There are some of us who can remember the days before a trip to a cafe, restaurant or hotel involved asking for the wifi password.
But digital native Patrick Clover has grown up with this as the norm, and during an itinerant childhood that often involved spells at sea with his family and a laptop, teaching himself to code, linking up to wifi was a priority when reaching dry land.
We needed to go from being a two-man band to being a companyPatrick Clover
“We’d go from harbour to harbour and they’d all have these weird ways of getting online – it would either be that you’d have to go to a boathouse and get a code that someone would print out, or you’d make a payment over a webform that would take your money but not work.”
He has channelled his frustrations into founding Blackbx, which provides cloud-based public wifi software enabling business-owners to set up and maintain their own networks, and allowing them to market their services to customers and boost loyalty, for example, boosting revenue.
It came about after what Clover, who was born in the Peak District, describes as an “unconventional education” on the ocean waves with his nomadic parents, who then sent him to learn in a more conventional environment at school in Edinburgh.
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While still in fifth year his aptitude for IT saw him set up a website selling software licences for Apple operating system iOS.
And after failing to secure a university place to study product design, Clover started working for a wifi company in the Scottish capital, which he says was trying to work out what its product and customer base should look like.
He learned that many people in the industry were struggling to demonstrate “the value to the client on an ongoing basis so being able to give analytics, data capture, having a branded log-in experience”.
The only way to do so was by spending tens of thousands of pounds, which was not viable. “I thought, wait a second… I can figure this out,” and from his bedroom he came up with what he thought such an offering should look like, then setting out to sell it. It gave venue-owners data on who was visiting, “how much time they were spending, where they came from and how often they returned”.
His first customer was Mike Christopherson of Edinburgh’s Boda Bars, which installed the technology in its bars.
Clover says: “I thought ‘if he’s willing to pay for this, there are probably other businesses that will’.”
Funding followed from The Prince’s Trust, which helped him make his first hire, and he teamed up with businesses in related areas, including Edinburgh-based point-of-sale business Intelligentpos, now part of Swedish payments company iZettle, and a couple of local IT companies fitting wifi networks.
It then became evident that “we needed to go from being a two-man band to being a company,” Clover continues, participating in business accelerator Entrepreneurial Spark in February last year and hiring a developer and someone to lead its commercial partnership.
Blackbx has recently taken equity funding, allowing it to grow from a team of four to nine, and this is soon set to increase to 16.
Having launched in Edinburgh in April this year, after the firm started in 2015, it is now in 15 countries, with 487 locations in the UK and 505 globally including Vietnam, Brazil and Saudi Arabia.
Deals came with the likes of Edinburgh tech incubator CodeBase and Live Nation Entertainment whose brands include Ticketmaster, and working with the entertainment giant to roll out its product across all its festivals.
That said, there is competition from Sky’s The Cloud, which says it is the UK’s largest public wifi network with more than 20,000 free hotspots, but Clover says Blackbx has ambitions to be on the same level.
Guest wifi is notoriously vulnerable to hackers, and Clover says Blackbx is constantly working on security.
He also acknowledges consumers’ understandable paranoia about using guest networks, but stresses that Blackbx now has about 1.1 million regular users and he is keen to see this increase tenfold within about nine months, if not sooner.
“I think the demand is real,” he says. “We just need to blow up. We’ve been laying the foundations that allow us to do this in terms of scalability of the platform… we’re hiring more staff, we’ll be exporting more.
“It’s an amazing thing to think ‘I started this in my bedroom’ and now we’re exporting such a large volume of product.”
Born: 1992, Baslow
Education: Home-schooled, George Watson’s, didn’t get into uni
First job: Sales assistant at Jenners
Ambition while at school: Make cool products
What car do you drive? Don’t drive
Favourite mode of transport: Uber
Music: I like most kinds – anything easy listening
Kindle or book? Kindle
Reading material: Online tech publications
Can’t live without: Wifi!
What makes you angry? No wifi/passwords to get on the wifi
What inspires you? People who love what they do
Favourite place: Edinburgh
Best thing about your job: The product taking off
Best business advice you’ve ever been given: If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late