We had the pleasure of speaking with Jess butcher, Co-Founder and Director at Blippar this week! As a co-founder we thought it would be great to pick her brains and share this interview with you!
Q: Hi Jess! It’s great to have you join us today, shall we start with a short introduction? What is Blippar and what led you to co-found it?
A: Hi! Thanks for having me! Blippar is the world’s leading visual browser harnessing the smart device as a turbo-charged extension of our physical sight by allowing you to look at anything in the physical world through the device and instantly connecting you with sources of information relating to it.
Four of us started the business back in the spring of 2011 after appreciating the huge potential of the new smartphone technologies of image recognition and augmented reality – and sought to harness them within a single browser business model and powerful new consumer verb – ‘to blipp’, rather than in watered-down, app-by-app activations which were proliferating at the time.
Q: How did you start it up?
A: With the usual sweat, blood and tears that start-ups go through! The four of us worked around the clock, without pay in those early days hunting down first proof-of-concept clients, pitching everywhere we could and building demo versions of the tech to showcase at events and pitches. Very soon we won our first clients, the PR machine started and the early revenues flowed with which we could move into our first office and make our first hires.
Q: What’s your vision for Blippar? Where do you see the company in 5 years?
A: Right now we are enjoying rapid international growth, with 300 staff in 10 offices around the globe and being hailed as one of the top 10 most disruptive techs globally by CNBC in early 2016 alongside the likes of Uber, Spotify and AirBnB. We are being touted as one of the few ‘European Unicorns’ on the global scene, however our ultimate ambition – as yet not achieved - remains the same: to become a new, mass consumer verb, to ‘blipp’. The recent launch of our visual discovery capabilities –harnessing sophisticated AI as well as computer vision technologies has put us on a new trajectory of turning billions of physical world images and objects interactive and mapping them to accurate, relevant sources of online information. The next few years are about enhancing and improving this technology and generating mass awareness for, and adoption of a daily behaviour for blipping.
Q: Did you seek any support from mentors or like-minded individuals?
A: From the early days we have always been strong at attracting mentors and powerful friends to the business. The more you share your ideas (as opposed to holding your cards tightly to your chest), the more insight and expertise you can access. As a business, we have an impressive array of investors, advisors and independent board members and on a personal level, I have forged strong friendships and mentoring relationships with a number of impressive entrepreneurs who I lean on for both logistical advice and emotional support. I now do a lot of mentoring myself – which I see as just as valuable to my own personal growth and development as being mentored.
Q: What resources do you use to continue to develop your professional portfolio?
A: I network, talk, read and listen a lot! I’m fascinated by other entrepreneurs’ stories and experiences plus all the new developments within the start-up scene – which I access through events, social media and tech blogs. From this insight comes knowledge, partnerships and inspiration.
Q: You were named one of the BBC’s International list of ‘100 Women’ in 2004 and Fortune Magazine’s global ‘Top 10 Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs’ in 2012 - that’s incredibly impressive! What advice would you give to someone wanting to start up their own company?
A: Firstly, focus on what interests and excites you most and make yourself an expert in what’s happening in that field. Then network with anyone you can already operating with that field, listen, learn and see where inspiration might strike. Once it does, it’s then about having the balls and confidence to leap into the unknown with a start-up. Do your research; partner-up if you lack all the necessary skills and then simply put – start to fake it until you make it! Confidence of vision (even if you don’t really know what you’re doing and are paddling frantically under the water), is critical. The logistics of setting up a business are not challenging – finding the right people to work with and selling the first iteration of your vision are the first challenges, followed closely by then showing enough adaptability to adjust and pivot as you grow, attract and retain a talented growing team and raise funding. Get organised. Get productive with your time. The concept of working day and working week ceases to exist – but you will be amazed at your capacity and productivity when a venture is in your own interests as opposed to someone else’s!
Q: What challenges did you face starting Blippar? How did you overcome them and do you find yourself still battling some of these challenges?
A: Our biggest challenge in the early days was convincing valuable, established brands to take a leap of faith with us and if possible, print our silly-sounding app name on their valuable packaging and advertising. We did it by treating them as we did our investors – trusting them with knowledge on our overall business model and long-term vision, flattering their overall business acumen and not just appealing to their media-buying budget. This challenge still exists with some new clients but less so now our track record is so strong and we have data to show the strength of our results. Our biggest challenges now are around managing fast, international growth – creating a coherent, consistent culture across offices, managing communications across time zones and retaining and hiring the very best people in each territory.
Q: How do you develop talent and help people to grow to the next level and be their best?
A: We encourage our team members to work fairly autonomously and to feel responsibility for their respective business units rather like start-ups within the business. We operate a very meritocratic environment, blind to age, experience or diversity
Q: What other topics are of interest to you?
A: Broader trends within the AR, VR, computer vision and AI spaces, as the pace of change here is so rapid. Just look at the Pokemon Go phenomenon as one recent example –more downloads in less than a week that any other app has achieved in over a year on the market – and a fantastic development for our space, taking AR mass market overnight.
On a personal level, I am fascinated by start-up culture and what more can be done to encourage entrepreneurialism, with a particular interest on what I can do to encourage the growth of female entrepreneurialism and getting more women generally into the tech sector. Since having children, the challenge of digital addiction is also weighing on my mind and how technology can be used to enhance our day-to-day lives and appreciation of the world around us rather than sap time or put up barriers to real-world experiences and in-person memory-making.
Q: I think one of the concerns about starting up your own business is how it will affect your personal life. How has the startup impacted your family, social life, or relationships?
A: I was childless in the very early days of Blippar which meant that I could invest the time and emotional energy required to build the business in those frenetic first two years – but I’ve since had 2 children in the last 3 years and I feel I’m a better entrepreneur for it. I had to learn to delegate and empower others’ decision-making skills at a time that was critical for the business to be able to scale rapidly
Having said that, I’ve witnessed other women with children the age of mine now start businesses from scratch and manage to juggle that amazingly– and I’m in awe of them. I think pragmatism is the order of the day for any parent-entrepreneur. Marriages/ partner relationships need to be more equal than most– with a shared responsibility for bedtimes, school-runs and life admin – in which I’m hugely fortunate. I have the most supportive husband I could hope for (he is often found embarrassing me as my personal PR at dinner parties – and takes on a lot of the home responsibilities). Plus my good friends are all incredibly supportive. Ultimately, if you’re happy and fulfilled professionally, all your personal relationships benefit from that.
Q: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
A: My 3 year old’s shouts (“it’s morning in my bedroom!”)- at c. 6am daily.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: My 1 year old’s night moans and pregnancy indigestion (#3 due at Christmas).
Q: What has made you successful?
A: In order to thrive, I have developed a thicker skin and had to stop second guessing myself as much as I used to. Surround myself with kindred-spirits whose counsel I value and who I call upon in moments of doubt or uncertainty. I also married well, and my husband is my greatest cheerleader for my goals and staunchest supporter of my wacky ideas!
Q: Finally, what one piece of advice would you give to those who would like to follow in your footsteps?
A: Build and maximise your network. Find kindred spirits and informal mentors at the same time as your mentor those on the ladder below you. Both will propel you forward.
Thank you so much for your time today Jess, we look forward to having you part of Women of Silicon Roundabout.