Interviews

Eyetease sets sights on global expansion after getting Boris Johnson on board

11 min read

24 September 2015

An impromptu meeting with London mayor Boris Johnson has led to a growth drive at taxi group Eyetease, as founder and CEO Richard Corbett explained to us.

Corbett colourfully describes jumping on Johnson in March 2014 as an entrepreneurial act to “create your own destiny”.

At the time, Corbett, founder of Tech City-based Eyetease, was struggling to get Transport for London’s (TfL) green light to put his new digital advertising boards on the top of its iconic black cabs.

The iTaxitop is, Corbett explained, the world’s first industrial grade high definition LCD taxi-top technology – enabling media, news and information to be shown from a taxi’s roof, deploying ads relevant to a location, time of day and weather. The ads are sent to each unit via wireless connectivity.

“I came up with the idea when I looked at taxi-top light boxes in the US with completely irrelevant advertising on them,” he said. 

“So you had adverts for strip clubs in family areas and vice-versa! The ads didn’t work in their environment. Our ads and media are broadcast to the right people at the right place and time of day. Taxis are so close to high volumes of people, they are the most powerful form of outdoor advertising. With the power that our technology brings to a roaming taxi, brands are truly spoilt for choice.”

The second development is in-cab WiFi, with Corbett again boasting of its “unique ads-for-access user experience” – allowing companies to monetise public WiFi hotspots on the go.

“If you log on and use WiFi in a cab then that’s down to us. We were the first to do it,” he said.

Following TfL approval in December 2012, its WiFi product (‘CabWifi’) was installed in thousands of black cabs during 2013, three years after the group was formed in 2010. However, the digital taxi-top took a little longer.

The group bought a London taxi in 2012 and were “ready to go” with the technology, but needed that vital TfL approval.

“There were regulations about messing with the shape of the black cab and we had to go through a lot of tests on the road to get a yes from TfL,” he recalled. “There was a lot of money going out and not much coming in. We were forced to think creatively in order to move forward and that’s when we decided to have an impromptu meeting with Boris Johnson.”

Corbett learned when and where Johnson was carrying out a speaking engagement early last year and parked three taxis outside of the venue declaring “We Love Boris”.

“I jumped on him when he came out of the building and his assistant was trying to push me away saying it wasn’t the right time for a meeting,” Corbett stated. 

“But the entrepreneur in me came out. I realised I had to create my own destiny and I pointed to and showed Boris the cabs with our technology on the top of the cabs and our message. 

“Boris said it was ‘bloody marvellous’ and asked what he could do to help. Two weeks later I got a letter from Boris saying we were a great example of British innovation and we came to an agreement with TfL to re-develop the design in May last year.”

Read more about Boris Johnson:

Alongside the entirely self-funded approval and testing work, Eyetease had been busy talking to and educating the advertising market about its new technologies.

That work paid off last year when the group signed a multi-million pound deal in May 2014 with the world’s largest taxi media company Verifone Inc.

“When Eyetease first began, I wanted to be the technology provider and media owner and do it all from end-to-end,” he said. “But managing tech and selling ads are different skill sets. Now we sell the technology to Verifone and it sells the ads. We focus on what we do best – the tech.”

Corbett said working with the US firm was a “blessing” compared to British companies.
“US firms seem to be much more open to new ideas and unproven concepts. I guess they are a nation of startups,” he observed. 

“The Brits are changing but we are still a long way behind focusing on areas such as background and tradition and being less likely to collaborate with small businesses.”

He recalled back in 2013 the pain of trying to get investment from British angel investors.
“Nobody was willing to take the time to understand the business – thinking it was too high-risk. They trivialised the opportunity without truly understanding the concept or by asking for a disproportionate amount of equity. 

“Many entrepreneurs take these offers just to get funding, but in the US equity giveaways are much lower,” he revealed. “I was looking for £150,000, but only really needed £45,000 to get me to the next stage. Knowing that we were being undervalued and not seeing an investor who truly could add value, aside from money, to the business, I had to walk away and continued to bootstrap my way to the next stage with the support of family and friends. I’m very pleased to say they have all now been paid back now.”

Indeed, Eyetease has now racked up $4m in sales in the UK with its iTaxitop leading the way. Corbett said it is getting 10-15 enquiries a day from all over the world to roll-out internationally.

Foreign expansion is on the cards with the US immediately in its sights.

“We felt it was important to start in London, rather than the US, and ensure the proposition was sound with no hardware failures,” he said. “We are scouting locations in the US and intend to have a phased approach. We are setting up a New York office imminently and it would make sense for us to continue working with Verifone there. On the shoulders of giants we are stronger.”

All the design and manufacturing will remain in the UK to “keep on top of quality control”.

How British businesses can make the US a gravy train, not a graveyard

Its export plan recently won a HP Go Global Award, with the judges praising the firm’s market research. “To the financials, the resourcing, the manufacturing of parts and the sound financial backing – they left no stone unturned and there is no doubt as to their future success an exporter,” it concluded.

“Knowing the market you are exporting too is vital. You have to understand the market and work with local partners. You must understand the local regulations and processes such as what the transport authorities will require in our case,” Corbett said. 

“It is not rocket science – just look at which countries you know there will be demand for your product and work with local partners and transport authorities through each step. That de-risks the whole export operation. If we can make it happen in London, we can make it anywhere.”

Eyetease is also looking to move its R&D operation in-house in the near future. “We are investing in a new hub in London so we can accelerate new product development. We are looking to take on five engineers over the next 6-12 months. The talent is out there and they want to try something new.”

Finding skills is not a problem in the UK Corbett argued – the problem with UK manufacturing is the quality of the managers overseeing those skilled workers.

“Nations like Japan and Germany don’t have better engineers than us, they have better managers and better processes and control systems such as Just in Time, Kanban and Six Sigma – to name a few,” he said. 

“In the UK we don’t enforce these systems, which really could yield huge efficiencies. I don’t know why they don’t use them – it is frankly unforgivable. It is a cultural thing I suppose, but without them the UK has no chance of ever competing in the global tech and manufacturing sector. We have to focus on hard to do technologies, invest in those and improve management styles.”

Who has got Johnson’s numbers? It seems Corbett needs another word.