Four Thousand Days: a masterclass in PR from the former CEO of KashFlow

Profile picture for user gonzodaddy By Den Howlett April 16, 2015
Duane Jackson tells his rags to riches story in the world of SaaS. It's a masterclass in scrapping for attention that paid off.

Duane Jackson via Wired

Earlier in the month, Duane Jackson, former CEO and majority shareholder in KashFlow wrote a teaser article on Medium, describing the time he was arrested in the US for drug smuggling.

It's a great read and although he says something different, it  was a teaser to build interest for the autobiography Four Thousand Days, released yesterday on Amazon. It is categorized under biographies and memoires>true crime.

The story is an expanded and more nuanced version of what has been in the public domain for some time. The plot goes like this: kid with difficult upbringing ends up in care, gets caught red handed with 6,500 ecstasy tablets, ends up in UK prison for two and a half years, starts software business, becomes millionaire. It is the stuff of fiction but in this case all too true. Why care?

I knew Jackson during the heady days when he was at war with Sage and building KashFlow. I have a heavy investment in that time so was interested in hearing his version of events. It turns out to be largely factual with just enough humor to keep the reader turning the page.

Jackson is a master of PR and the book is no exception. The majority of the book is dedicated to Jackson's pre-KashFlow life, explaining how he discovered he had a talent for programming, was wandering from contract to contract but ultimately got caught up in the UK drug culture of the late 1990s. That all makes for a fun read of sorts. I was more interested in the recounting of his time building and ultimately selling KashFlow to IRIS.

You have to remember that the mid-late 2000's was a period of pioneering in the UK, when SaaS was just emerging as a viable business model and when the competition to find the winners in SaaS accounting was underway. It is in that spirit that Jackson provides us with a glimpse into how he hit on the idea of building a SaaS business.

Quite rightly, he points to the problem most if not all SMEs face when grappling with accounting topics. It's too darned hard. Concepts such as double entry book-keeping, ledgers and so on were designed for professionals. It's no surprise then that Jackson recalls struggling with Sage and QuickBooks, giving up and building his own. In that sense, it is the classic software engineer's story of having an itch he couldn't scratch, going back to the drawing board and designing a solution for himself that subsequently becomes a commercial success.

I came onto the scene in around 2006 with AccMan (now long since archived) and quickly saw the potential for an alternative to the Sage's of this world. I was particularly taken with SaaS because as a past practitioner, I understood just how difficult it is to communicate with clients when all you have is a formal set of accounts in front of you. Jackson and KashFlow quickly popped onto my radar as did FreeAgent and Xero. They were heady times and while Jackson doesn't get into some of the detail, it was also a time of great camaraderie - at least on the surface - between those companies. That has long since gone.

KashFlow stood out because in Jackson, they had a master of PR spin, able to use his underdog status to great effect. He knew how to make the social networks work for him at a time when they were small enough for anyone with the right approach to gain considerable attention. It would not be possible today. He also had the perfect foil in Sage, the behemoth of the SME accounting world which struggled to understand Jackson's guerrilla marketing tactics.

Crucially, Jackson had the financial support of Lord Young whom he met via the Princes Trust and for which he has become something of a poster child. Young's involvement meant he didn't have the pressure of VC funding that others have faced.

The book talks fondly of his relationship with Lord Young as a mentor and guide who seems to have had a light touch throughout the time when KashFlow was an independent business. I can understand why. Young clearly saw a man of vision and talent who needed a second chance and Jackson milked that for all it was worth - in a positive way. Although Jackson doesn't say so explicitly, great mentors know when to step in and when to keep hands off. Young seems to have played that role to near perfection.

More telling, Young writes a poignant forward to the book, explaining how he has learned through his involvement with Jackson just how hard it can be for disadvantaged people to get from under the pall of grinding poverty and all that goes with it. That alone is worth the price of the book.

The book talks about some of the stunts that Jackson pulled off in his 'David and Goliath' battles with Sage. Some bordered on the farcical, like the Great Sage Bonfire stunt which very nearly cost the company dearly. You can't make some of this up, and especially the time when Sage released code that was so glaringly flawed they had to pull down the site and then go back to the drawing board themselves. I remember those conversations as though they were yesterday.

Jackson ended up becoming Sage's boogeyman and in the process did the SaaS accounting market a huge favor. Interestingly, the book doesn't sensationalize those events although I could sense an eagerness to have one more dig at the accounting giant.

Jackson is candid about his own failings and especially as the company was scaling up in the face of competition. You can sense that he has no particular love for order or process in the Big Co sense and wisely brought in outside help to put the company into better shape and ultimately sell to IRIS. You also sense that when time came to put away the Sage Wars theme, he was left struggling to figure out what was next. With no nemesis on the playing field, Jackson had no target.

Jackson's KashFlow is a product of its own time and while the book doesn't make the statement, it is hard to imagine the combination of circumstances making for another any time soon. As someone who enjoyed watching and reporting on Jackson's antics and, at times, running foul when things weren't so good, I loved the book to the point where I devoured it in one sitting.

Some readers might be disappointed that Jackson doesn't get into some of the detail around challenges faced as the company scaled but there are enough hints for readers to know that he timed the exit to perfection. At the end he says that if readers are looking for the secret to his success then there is none other than hard work. I'm not convinced.

Jackson was fortunate in many ways. A great mentor often makes all the difference at times of difficulty and in Lord Young, he found the perfect partner. In my conversations with Jackson, I learned that he held his mentor in high regard.

I give Jackson a lot of credit for building the early stage SaaS accounting market in the UK on almost zero marketing other than his masterful ability to poke at Sage and make the case for a simple accounting system for SMEs.

This book tells that story well and with just enough embellishment to keep you turning the pages. As I said at the top - a master of spin. Go get it.

Bonus points: a video I shot with Jackson in 2010.

Featured image: Businessman spraying dollar sign cloud blue sky © TSUNG-LIN WU -