Dave Gwilt, co-founder of BlinkPipe
BlinkPipe was started in late 2010 by Dave Gwilt and Alex Nancekievill, two Cambridge University alumni, who both have MBAs from London Business School.
The pair met whilst working at ARM, the multi-national semiconductor and software design company. The new company, based in Cambridge, provides high quality, big screen telepresence at a low monthly subscription with no long-term contract.
1. What made you and Alex leave successful careers at ARM for the risk and uncertainty of a startup?We get asked this question a lot! We were both directors at ARM, I was the chief information officer and Alex was director of procurement, but we both had ambitions of starting our own business. Leaving ARM and starting BlinkPipe was a major step for both of us – not to mention a big risk - but we were convinced we had a winning product and we were ready for a new challenge. Friends, family and colleagues did raise a few eyebrows at the time but everyone has been very supportive. It has been a huge roller coaster and a big learning curve but it’s also very exciting and, when we get positive feedback from clients, it makes it all worthwhile!
2. What is the biggest difference? When you start a business you are involved in everything from the outset. From HR, finance, sales, marketing and new business through to product development and engineering, it’s all down to you; there are so many decisions to make. ARM was an amazing experience and provided a critical learning opportunity that encompassed a broad range of disciplines including technical, commercial and senior management roles. The experience of managing complex engineering projects at ARM has proved invaluable and many of the skills we built up at ARM have been brought to bear on developing and bringing PhoneCamHD to market.
I love the fact that we’ve been involved in everything from the initial design of PhoneCamHD, the injection moulded housing right through to the various prototypes, packaging and pricing. Running a startup is like no other experience; every day is different!
3. How is BlinkPipe funded?We landed our first investment with Red Gate on a handshake in a pub outside Cambridge early in 2011. It was about as far away from Dragons’ Den or formal pitching as it gets. We shared some horror stories about video meeting fiascos and we were given a few more. We explained our approach and they got it straight away. Red Gate’s seed funding meant that development could start, and we set a deadline of December 2011 to secure a first round ‘get to market’ investment.
4. Was it as simple as that?We hit the UK venture capital circuit, taking the train to London regularly to tell our story and hold out our caps. It wasn’t busking, but it was close! We met lots of friendly, interesting VCs who told us (variously) that (a) we weren’t asking for enough money (eh?!) and (b) hardware products aren’t fashionable. We drew a blank.
5. So what did you do next?We went back to Red Gate and explained that time was running out. There was still a question mark over whether we could deliver what had become known informally as the ‘Wow!’ moment – when someone uses PhoneCamHD for the first time. We struck a deal where, if we could get 10 potential customers to experience the ‘Wow’ moment before Christmas 2011, then we would have our funding. Thankfully we achieved this and secured our go-to-market capital – enough to start industrial design and electronics manufacture in low volumes.
6. What was the net result of all that effort?Fast-forward to Christmas 2012 and we had a handful of paying customers using PhoneCamHD on a daily basis to offices in India and the US. We had proven the commercial viability, and in Q1 2013 Red Gate made a further investment in BlinkPipe to support our growth agenda and capitalise on the market opportunities.
7. What is BlinkPipe’s chief technology?BlinkPipe’s product, PhoneCamHD, combines the reliability and simplicity of a phone call with HD video and at a fraction of the cost of other systems on the market. The product connects to your phone and TV in minutes and is ready to start a video call straight away by simply dialling. It uses customers’ existing telephone systems for voice and sends video in HD over the internet at a much higher quality than that of a standard web cam. Patented technology keeps these in sync. The system is available for a low monthly subscription with the freedom to change or cancel at any time. PhoneCamHD has evolved continuously over the last 12 months and we believe the system’s easy set up, the hardware-as-a-service model and pay-as-you-go subscription will be a real game changer in this sector.
8. How did you come up with the idea of PhoneCamHD?ARM tasked Alex and I with bringing video conferencing to the business; we found it very frustrating. We had a start-up ‘itch’ to scratch, and knew that wherever there was customer pain, there was value to be created. High costs, shoddy reliability and the poor user experience led us to believe that we could offer a better product. Not only that, but the cost of ‘big’ enterprise video conferencing is prohibitive for so many businesses. You may have the budget to cover the sticker price of enterprise video conferencing, but getting your cheque book out is only part of the story.
These systems are highly complex and invariably involve lots of IT support to get set up and working. Sadly, they often end up massively under-used once put in because of the extra effort required to use them for a video meeting, and because the complexity leads to reliability problems. We wanted to develop a product that could be set up in minutes and critically, was affordable for companies of all sizes.
9. How does PhoneCamHD work?Your telephone connects through our floor box, which listens to the number you’ve dialled. If our cloud server matches the number to another PhoneCamHD, we will automatically start video over your network and take care of transmission through your firewall. Your phone conversation continues over your phone network as normal – we don’t interrupt it or reroute it, which is great for reliability.
10. What is the focus for the business over the next 12-18 months?BlinkPipe went live with PhoneCamHD in January this year. Our commercial focus is sales; both in volume and scalability. We expect to sell several hundred PhoneCamHD subscriptions in the first 12 months, and to do that at our price point we need to develop distribution partnerships – we aren’t about to hire a large sales force.
Fortunately, PhoneCamHD could be a great product line for IT resellers or telcos who don’t have a video offering. PhoneCamHD is so simple to install and use it should be a breath of fresh air in an otherwise complex & expensive video conferencing market. Our technical focus is on the user experience; PhoneCamHD is only as good as your last phone call. For us, that has to be perfect every time.
We are on a major recruitment drive at the moment and have a number of vacancies which we are currently interviewing for.