You created Confused.com – what was the inspiration behind it?
I had a previous business where I worked with brand owners to optimise investment and Norwich Union was a client back in 1998. They needed to get online, which would have meant spending £6m – and they wouldn’t do it. So I suggested they get five other insurers to work with them for £1m each. They didn’t want to do it and thought it was madness to work with competition, so I went ahead myself because I thought it was a good idea.
The model was successful and charged insurers to quote users because I gave them a fully qualified lead and those cost per leads were more valuable than using Yellow Pages. Admiral wasn’t a client but said they wanted consumers directly and offered to buy a stake in company – it would have meant it wasn’t privately owned any more, so I sold the business.
Buddi is your current venture and the idea was sparked after your daughter went missing in a supermarket. What exactly was the thought process to get it running?
It’s actually a very common situation and I just thought there must be something I could use to find her at any time if she wandered off or got lost. I assumed there would be a product I could buy from the US to put in her pocket in order to track her, but there wasn’t one, so I set out to build something using the obvious choice of GPS.
I wrote a functional spec, went to university design projects to speak to students in London, ran a competition and picked a design that was quite child-like. I then went to manufacturers who told me it would cost millions of pounds to make a prototype, which was ridiculous.
I assembled a team of engineers and we built it ourselves. I was always adamant it had to be small for children to carry, designers want it to look good and engineers want it to be big enough to support the technologies, but together we got it to work and got it manufactured.
It’s certainly not something I’d recommend, but the hard work has paid off. Software you can write overnight, but you just can’t do that with hardware.
Back in 2009, you secured the Tech and Innovation Award at the Growing Business Awards. What stage of the business were you at then?
We’d literally just got the products out at the end of 2007, which people could buy online throughout 2008 – but we didn’t market them because it’s very easy to market and a waste money to do so. The only way to really find out if consumers want something is to put it on the site, and we quickly found local authorities were buying them for the elderly and their relatives.
We actually spoke to Mothercare, which was initially interested too, but their thinking was, what happens if a parent gives this to a child and they’re taken but the person finds the Buddi and throws it away? They didn’t want to be associated with that. Although, speaking to police, they very much believe there’s a significant benefit to knowing where the child is.
Interestingly I’m getting lots of requests in the child space now, which is perhaps because of our smartphones and the way we’re always being tracked. This is much more common that it was ten years ago as people aren’t as suspicious of their privacy.
Our core focus is looking after elderly people living on their own – there are 3.7m adults over 65 with a medical condition in the UK and they can fall and lay on the ground for hours without anyone noticing and it’s those people who need help.
Last year 12 per cent of revenue was overseas, 49 per cent was overseas this year and we expect 75 per cent overseas in 2015. We have government contracts in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland. Revenue has typically grown 100 per cent year on year.
Why is most of the appeal coming from international markets?
British people are very negative. If you say to Americans, here’s a device that monitors elderly people and their well-being, they will think that’s cool. Tell a Brit and they say, what if they forget to take it out with them? It’s a very difficult situation to overcome.
What does innovation mean to you?
Innovation comes from small businesses, and good businesses grow by small incremental improvements. People like Apple are always pushing to innovate every 12 to 18 months. There are some interesting innovation models in fintech and in health, and I would like to be able to see the level of glucose in my body in real-time.
You’ve achieved a lot in business as a whole, but certainly for women in the industry. There’s often talk of a gender divide in business – do you agree?
There’s a lot of data that suggests that, but I’m not sure of it. In certain countries perhaps but I’m not sure it’s caused by anything other than the decisions people have been made. I wouldn’t want my daughter to work as much as me and I’d encourage her to be at home to enjoy her children as much as possible. What I’d like to see here is more flexible working where we’d have the opportunity to do more. I’m not sure women simply saying there’s a glass ceiling will change matters.
What advice do you have for fellow entrepreneurs?
As Nike has said, just do it. The only way is to really have a go. The best advice I can give is about money – don’t spend cash unless you have to, which is true for the Fortune 500s and a startup. Find mentors that can challenge you and question you for feedback, which may seem annoying but it is invaluable.
Then you get to the growth stage when it’s difficult to receive support with investment and in the middle of the growth stage, companies are interested in buying you. At that point UK companies usually sell because they know how hard it was to get there, but US companies will go on their own. The real risk is when you have something working and try and grow it in order to bring it to the next stage – that’s what will bring the next Google to the UK.
And is that what you plan to do with Buddi?
Buddi can be 100 times bigger than it is at the moment. We’ll keep growing at this rate, expanding technologies and territories to core customer groups. The specific market we’re targeting is a $500bn market.
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