THE move from nuclear submarine technology to property software is not a well-trodden career path. But, as most entrepreneurs will tell you, unexpected developments are all part of the journey.

Fraser Sutherland was working as an engineer in the defence industry when he decided to set up a letting agency as a side project.

As part of this, he started writing software to improve the management of the business and soon realised there was a wider market for it. In 2011, after partnering with a colleague, he took the decision to go full time.

Seven years on, Edinburgh-based SME Professional has grown into one of the most trusted and advanced software providers in the industry, with ambitious plans to expand.

“I really enjoyed my old job in engineering,” says Mr Sutherland, 40. “But I love running my own business.

“I left my job on July 4 – Independence Day – not knowing what the future held. But now we supply more than half of all letting agents in Edinburgh and we’re looking to match this throughout Scotland over the next 18 months.

“We never thought developing specifically for the Scottish market would be so important, but the legal and commercial framework here is different and our competitors in England didn’t provide for this. We sign up more than 90 per cent of the clients we show the product to.”

SME Professional now has more than 300 functions available at the touch of the button – with more coming online every week - covering every part of the tenant and landlord experience, responding to clients' needs and saving them time and money. The company also provides wider business services such as web design and marketing.

But, as Mr Sutherland makes clear, there’s more to the service than just online functionality.

“We employed our first member of staff five years ago and now there are 19 of us. You learn a lot when you are scaling a business and having a great team is central to everything.

“We’ve brought in industry professionals, former branch managers and financial controllers, to support the software. We’re fortunate to have such a fantastic and dedicated team and we’re hoping to double the number of staff in next 18 months. We’ve just moved to new offices and have spent a bit of money making them - hopefully - a really nice place to work.”

The father-of-two admits he always possessed the entrepreneurial spark – at 12 he set up a car washing business in his native Glasgow – and is full of sound advice for those thinking of taking their own idea to the market.

Business Gateway and Scottish Enterprise have been fantastic – we’ve benefitted so much from their practical support and expertise,” explains the 40-year-old, who lives in the capital.

“But it’s important to carve out your own niche and nail it before you think about expanding. Selling your product is much easier if you are the first company that springs to people’s minds.

“Focus and start small. Some people feel they have to win over the big customers first. But if you get it wrong for them you burn your bridges and that can be catastrophic going forward. Target smaller companies and then gradually move up. Then you grow and develop alongside your customers.

“Don’t over-extend - bide your time and build your reputation through word of mouth and personal recommendation.

“Make sure your product is a quality one, that you’re not making claims that aren’t true. It can be easy to exaggerate in IT sector in particular. Don’t run before you can walk - get your core product right.”

When you do get it right, the rewards, says Mr Sutherland, are worth all the hard work.

“Growing something from scratch is fantastic. And you can’t beat it when you are training a customer and they start grinning when they realise how much easier you’ve just made their job. I’m an engineer – my main motivation is building products that people like.”

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