The UK is in the lead of Europe’s tech unicorn market. According to GP Bullhound’s current report the number of fast-growth, profitable businesses hasn’t declined; on the contrary, 18 of them, with the cumulative value of $39.6bn (£26.8bn), are based in the UK. Blippar, the augmented reality app, has just joined the club of the companies with the sky-high valuation. The co-founder Jessica Butcher gave a keynote speech at our EXPAND London March event and we are happy to announce she is one of our headline speakers for the second edition of the event. In this interview, Jessica told us about Blippar’s strategy and why she loves her “double life”.
Do you still have a startup culture in Blippar considering it is already 5 years old and how do you define it?
That’s a good question because we have definitely grown since our launch. For a while, I was (rather unglamorously!) referring to us as ‘a spotty teenager’ (laughs) until Sherry Coutu introduced me to the definition ‘scale up’ – I found it a much more elegant way to describe our stage of growth. We are far from being a corporate, but we are certainly not a ‘startup’ anymore.
Having said that, I don’t believe we’ve lost our startup culture. On the contrary, we’ve maintained a sense of innovation, flat hierarchy, and meritocracy. We don’t have age division between those able to lead and manage teams and projects – or get promoted. We encourage open communication. It helped us to maintain a startup culture very, very well.
Is what you are building the Internet of Everything? Where do you see the limitations?
We don’t see any limitations – that’s exactly our vision. What once was impossible to connect, is now connectable – that is the seismic potential of what we are doing with Blippar. Every single physical image or object can now potentially be connected to relevant information and resources concerning it – fuelling real-time discovery and enabling the instantaneous sating of day-to-day curiosity as we go about our lives.
The power of this technology boggles my mind and our challenge as a business is to make sense of it in an intuitive way. The possibilities are enormous – we can be across the natural world, education, art, engineering, literally anything. We’ve undertaken a massive task. The Internet of Everything is an occasionally daunting way of looking at it, but what we already know is that it is possible and that’s our overarching vision.
EXPAND London March saw 500+ attendees
AR has been lacking a single identifiable platform, taking into account you have acquired some of your competitors, are you trying to make Blippar a referential platform? Similar to Google being the search giant and Youtube video-sharing synonym. What’s the strategy?
The best way to look at how we view behaviours is to look at ourselves as a browser to access content. Our goal is to democratise the way content is accessed through a single lens. Blippar is creating a world where everybody can benefit from the cumulus of information using a single browser to access it.
What we can observe today is a fragmentation of perception that is presented in an “own app strategy” (IKEA app for unlocking their catalogue, Heat magazine for just unlocking the magazine could serve as the examples). I should say there are many fabulous user cases of the technology been harnessed in that way – medicine, mechanics, space engineering are all the examples here. We are in awe of the great work that has been done around it. We learn from this work to employ the best practices available. The biggest question is the possibility of mass adoption of these technologies – that’s where we believe a single browser behaviour is the solution. This vision has always been part of our business model.
You were named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in Technology Globally. What is your advice for women trying to enter the tech industry?
I am personally a huge advocate for female entrepreneurship and women in technology. I think in technology specifically, one of the challenges that we have is the convention around the subjects that women study. Considering my educational background, I am also a victim of that. I find it ironic that I am held up as an influential woman in technology when I have an Ancient History degree. I am not a Techie in a true sense of the word at all. I wish I had thought more about STEM subjects when I was younger and learned coding for instance. I am a huge supporter of STEM subject promotion at a school age. What we, Sherry (Sherry Coutu, Founder & Executive Chairman at Founders4Schools – Jobbio) and Founders4Schools Charity do is ensure that women in technology are speaking at that level.
I think careers in technology do not have to require technical background and skills. To make your product successful you need all sets of skills, i.e. marketing, brand development, consumer adoption, assimilation and more. The value I brought to blippar as a non-techie is asking all the critical questions to all the techies in the room. Some of these were “Why are we doing this? What is the value of it? How can we make it palatable and make sense to consumers?” In our founding team, I am the least likely person to talk about the Augmented Reality because to me the definition of tech is not important, it is the fact that magic happens, that things come to life and the world can be unlocked. These are the terms that I use. I want to immediately translate technology and its features into why it is valuable and what we can achieve with it, not just state what it is.
What was the best advice you got when starting your career?
It would be hard for me to isolate any one piece of advice. My father was a great inspiration for me. He was a very high achiever himself, he idolised his female boss always stressing he learned a lot from her. So seeing my father being so impressed by a female manager has always added to my self-confidence. I felt I was capable of doing and achieving anything. I was brought up to believe there are no limits or barriers to stop me from doing what I want to do.
I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I think I fell into this purely because I like to create and have a very wide list of interests in different industries. I like to disrupt and I like to make people look differently at things. I wouldn’t say that I am a marketeer, a salesperson or a product person. I am a generalist loving to innovate on the junction of different industries.
Being one of the four co-founders of a hugely successful startup, what are the three things you’ve learned so far?
In the launch days, we represented a perfect square of skillsets for representing what Blippar is about and how to take the proposition of AR to the market. This was really critical. Without Omar, the Chief Technologist, we would simply not build a proposition around the idea. I was in sales and marketing, translating tech into a human language for marketing, advertising, and media partners. Steve’s role, as our Creative Director, was absolutely pivotal because he was able to turn technology into something beautiful, something that would resonate with the content owners – he created beautiful manifestations of what was possible. Finally, Rish our CEO, who worked across all efforts, combined all of these with an immense global, long-term vision to create what we now call Blippar.
When we first went out looking for funding, people got really interested in that dynamic of the four of us.
We were able to bring to life a business which could develop from all four corners. I learned from all of them, and Rish in particular – he is such an internationally thinking visionary, I simply never stop learning from him!
Any advice for young and ambitious people trying entrepreneurship?
Start building your network. My network was the first value that I brought to the business, it was almost a by-product of my fairly scattered CV. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I worked for a number of different companies at the same time. This could even look weak on my CV, had I been applying for another job, but leaping into an entrepreneurial adventure – it made a perfect sense. It helped with what we required in our early days – contacts with brands, agencies, and media companies. Ultimately, the network helped us bring on board most of our first clients. It was me with four demos on a borrowed mobile phone running around and having coffees with people I either used to know or who knew people I used to know.
That’s always my advice to those starting their career – it’s your network where all your opportunities in life come from. Keep it strong and work on it, it’s absolutely critical. Make it as diverse as possible, don’t just stick to the job titles like your own but look across different industry and personality types. I invest a lot of my professional life in attending events.
The most interesting startup/founder I’ve met… I was fortunate enough to meet Nick Jenkins – the Moonpig.com founder and now dragon on Dragons Den – for a coffee not so long ago. I loved his life philosophy and motivations and found him hugely personally inspiring.
One thing no one knows about me…. I’m banana woman. A Hertfordshire mum of 2.5 children in one life, with a different married name, different wardrobe, invariably found at soft play or the splash park with sick on my shoulder and complaining to my amazing mum friends about sleep deprivation. She metamorphosises into Jessica Butcher on the commute into London. Jess Butcher is much more articulate, wears better clothes and is fortunate enough to hobnob with some of the most fascinating business, media and technology people in the world. I love my double life.
Learn from the speakers – Blippar, Transferwise, Pinterest and more – at EXPAND London