Kristoff Zammit Ciantar stops midway through a sentence, chuckles and corrects himself: “Did I say Infusion again? I meant Aqubix.”
His mistake is easy to understand. For eight years, he and his colleague Ivan Bonello have lived and breathed Infusion, the company they set up as an IT consultancy after working together for years locally and overseas.
Over those eight years, the two of them have taken numerous leaps of faith, introducing a range of products and web design, and even opening up a satellite company in Spain. But last year, they hit their own glass ceiling and had to take another huge leap of faith: bringing a new partner on board.
The rebranding to Aqubix is the result of that leap, which saw the Mizzi Organisation buy into half the company, a leap which very few Maltese entrepreneurs are willing to take.
The decision came when Infusion found itself the victim of its own success.
When they first started out, consultancy was a challenging but irregular source of revenue – and one requiring considerable resources – so the pair decided to create off-the-shelf products which would, as it turns out, beat hands down the offerings of their competitors. Cabinet is a document management system which is so intuitive to use that some of their clients have been able to adopt it without training.
“Well, some of the other products on the market need €14,000, €15,000 of staff training,” he said. Their approach has always been to go a step further so when, for example, a client asks for a new functionality, they often add it at no cost, realising that it is a great idea that all their clients would want. And of course, each upgrade is free.
By then, they had already moved into their own premises from shared offices and, in addition to other products, they also went into web design, which naturally complemented their behind-the-scenes IT systems, adding major clients to their portfolio, ranging from regulatory authorities to banks.
But that sort of success brings considerable pressure with it, and as each client wanted more and more services, the company was forced to grow – but this came at a time when Malta’s economy was already booming, and gaming and financial services were increasingly competing for the finite number of students making career choices. So when two of their staff, Spaniards, lamented that they wanted to move home, they realised that they could either see this as a loss – or an opportunity. The result was Infusion Spain, which opened up last year next to a technical university which would provide a stream of willing recruits, and much more: the Spanish-speaking market.
“The economic situation in Spain was not as buoyant as it is here, so there were plenty of willing recruits and the salaries there have not been driven up as much as they have been here,” Mr Zammit Ciantar said.
“They are already five there – and will soon be growing to nine.”
The company was able to tap into new countries, to take on additional work for its existing clients, and to keep costs stable.
The pace of growth accelerated but the pair had to face up to some stark realities: there were fascinating opportunities out there for them – but big companies baulked at the idea of entrusting major projects into the hands of a relatively small company with a relatively short track record.
This was the turning point: the realisation that if they wanted to grow, they needed a bigger partner on board.
“We went through all the agonies that you would expect. We would only consider a company that understood our ethos, and one that would not want to control our passion. We wanted to remain majority shareholders and we wanted to retain management control. It was a tall order…” Mr Zammit Ciantar recalls.
So when the Mizzi Organisation came along, they were wary at first. Mizzi is a major family-owned company, representing global brands, employing thousands of people. What would they want with a group of creative guys, who believed in a relaxed dress code but a rigid work ethic?
“Actually, they are involved in cars, hospitality, English-teaching schools, engineering and much more. But not IT; it is an area that has fascinated them,” he smiled, adding: “And there we were. In addition, they were blown away by Cabinet and its potential.”
Talks started in June 2015 and both sides wanted majority, so it was not clear from the outset that a solution could be found. In the end, the obvious compromise was to have a 50/50 agreement, with Mr Zammit Ciantar and Mr Bonello keeping the management and operations of Infusion – sorry, Aqubix. The deal was signed in January, after what he described as “exhaustive” due diligence, but almost immediately, the pair realised how much they had to gain from the partnership.
“We are very passionate about what we do, but having to present our ideas at monthly board meetings made us much more disciplined about our approach, our resources and our priorities,” he said.
“We realised that it was not enough to go to the meeting with good ideas but we also had to think them through. But we also realised that having Mizzi as our partners gave us ‘oomph’ and opened new doors – wide. And, of course, we are getting a lot of attention from the group’s own companies too! We already have 5,000 customers using Cabinet across Malta, England, Italy and now Spain but the number of potential clients – without having to add too many resources – is much, much greater.
“We can now bid for international tenders for major clients knowing that our financials sound much more reassuring to those who have not heard of us till now,” he said, adding that with 18 staff across the three bases, Aqubix would soon be moving to bigger premises.
It was not long before they launched yet another venture, this time in Poland, this time with an old friend with a long history in international banks.
“We started talking about two months ago and realised that we could create specialised banking solutions. Who knows where this will lead? It is new ground but it should be good. We are testing the market at present and getting very good feedback,” he said.
“It is not easy to let go as you think that you are going to lose what you created. But if there are any other entrepreneurs reading this who are in the same situation, I would give them this advice: let go and take that leap of faith. If you find the right partner, you get back much more than you ‘lose’.”
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