From lags to riches - the business tycoon who started out in Hackney

The stained carpets and dusty keyboards must be a long way from his headquarters in Tower Hill. But Duane Jackson is still pleased to be back.

The business tycoon, now 32, began his career in this subsidised Mare Street studio in 2002 – one of many technology start-ups in Hackney.

By now he has met Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and runs his own company worth �10million.

But his road to success was rockier than most.

“People told me you had to go to Oxbridge to run your own business,” he says, perched on a wooden classroom chair.

“You went into crime if you wanted to make a lot of money.”

Duane has not seen his father since the age of three and went into care at 10 when his mother remarried.

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“We just didn’t get on at all,” he says. “I don’t think she wanted kids. I think we were in the way of her living her life.

“It got to the stage where she had to choose between me and him and she chose him.”

Angry and upset, the youngster was handed around a series of east London children’s homes, getting into fights and making the wrong kind of friends.

“At first it was quite scary living in that sort of environment. There’s no constancy,” he says.

“You know the people around you are only there because it is their job.

“It was a very weird and unnatural way of growing up.”

Despite being clearly gifted, Duane slipped through the school system and ended up relying on his social workers for his education.

Teach himself

At the age of 14, they decided they could do no more.

He was left between the hours of 9am and 3pm with just a ZX Spectrum computer for company – a decision he now describes as “the best thing they could’ve done”.

He began to teach himself programming and at 16 moved into a flat in Stratford, doing IT work for a local travel agent.

Soon he was pulling in contracts from multinational companies such as Reuters and Procter & Gamble for �40 an hour.

But the money came and went. Much was spent on visits to a girlfriend in New York, where he mysteriously bumped into an old acquaintance ‘‘Alan’’ who made him an attractive offer.

And so, at the age of 18, he began co-ordinating drugs couriers to fund his trips to the US.

“These were guys I grew up with and I guess I looked up to them,” says Duane.

“Because I had seen so many people taking the drugs back and forth, I didn’t really think much about it or what happens when you get caught.

“On one of the trips, the courier changed his mind.

“I knew it was easy and I really wanted to see Simone so I said I would take the drugs. But this time I had to go to Atlanta – and Atlanta is a little bit different.

“I got searched and they found me with 6,500 ecstasy tablets.”

“I have usually got the shakes but this time I was dead calm. It was so surreal, you know? It felt like it was happening to someone else.

“I was facing a 25-year-prison sentence and million dollar fine.”

They sent him to Clayton County Detention Centre in Georgia, “where the inmates called me ‘London’”, he says “It was very much like you see on TV”.

Back home, police arrested the whole East End drugs ring within hours.

Duane was brought back to the UK for a six week-long trial at Southwark Crown Court. Described by the judge as a “willing lieutenant” he was sentenced to five years at Brixton Prison and then Camp Hill on the Isle of Wight.

He was “over the moon”, he says. “Prison in the UK was totally different thing altogether.

“Prison officers are in control here. In the US, the prisoners run the show.

Lack of liberty

“It is very easy, once you have got over the lack of liberty and not seeing you friends.

“We had a very comfortable life. I can see how people get used to it.”

Another plus side of his punishment was the chance he got to teach an IT class, which ultimately earned him a millennium volunteers award from the then home secretary, David Blunkett.

“I ended up teaching IT because the teacher had ME and just stopped coming in,” he says.

“It kept me going. It was certainly more stimulating than making boxer shorts.

“With eight months of my sentence left they thought I should be in an open prison.

“Although I wasn’t technically being released, HMP Ford was known as ‘HMP Butlins’ and it certainly felt like it.”

Here is where Hackney comes in.

“What I really wanted to do was set myself up as a web developer.

“I started looking for an office but it had to be heavily subsidised. I got help from the Princes’ Trust and they eventually found this place in Mare Street, where I shared a room with a web designer.

“This is a seminal place for me.

“What I liked about Hackney was there were so many other start-ups.

Peer support

“There was a lot of peer support and I think that made a big difference to me early on.

“It is lonely starting a business otherwise.”

Duane set up KeyOne from his desk in 2002 and created his own accounting package.

Now known as KashFlow, the system is used by 10,000 small businesses all over the world.

He met Bill Gates at a conference in 2008, and lives in Sussex with his childhood sweetheart and their two daughters.

Now he is keen to show other ex-cons what they can do too.

“If you had told me when I was 18 that I’d be doing this, I wouldn’t have believed it,” he says, as he straightening his shirt collar.

“But people involved in drugs trafficking have so many transferrable skills for the business world.

“Drug dealing itself is an entrepreneurial activity. The difference is that your competitors could shoot you.

“An educational psychologist once said I’d be a career criminal or a very good businessman.

“I just did the crime bit first.”