Motivated by discovery and driven by innovation - how a technology business looks for new opportunities
James Cobb enthuses about how working with early adopters prepared to innovate. Plus integrating Crowd Connected’s event management technology into existing customers’ systems, differentiates them in the market.
There’s a constant cause of frustration for the organisers of large scale events and venues, such as music festivals and exhibition and conference halls. The planning could have taken years, but once they open the doors and people flood in, they can just hope that all goes well. They do not know in real time if there is sudden movement towards a particular location, or if seminar room one is empty when it shouldn’t be.
Even if the organisers attempt to find out by dashing around, they have very little ability to address matters.“Event management on the day is usually about fire-fighting,” says James Cobb, Chief Executive of Crowd Connected. “It should be about managing pro-actively”.
Five years ago, his company created cloud based software which tracks mobiles at an event, venue, or theme park for example. Turning those smartphones into a connected sensor network enables the organisers to gain precise information about the location of each person, to within a metre and in real time.
We present the information as a heatmap or dashboard in the control room. Crowd densities can be monitored, sudden movement and incidents identified. The alternative is a blizzard of CCTV cameras and staff to monitor them all.
If there is a bottleneck at one entry point, a text could be sent to those at the back of the queue to suggest another quicker access point. Not only can a theme park identify how people gravitate to a specific attraction, it can attract them there with information.
In addition to knowing what’s happening as it happens, the organisers can revisit the information. Thus gaining a better understanding how attendees consume what is on offer. By analysing their journey patterns once on-site, visitor behaviour metrics can be built up.
What Crowd Connected had to do in the first instance was to build a cross-platform embracing iPhones and Android.
“Over fifty events used our Colocator technology last year. We are still at the stage where we are working with early adopter customers who are excited by what we have been producing,” explains Cobb. “They’ve continued to work with us because they believe it could be even more valuable for them. The alternative to using us is not having a solution to meet their requirements.
“Once the products mature, to build scale, we will have to make them more readily understandable if they are to be easily adopted by the mass market, however you define that. “We have great innovation, low overheads, and we are comfortable working with early adopters. Now we are at the point at which we can genuinely make more sales happen because we have got an utterly defined proposition.
“A challenge is that while businesses generate increasing amounts of data, they’re not necessarily disposed to do much with it, which would reduce the value Colocator delivers. We can tell them how their business can harness that data, but the response can be; we haven’t been doing it in 2018, so do we really need to in 2019? Our task is to show them that not adopting the technology will mean they are going to fall behind.”
Crowd Connected have to be evangelical. But one really smart way they achieve a breakthrough is by demonstrating that their technology fits into the customer’s existing way of IT working. “So yes, the data can even be exported into Excel if that’s what they use, rather than them having to learn a new tool,” Cobb explains. “We look and understand their world, what tools they like to use, what’s important to them, so we can fit in with that.
“It’s very easy for an innovator to say there is no competition, but there always is, even if it’s the way the customer is used to doing something and doesn’t want it to be disrupted. Which is why understanding what they are doing and fitting in rather than attempting to replace it is so important. It’s about integrating with the way they want to work.”
What drives Cobb is that he is motivated by discovery. “It comes from being always interested in science. I need to understand why something works and find ways to do things which haven’t been attempted before,” he explains. “What makes me want to come into work is that we are engaged in real innovation. I would have no desire to run a business which simply assembles computers or sells IT. Both might be good sectors to be in, but they don’t interest me.”
Looking to the future
But his passion doesn’t belie business nous. “Progress isn’t made just from being genuinely inventive all the time,” Cobb suggests. “There has to be maturity. A time when a product can be ‘shrinkwrapped’ and the emphasis put on identifying new ways it can be applied.”
An approach which has led to some real left-field thinking. Cobb foresees opportunities in online gaming, where in certain jurisdictions, players can only come from specific locations; Crowd Connected can enable operators to prove they are compliant.
But there is a particular business behavioural trait which he will not countenance. “One of the most important things for me is that before you put together any strategy, the starting point has to be determining what can never be changed because it is an enduring characteristic of the business,” he explains.
Not surprisingly, in terms of being able to deliver strategy, one of the biggest growth pains is finding more of the right people in order to build the team, which he says is smaller that he would like it to be. “It’s hugely time consuming,” he asserts. “We’ve looked at graduates as well as those with years of experience. We want clever people who get excited and motivated when they see what we are doing. The kind of people who read research papers because they want to.”
This is so important that Cobb involves himself throughout the recruitment process; not just in terms of reviewing the final candidates for a post.
“The broader challenge,” he continues; “and one which we relish, is making sure that people benefit from working for us. That everyone understands our goals and know how they are contributing to our achieving them. I have always been comfortable with having people join the business and doing things worse than I think I could do them. I learned very early on that when you hire people you need to be able to tolerate mistakes, because the alternative is that you have to try to do everything yourself, which is a nonsense. If the company is going to achieve what is possible in the next five years, it isn’t just going to be because of my efforts.”
“The team,” says Cobb, “has to be in place if a company is to extend its planning horizons. We have put in processes and procedures that can scale beyond the size of the business now. Otherwise the risk is that you get caught out by success.”
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