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Earlier in 2015, a group of startups pitched their ideas to a panel of judges from John Lewis and the wider startup world.
Five of these startups went on to take advantage of retailer John Lewis’s accelerator space JLab, where they received funding and mentoring to help move their ideas and products forward.
On 24 September 2015, the teams made their final pitches before an investment decision is made.
Although not all of the small businesses went on to secure the £100,000 investment and partnership with John Lewis – along with the title of 2015 JLab winner – all of the startups have gained invaluable experience from their time on the accelerator programme.
“It’s not necessarily about winning. Demo day is about showing the progress they’ve made in JLab,” said a representative from JLab. “Overall, it’s been a great experience for all of the teams, and they’ve all come from different starting points.”
Each of the five startups – Space Lounges, Peeple, Alfred, Ikinen and Qudini – explained to Computer Weekly how the accelerator has helped them to progress so far.
Described as a “next-generation coffee shop”, Space Lounges was an idea developed by three teenagers who wanted to rewrite the café experience to incorporate smartphones.
All items are ordered by smartphone, eliminating the need for queues and reducing errors during order taking.
James Anderson, managing director of Space Lounges, said the retail focus of John Lewis’s JLab made it the best type of incubator programme to help Space Lounges with its launch.
James Anderson, Space Lounges
“A lot accelerators have wider thinking, whereas JLab is more specific – it’s heavily retail focused,” he said. “The people we’ve been introduced to have been extremely helpful to our business because of the specific focus they’ve had.”
Because the team is made up of three people under 20, the Space Lounges group had previously found it difficult to find funding and support.
“It’s incredibly difficult to find funding and to convince them that your idea is the right one,” said Anderson. “We were still in school at that stage, and we had no prior experience or qualifications.”
Space Lounges can now say it has the trust of a large retailer behind it, backing up the validity of the idea, and being hosted inside the John Lewis building has given the team access to expert advice.
“Having the John Lewis brand behind us is massive because it’s one of the biggest retailers in the UK,” said Anderson.
The JLab has not only helped Space Lounges by giving it the John Lewis stamp of approval, but Anderson claimed “it could actually turn into a product now” due to the help and mentorship offered by the JLab programme.
Peeple is best described as “caller ID for your front door”. It features a camera designed to fit the peepholes on people’s doors and connects to Wi-Fi to alert users of activity near the door.
Chris Chuter, CEO of the US-based smart peephole provider, developed a prototype for his own home after an occasion when his young son had left the house without the rest of the family knowing.
Following a kickstarter fundraising project which led to 700 units being sold, the firm pitched to JLab to join the accelerator programme and learn more about routes to market.
Describing the product, Chuter said: “I can keep track of everything that happens at my front door. Think of it as a virtual doorbell.”
The current iteration of the device screws onto existing peepholes, and is activated by motion or a knock on the door. Data from the peephole is sent to the cloud, which then relays a notification to the owner’s phone.
“You decide what you want to do with it,” said Chuter. “What I wanted was something surreptitious that people wouldn’t see and couldn’t steal.”
After the kickstarter effort, Chuter received lots of feedback from kickstarter investors. “I received about 1,000 emails just asking questions. One of the most frequently asked questions was ‘When will this come to the UK?’, which surprised me,” he said.
But doors in the UK aren’t as uniform as those in the US. This is one of the challenges Chuter will have to address in the future. “You have houses older than my country,” he said.
“The number one use case was women screening people, so [the response time of] the first prototype was too slow,” Chuter claimed.
To cater to this market, Chuter reduced the time it takes from someone arriving at the door to an alert appearing on the user’s smartphone, which is now between five and 10 seconds after a sensor is triggered.
The product currently uses home Wi-Fi, but in the future Chuter wants to build in a Bluetooth accessory system to pair other smart devices in the household, such as a porch light, key box or smart locks.
Chris Chuter, Peeple
His background as an application developer meant he was quick to ensure the product catered to all platforms. “This is so new it’s really the Wild West, so it’s a case of figuring out who comes up with the best thing first,” he said.
Chuter is currently using JLab as a platform to experiment with the retail space. “John Lewis and JLab are very retail focused, very customer focused, very brand focused. Those are all things which, as an inventor and engineer, I don’t really tend to focus on, so it’s a different perspective for me,” he said.
“It’s helped me in evaluating whether a retail channel is the way to go.”
Peeple was announced as the overall winner of the 2015 John Lewis JLab startup accelerator. The firm will receive an additional £100,000 in funding and a contract to partner with John Lewis to sell its product in the retailer’s stores.
Named after the butler in the Batman comics, the application is designed to allow the user to control all of the smart devices in their home from a single dashboard, rather than having to access several applications for different gadgets.
“Everything is going great, everything is going fantastic, John Lewis is supporting us a lot in almost everything we do,” said chief financial officer and co-founder Marco Matera.
“We have completely changed the way we see the market and the way we’re going to approach the market after JLab. The business model has changed radically from when we started.”
Matera said that because the smart home market is not well-established yet, the team developing Alfred will initially target large business-to-business (B2B) customers, such as John Lewis, which may already have partners and customers using these devices.
Marco Matera, Alfred
“In a couple of years we believe our profile will be high enough to enter the business-to-customer [B2C] market,” said Matera. “All of the people John Lewis has brought into the JLab are outstanding, and most of them are people I would not have been able to meet otherwise.”
John Lewis has mentored the firm on different types of mobile technologies, how to enter the market and how to build an appropriate strategy.
Matera highlighted that during the startup stage of a business, sometimes a single conversation with the right person can lead to a business change. Alfred was originally meant to be a system allowing people cheaper access to smart home technology, but the approach changed during the JLab experience and the team has built an open framework with the help of bigger market players.
“This is startup life – every day something happens. There are new things coming up,” he said.
This is the first round of funding the Alfred team has taken, because it did not want to give away equity to an entity or person who would not have helped them to progress.
“It’s all about building a network when you’re a startup, and the way JLab is helping us to build our network is priceless,” said Matera.
Phone case maker Ikinen, run by Carlos Bas Gil and Filippo Massarelli, is currently known for bridging the gap between energy efficiency and fashion through aerospace engineering knowledge.
A JLab representative explained that the firm is designing a phone case which also charges the handset using solar energy from both natural and electric light.
The cover is designed to be smaller and lighter than other charging cases on the market, as well as appeal to a fashion-conscious audience.
“Instead of having a massive, bulky phone cover, you’ll have a sleek, small device that you can put under a light and charge your phone with,” said the JLab representative.
Ikinen has also used social engagement to drive an energy-saving attitude and build a community around the product.
“What they’ve developed with it is an app that can track how much energy you’ve saved,” said JLab’s representative. “The app also allows you to take part in competitions.”
Using the application, users can track how much energy they’ve saved and compare the saving with that of other users. There are prizes for the person who saves the most energy.
“For its first round of development Ikinen is looking to create the product for iPhone 6, but once you’ve got your prototype and you see how it works you can adapt it to other models,” said the JLab representative.
The product has potential to expand into other markets too, such as a source of power for smartphones in underdeveloped countries where electricity isn’t available.
Niall Smith, head of marketing at three-year-old company Qudini, said its queue management system is designed to improve in-store customer experience by sending shoppers SMS messages informing them when they will be served.
The startup already has an office in Hoxton, housing 17 staff, and is using the JLab as both a permanent space and for meeting with representatives they hope will help drive the business forward.
Niall Smith, Qudini
The firm is already working with House of Fraser, EE and restaurants such as Bodeans and Honest Burger to manage queues and organise customer orders.
“We have two sides to our business. The reason we came to John Lewis was because, as with our experience with Wayra, we wanted to get backdoor access that you wouldn’t get if you didn’t come through an incubator like this,” said Smith.
Qudini has been using JLab to look at customer behaviour and how a large retailer like John Lewis handles the procurement process. The firm hopes to gain insight into what it will need to put together when approaching a larger enterprise in the future.
“We’re looking at how we can develop our product to be useful to John Lewis and other retailers like it,” said Smith.
His advice for other startups seeking funding is, ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get’, suggesting they apply for as many schemes and accelerators as possible to gain access to people and experiences otherwise out of bounds.
Read more about retail technology
- Technology is an essential ingredient to the success of John Lewis, and the retailer is ploughing £100m into IT initiatives in 2015.
- This PowerReviews study explores the impact of technology on shopping behaviour.
- British department store brand House of Fraser announces appointment of Julian Burnett as chief information officer.