Where in Scotland are you located?
Tell us about yourself?
I am a serial technology entrepreneur and former academic. My first venture was Elektrobit UK which was a partially-owned subsidiary of the Finnish telecoms company Bittium in 1999.
I bought out this company in 2004 to form Trisent Communications which I later sold to Artilium plc in 2008.
I then returned to the University of Edinburgh and led the spin-out the company PureLiFi and moved on to become CEO of Dukosi where I led their transformation from an IC design services company to a battery management technology company addressing the emerging EV market.
Dukosi was acquired by US based KCK group in 2019 for an eight-figure sum. I set up Better Internet Search because of an itch I had about the current state of the internet.
I did not like the way personal data was being harvested and believed that there are viable alternatives to the advertising model.
I see this as my last big project before trying to transition towards a more relaxing way of life. In my personal life I enjoy DIY and always have too many projects on the go. I also enjoy motorsport and driving (and often fixing) classic cars.
What lessons has being an entrepreneur taught you?
I have found that persistence really does pay off and I tend to keep going while many others might throw in the towel. I think this needs to be combined with an ability to adapt and admit when things are not working so that you can quickly find an alternative path rather than hitting a brick wall.
Having an optimistic outlook is also important for me (perhaps to the point of self-delusion) and so I have learned to avoid listening to the pessimists with their ’it won’t work’ attitude. Admittedly, the naysayers are difficult to avoid when you say you are going to build a search engine!
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what piece of advice would you give yourself?
Do not to work with the wrong people (or maybe I should say only work with the right people). I have made a couple of hiring errors in the past and my real regret is that I did not sort it quicker.
I have also learned that if you don’t look forward to board meetings, as a place where you can discuss real issues openly, then you probably have the wrong board and that can be rather difficult to fix.
Often the issue of board composition comes down to the investors you choose (so choose them wisely).
A lot of entrepreneurs find it difficult to balance their work and personal lives. How have you found that?
I have not always got my life-work balance correct in the past, but I am much better these days. I now try to treat myself the same way as I treat employees. They have flexible working and I never ask for late or weekend working unless there is a genuine need (which is infrequent).
By being flexible with staff I don’t feel any guilt in working that way myself. I do still find it difficult to schedule holidays of over a week but I quite like having long weekends where I can ignore emails for a few days.
What is the inspiration behind your business?
Back in 2007 while working at Trisent Communications we developed a unique self-writing diary technology based on proprietary location tracking technology and using the capabilities of the latest Symbian smartphones.
The technology was a bit clunky and few people had smart phones so it was never developed commercially. However, this seeded our ideas on how we could consolidate personal data on the user-side to personalise services, such as search, for the benefit of users.
We developed the idea into a project called ‘Internet Search Improved By User-side Data’ (ISIBUD) which received a grant from the EUs Next Generation Internet Trust programme, and the company Better Internet Search Ltd was founded from this project.
What do you think is your magic sauce? What sets you apart from the competitors?
We have a business model that is unique – all of our competitors use the same ad-based model that actually turns their users into the product sold to advertisers.
We have a model that is ad-free and community-owned, our users are the customers and as a result we generate a number of user benefits that the incumbent search engines cannot achieve.
How have you found sales so far? Do you have any lessons you could pass on to other founders in the same market as you just starting out?
We have over 1000 users worldwide testing our prototype and already we have revenue being generated from them. The full launch of the search engine will be in 2023 with a beta version available before this.
One lesson we have learned from competitors (that have not been successful) is to ensure that the cost of user acquisition is low and the lifetime value of them is high.
Rather than mass marketing (which is very costly) we are beginning with a community of users and our token-based community ownership model helps keep them invested in the platform and encourages them to help us grow the community.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced so far in your business, and how did you overcome it?
Overcoming scepticism has been a big challenge for us. We have been rejected for tens of grants with the usual argument being that it is unrealistic to build a new type of search engine in Scotland; it won’t work, it will take years, or it take many millions to develop and the competition will kill us, etc.
We have faced similar feedback from potential investors both angels and VCs. I think because everyone uses search, they think they understand it and there is reluctance to think beyond the status quo.
Our solution to this problem was to look to niche grant providers, supporters and investors; those who believe in, or are willing to try and understand, our mission.
We have found local investors to be surprisingly risk averse and they only wish to invest in later-stage stuff they have seen before and understand. We have had to look beyond Scotland and the UK to find strong support.
The EUs Next Generation Internet Trust grant was the real catalyst for our project in 2019. Web 3 and blockchain communities align with our purpose and so we are raising the next tranche of development capital from supporters in this community.
We are doing this via crowdfunded token sales rather than the traditional equity route.
What do you consider are the main strengths of operating your business in Scotland?
Scotland is a great place to live from a lifestyle perspective and there is quite a large talent pool so we are very lucky really.
There is a large connected and supportive community of entrepreneurs, and the country is small enough for everyone to know everyone, or at least know someone that knows them and is willing to connect you.
What if any are weaknesses of operating your business within Scotland?
As a nation we don’t think big enough and we are a risk averse. We are perhaps not confident enough in ourselves and fear being put down if we have big ideas. In certain company I find myself saying I develop internet software rather than saying we have built an alternative search engine.
I know that many people just think ‘how ridiculous, this guy thinks he can build a search engine to rival Google (who does he think he is…etc.)’. These attitudes permeate our society including our investor communities and organisations such as Scottish Enterprise.
It seems deep rooted, it holds us back and has certainly forced me to look overseas for support.
What influence does being part of the UK have on your business?
If I am honest, I always play the Scottish card rather than the UK one when talking with people outside of the UK. I find that gets a more positive response especially within Europe.
We are seen as a pioneering nation with a strong identity, whereas the current perceptions of the UK seem to be dominated by the Westminster soap opera so I like to distance myself from that.
What do you want to accomplish in the next 5 years with your business?
I think we are part of a growing community of ‘next generation internet’ companies that will collectively cause disruption to the current monopolies.
In five years, I would like to see our new brand (which is currently under wraps) to be visible in many countries and for users to be moving over to Web 3 services in exponentially growing numbers, not just to our platform but to other decentralised platforms where the user is taking back control of their personal data.
Our conservative projections for financial planning show 10 million users within 5 years, but I would expect this figure to be much higher if we get the platform optimised for multiple markets within the next two years.
How has Brexit impacted your business (if at all)?
I don’t think we have suffered as much as other industries, but it has definitely had a tangible negative impact on us. It has reduced the talent pool available, and I know of one talented person that would be working for us today in Scotland if it was not for Brexit.
In December 2020 we managed to get a project with an EU partner in Denmark finalised before the doors began closing, so this has impacted our relationship within EU projects which have be so important to us.
Although access to many collaborations is not completely closed it is now being restricted and I suspect EU politics does not do us any favours.
And finally, if people want to get involved and learn more about your business, how should they do that?
Our prototype search engine is live and anyone can give it a try search.betterinternetsearch.com. You can also find out more about our business, request our white paper or learn about the forthcoming token sale at www.betterinternetsearch.com.