DaaS Tech in focus: WhenFresh
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Mark Cunningham is the co-founder and commercial director of WhenFresh. By bringing together over 200 private and public UK data sources and applying advanced data science and API technology, WhenFresh supplies data and related services to “big data” users in financial services, insurance, government and other sectors.
We spoke to Mark about how his trial-and-error approach defied the industry norm, how hiring challenges can be overcome and his advice for future entrepreneurs…
How did you get into data analysis?
I started in Guinness, in Dublin, then I moved to the UK and went into market research. From market research, I moved into data, and subsequently data analytics. I followed the arc of change from old school behavioural science into modern statistical and analytical work.
What led you to found Whenfresh?
I had a year off between job roles, and I was talking to Alan Dean, a CTO that I knew. We were playing with data, wondering what we could discover if we thought about certain variables, and WhenFresh was created. It was more of a science lab experiment than a business launch, and we have pivoted many times since it first started as a data storage and retrieval company. It’s now more of a data-based analytics company, offering assistance for financial services, insurance, government and more.
So WhenFresh formed over time?
We certainly didn't start off with a great idea and go ‘that solves that world’s problem’! We started off with 365 days off, a reasonable budget, a great big server, and the ability to wonder about ‘what happens if…?’ It’s the typical way of invention.
Do you think that trial-and-error is actually a better system for coming up with a concept as useful as WhenFresh?
We were in a luxurious position to be able to do this; generally, I would say no. Typically it’s non-tech R&D that works like we did. Tech R&D is fundamentally different. Generally speaking, you look at where you've had a less-than-ideal user experience and see if you can figure out how to improve it. You're accelerating the solution quickly through platform development.
Because we were in quite a different space, and we were going in a completely different direction, we tried a different tack. We discovered something in the data that was really meaningful. We just had time, and really smart data people looking at numbers and finding patterns.
How would you describe the growth trajectory of the business?
After three, four, five years of operation, even if the business is doing fine, you think about how you could pivot the business to be more effective. To put it bluntly, you’re looking for viral acceleration in the business – which isn’t necessarily the same across all businesses. You can’t judge every company on the basis of the same growth trajectory, as it depends on the kind of company it is, and what it’s seeking to do. But when looking at investment in platforms, VCs want to see companies growing like a virus. It’s taken about three years to figure out how to make the business the best it could be.
Was investment a big part of that success?
Finding the right partner investor was very important. BDO helped us identify the ideal investor and partner in CLS, because our products work well together; insurance and data can both be risk-taking sectors to work in. Both of our businesses have benefitted from working alongside each other.
Industry: DaaS (Data as a service)
Company size: 11-50 employees
Sub-sector: Data Analytics
How would you describe WhenFresh’s USP now? What makes you different to others on the market, and how do you avoid disruption from competitors?
The speed of our innovation is our USP, definitely. We engage with customers and do development with them on the fly, meaning we can take out opposition amazingly quickly.
We also have amazing people working with our company, and we’re insanely quick at delivering finished products, which is a vast plus. It's also our biggest problem, because once it’s done, you're into negotiations, and you can't pull the ‘this is difficult to do’ card, because you've already done it!
Our team are the best people in their sphere at the things they do. I think we've probably got one of the leading API developers in the world on our API team; we definitely have one of the leading database guys! Alan Dean was on the original team that produced the first ever API. Ken Clemmer was one of the leading analysts that led Zoopla property group's evaluation and data assembly for producing goods on the website. Our non exec team includes Alan Gearing, former head of data at Rightmove. All our people are at the top of their game. If we had a direct competitor, they'd need to be hiring people with that kind of calibre, and that kind of experience.
We can also guard against disruption because in our industry, you have to really earn your chops. Because some of our customers are regulators, it's not easy for them to swap provider, so they won’t do it for just anyone. We were very lucky in that we had an inquiry from the Bank of England, asking for information on a topic. We didn't have anything to offer them immediately, but we committed the team to answer their query. Once they saw our suggestion, they asked us to fulfil that need, and that was that. Once that contract was nailed, we were able to approach other lending institutions. I'm not that worried about another business coming in behind us because of our solid relationships.
How did you build the WhenFresh team?
My co-founder, Alan Dean, who is Chief Technology Officer, was the first person I approached. He was an obvious choice. For the wider team, again I knew people who I liked and had worked with before. I had hired an assistant ten or eleven years ago, and god bless her, she’s stuck by me through most of this and has just been brilliant. It's all about outsourcing the problems you can’t handle, so that you can deal with the stuff that you're good at. Growing the team from there was just trial-and-error, but it all worked out for the best.
Would you say that growing the team was one of the main problems whilst scaling the business?
It was the biggest challenge. Finding the right customers and hiring plenty of people isn’t hard, it’s doing it efficiently. The challenge of scale is scale, that's it!
What other challenges did you face when starting the business?
As a Chief Exec, it was hard. You're a Chief Exec of a business, for starters! Your job as leader is often a lonely one, because you’re so focused. You’re driving this thing as hard as you can, and you can't blink or have a moment of doubt that reflects back to the team. The biggest challenges are actually when you're trying to go from one person to more in a business, and building a network of like-minded folks that you can talk to. The running of the business is to be expected, but that initial part is the toughest, when you’re moving from a company of one to more.
Is it easier to start a business with experience, or to start fresh?
With a little bit more experience behind you, it's easier. However, you can afford to start something on the fly when you're extremely young, because frankly, you've got nothing hanging over you that needs to be paid, such as a mortgage. The costs of going to market are relatively low. Getting something going is a hell of a lot easier now.
In later life you can envision the idea, but if you're not actually going to jump for it, you're never going to benefit from the idea. You will always be somebody else's employee and that's a challenge. It might be more difficult, but you might have the contacts and experience to make it work.
What advice would you give to aspiring tech entrepreneurs?
There is no such thing as an impossible problem - you can crack anything, and you can solve it. It's just a matter of time, effort and energy.