Founders Series: Patrick Clover, Founder and CEO of BLACKBX

Patrick Clover
Patrick Clover

What does your company do?

BLACKBX is smart guest WiFi for any venue – from independent shops, cafes and pubs to global brands with thousands of sites. Our service doesn’t use passwords or network logins, making it really easy to use. For business owners, it unearths value from a free service, WiFi, which is usually set up, given away and immediately forgotten.

We’re not just a tech company though, we’re on a mission to make WiFi better and debunk the myth that effective digital marketing is only for big brands and digital businesses. Venues with our platform can use their WiFi to better understand their customers, how long they stay, if they come back, what business looks like during peak times when they’re not there. They can then use these insights to improve engagement and communicate with customers better.

What do you do there / what is your role?

As the founder and CEO, I’ve had to do a bit of everything by necessity. Now that the team has grown, my responsibilities are to ensure the business is going in the right direction and stays on track. Ultimately the buck stops with me.

What is your background?

I had a pretty non-traditional education, much of which was spent living at sea on the Med, so I haven’t always conformed with normal schooling. I taught myself how to code by hacking a games console as a teenager and never really looked back.  

What was the aha moment that led to you starting the company?

My inspiration for BLACKBX was frustration with rubbish WiFi. When living on a boat with my family as a teenager, I could only access the Internet on dry land. It was usually a nightmare mix of passwords scrawled on blackboards, email registrations and weak signals. That’s when I decided to do something about it.

The other aha moment, if I can have two, was seeing high street brands struggle while digital businesses thrived at their expense. It was obvious to me that the data held by digital brands and big chains gave them a massive advantage over smaller businesses, but I thought WiFi could help them bridge the gap and compete on a more level playing field.

So how exactly does can your technology help the ailing high street?

As you know, our research shows that people only try new food and drink venues 1-2 times a year and that most of these places put little or no effort into marketing or attracting new customers. That isn’t a good mix, but we think we can help.

The problem is that a lot of high street shops think that marketing isn’t for them, that it’s too time intensive or requires skills they don’t have – which I completely understand. They may have tried it in the past, but it’s usually on an ad hoc basis and these businesses don’t know who to target with what messages and when. Our platform can tell a business if it’s a customer’s birthday coming up, a good time for a birthday promotion. It can also show if a regular hasn’t been seen in a month, at which point maybe they need a special offer to get them back in the door. We can help businesses automate these kinds of things, so that their marketing runs itself and they can spend their time and energy elsewhere.

Why did you launch the company?

Two main reasons: To fix bad guest wifi – make the customer experience better using technology that was available to venues already.

To give these venues the analytics and insights, plus marketing tools that are normally only available to bigger brands and companies

Where did you get assistance when you started?

Yes, all business owners have assistance in some capacity, even if it’s just emotional support from friends and family. I can attest that mine were a huge source of support when we were just getting started.

I also got a lot of professional guidance from Robin Knox and Paul Walton, co-founders of intelligent pos and Criton’s Julie Grieve to name just a few. Scotland is a great place for startups and there is support to be found all over.  

Give us a brief history of the growth of the company

Started me in my bedroom and a laptop, going door-to-door speaking to local venues about the platform I’d built.

In the first year it was one employee, three in the second year and five in the third year at which point we moved in to our first office just for us, now in our fourth year we’re up to more than 20 employees in 4 departments and are already looking for a new office.

Have you taken any external funding? If so from who and when?

The Princes Trust provided the initial funding need to get the business off the ground but we are now funded by a combination of customers and angel investment. Scottish Edge was another great source of support in the early days, plus Scottish Enterprise and finally a selection of high net worth angel investors who have brought in additional financial and coaching support for our growing team.

So what does it look like now with regard to staff and turnover?

BLACKBX has grown pretty rapidly recently. It has served more than 2 million users worldwide, made more than 12.5 million separate connections from over 750 locations across the UK, Europe, US, Africa, Asia and South America.

What’s the difference between when you started and now in your marketplace?

Number of competitors has grown and our target market is becoming more educated, to both the product and the competition out there. Conversely the growth in expectation by consumers that venues have safe and reliable, free WiFi has also given us more opportunities to consider. Since we started more people are using mobile phones to access the internet for a wider variety of reasons, venues need to keep up with the demand.

What is your target market – Who is buying your product / service?

Any venue that has or needs WiFi is a potential customer, that includes massive festivals as well as small specialist venues. Our perfect customer is one that wants to find a better way of doing marketing, which needs to attract new customers or keep in touch with the old ones.    

What are your goals for your business?

We want BLACKBX to be everywhere and to properly standardise guest WiFi – which has long been a pretty dire experience. We want to educate businesses that they can do effective digital marketing easily and encourage more of our existing customers to get the most from the product in terms of its marketing potential.

What are your biggest current challenges?

Product education – despite the changes in the marketplace there’s still a huge knowledge gap out there for what we provide. It’s part of our responsibility to get the word out of what’s possible with guest wifi.

Growing pains – with our rate of expansion we’re needing a new office sooner than expected, and all the bits that go along with having significantly more staff than ever before.

Recruitment – as it’s a fairly new industry and product, finding, attracting and maintaining a workforce can be challenging, as there’s a lot of unknowns for new entrants.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?

Nothing of significant note so far – but we suspect there’s still plenty to come! The support from the landscape has been great in helping us overcome challenges.

What do you know now that you wished you had known earlier?

Cost of customer acquisition and life time value and the importance of such metrics in a business like this.  Compounded by the lack of knowledge around the industry there isn’t much past history to go on for this particular sector, transferring knowledge from outside with regard to these sorts of measures has been a bit of a crowbar effort!

What’s the secret to good leadership?

Giving people enough autonomy to plan, do and act in the best interests of the business, and know that they are doing so.

Where do you see the company in five years?

Global recognition would be excellent – at this rate we’ll be on our 4th office by then. To transact and compete at a global level with our software would be a true sign that awareness of what we do has grown, and recognition of it’s worth to brick-and-mortar businesses

How can the scottish startup/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

Based on my experience, there’s not much to improve. The support I’ve had has been fantastic, and talking to other business owners in a similar situation they would likely reiterate that too. There’s lots of knowledge and it’s readily available, given the size of Scotland’s business network.

Can you give us some numbers? Turnover, growth rate, etc.

We’ve grown 123% in the last year, and we’re growing at about 10% per month currently. Staff numbers have doubled in the last 6 months, and are set to continue on that trend.

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