revealed itself at a symposium on the emergence of the internet. She spoke to an executive at IBM who revealed that the giant company’s biggest worry was the ease with which individuals could start businesses from their bedrooms.
Charles saw an opportunity. “The internet made everything simpler. Information about travelcards and how to apply for them could be made transparent to clients, simply by creating a database online.”
She put the idea in her back pocket and did not take it up until her mother died.
“Those jibes about being thick were suddenly ridiculous. That old barrier collapsed and the world was at my feet,” said Charles. “There’s something special in everybody and my idea had something. I knew I’d rather have a go than be conquered.”
This year Charles was named entrepreneur alumnus of the year by Cranfield University, where she lectures MBA students, entrepreneurs and business leaders. She also contributes to its technology programme for children. “We can have a huge impact if we work together.”
Charles, who was a finalist in the 2012 NatWest Everywoman awards, lives in Milton Keynes.
Her advice to entrepreneurs is to explore what makes you happy.
“Find an idea or a passion and make it different; forget people telling you to conform. Then it’s having the energy, will and determination to follow it through. But leave your ego at the door.”