Big Interview: SwarmOnline chief Andrew Duncan is buzzing as digital drive gathers pace

Andrew Duncan, founder and managing director of apps developer SwarmOnline, says he knew from an early age that he wanted to work for himself. Picture: John Devlin

Andrew Duncan, founder and managing director of apps developer SwarmOnline, says he knew from an early age that he wanted to work for himself. Picture: John Devlin

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Less than 18 miles to the north-west of Glasgow, Drymen in 2004 was cut off from broadband access by the terrain that makes it a regular stopover for walkers along the West Highland Way. A youth representative on the village’s community council, the teenage Andrew Duncan, decided to patch over the void by setting up a wi-fi network broadcasting at that time to nearly 1,000 residents from atop a local pub.

Drymen.net gained a loyal core of users among the community’s silver surfers who, Duncan says, were particularly keen to keep track of their investments online. For younger tech geeks such as himself, it was a link to the burgeoning digital universe.

It’s a world Duncan continues to inhabit as the founder and managing director of SwarmOnline, which develops mobile apps for corporate clients such as Clydesdale Bank, E.ON, Etihad Airways and Vodafone. Running Drymen.net allowed the young entrepreneur to amass a number of technical skills at the disposal of his current clients, but it also provided insights into other important aspects of business.

“I worked with our users – I was effectively their service provider,” he says. “Although most of them were retired, they had a lot of experience and skills, and some of them really took me under their wing. They taught me the things you don’t get taught at school.”

Swarm is one of a growing band of digitally driven firms upon which the Scottish Government has to a large extent pinned the country’s economic future. Business leaders are also pushing this agenda – this year, the Scottish Council for Development & Industry called for the appointment of a chief digital officer to stimulate higher productivity.

A regular conference speaker with two textbooks under his belt, Duncan believes Swarm can thrive in this environment by focusing on its niche of HTML5 and Sencha, which allow developers to quickly build applications that operate across the spectrum of mobile devices. This is crucial for big household names in sectors such as energy and banking, which need to connect with customers regardless of whether they own an Android, Apple or Windows device.

The potential is illustrated by a project which Swarm completed earlier this year for Clydesdale Bank, which wanted an app for first-time home buyers as part of its new “B” online offering. Due for release soon, B Mortgage Coach went from inception to completion in just 12 weeks.

That project came Swarm’s way in March on the back of the Glasgow-based firm’s acquisition of Edinburgh digital agency Open Platform. The latter has a significant foothold in the oil and gas and financial services sectors, areas which the 30-year-old Duncan has targeted for further growth.

“We are going to create a formal proposition dedicated to the financial services sector,” says Duncan, who has hired former National Australia Bank digital manager Ryszard Jedrzejewski to head the new division. “We want to help bring products quickly to the market for financial services companies.”

The deal for Open Platform – headed by Tony McKenzie, who has taken a minority stake in the combined business – puts Swarm’s headcount at 25, with further hires anticipated. Open Platform’s five staff have moved from serviced offices in Edinburgh to dedicated space in the city’s West End with room to treble staff numbers.

Combined sales are on course to hit £1.5 million this year, up from £1m in 2015. The upward trajectory is expected to continue into 2017 with projected revenues of £2m.

It’s been a dramatic acceleration for a company which just three years ago was still trading as a one-man band from Duncan’s living room.

After finishing secondary at the High School of Glasgow, Duncan went on to study business management at Glasgow University. During that time he worked both in retailing for O2 and for property management specialist Redpath Bruce.

Originally hired by the latter as a junior account manager, Duncan quickly moved into systems development, putting together an IT network to manage repairs across the 10,000 properties in the Redpath Bruce portfolio. Although one of his first forays into the field, that system remained in use for nearly a decade up to the end of 2015.

He got his first full-time job upon graduation, landing a post as system analyst and developer for NHS Education for Scotland. During that time, he helped build a system to manage continuing professional development for doctors and dentists.

Throughout it all, Swarm was quietly running along in the background, having been born as an idea for a computer backup system that Duncan conceived for a university competition in 2005. By 2011 he and school pal Stuart Ashworth were “dabbling” in consultancy as Swarm alongside Duncan’s job with the NHS.

Having known from an early age that he eventually wanted to work for himself, Duncan left in 2012 after three years with the NHS to devote himself full-time to Swarm.

It was around this time that his first technical manual was put out by specialist IT publisher Packt, but the real break came in 2013 when he was speaking at the annual SenchaCon conference held that year in Orlando, Florida. Following his presentation, Duncan was approached by a representative from a UK company that would in the coming months put £1m of work in Swarm’s direction.

“I had no idea he was coming, but he had been sent specifically to meet with me,” Duncan says. “He was the very last guy in the room, and when he came up to speak to me it was in a Scottish accent, which I wasn’t expecting in that setting.”

“That was really when Swarm got its big break. It was only me working in the company at that time, and I was trying to fake that I had this big business.”

He vacated his living room for a stand-alone office and started hiring extra help, setting Swarm on its current growth path.

With nearly all of the company’s current revenue generated by consultancy projects, the aim now is to switch focus to product development. First to market has been an event management app that gives delegates information on their venue, schedule changes and other developments throughout a major gathering.

It was soft launched this year, the first two customers being Shell for a 500-delegate conference in Tokyo, and Panasonic for a UK event. Now tried and tested, Duncan plans to officially take it to the market early next year, by which time it will have an official brand name.

“I am keen to prove my products work in the real world, and actually meet the needs of customers,” he says. “There are millions of apps in the app stores, but only a few actually get loaded down onto people’s phones.”

The company is also about half-way through development of an app called Swarm Connect, which will allow smart meter home owners to monitor their energy use through their mobile, laptop or television. This is expected to be ready to go to market in the second quarter of 2017, tapping into a government-driven push to roll out smart meters into all of the 27 million households across the UK. This dovetails with on-going work for E.ON in which Swarm technology is used by the energy provider’s engineers to access customer information and 
grid access during the installation of smart meters. It is used by 2,500 engineers daily across E.ON’s UK base 
of 5.3 million customers.

Creating apps that deal with these laborious tasks in just moments requires talented software engineers and developers that Swarm must compete in what is not only a competitive global market, but also a domestic scene where high-profile firms such as Skyscanner and FanDuel have a head start in the recruitment race. Swarm is working directly with a number of universities to combat these challenges, while Duncan personally backs initiatives to increase the flow of “able-bodied software engineers” coming through school and higher education.

Duncan, who is off again next month to speak at the SenchaCon conference in Las Vegas, says building Scotland’s profile on the global digital landscape hinges on meeting the demand for skilled workers.

“Recruitment remains a challenge, and yet the way we live our lives and do business these days, digital and apps and software are at the forefront,” he says. “It is critical that we focus on growing and keeping our talent, as well as enticing international talent to join us.”

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