The Big Interview: SnapDragon chief Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones believes women of all ages should be given more encouragement to make a career in the tech sector. Picture: Jon Savage
Rachel Jones believes women of all ages should be given more encouragement to make a career in the tech sector. Picture: Jon Savage
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Counterfeiting accounts for around $461 billion (£360bn), or 2.5 per cent of all global imports, according to 2016 figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the figure is increasing annually.

Rachel Jones, founder and chief executive of Edinburgh-based brand monitoring and intellectual property firm SnapDragon, is here to change that. A serial entrepreneur with a work history including the creation of three start-ups operating in three different global industries, Jones’ current mission is shielding companies’ intellectual property and protecting consumer safety by combatting online copycats.

Jones was spurred to take up the fight against fakes after her firm, Totseat, producer of a “washable, squashable” travel high chair, fell victim to counterfeiting. “I was absolutely incensed,” says Jones. “The rage that you feel when it’s your product that somebody’s ripped off, the audacity of it – I say to people it’s like being burgled and beaten up at the same time.”

The episode proved to be a catalyst for the next leap forward in Jones’ progress, as she came to be seen as an authority on brand protection for small businesses. Less a career progression than “a massive learning curve every day”, it just goes to show that you’re never too old to try something new, says the 54-year-old laughing.

Holding an undergraduate degree in agriculture, a postgraduate certificate in export management and a diploma in public relations, Jones worked in marketing, communications and PR in the UK and New Zealand, with a spell in Indonesia. While in New Zealand she met her present husband, and together they drew up a business plan for a sustainability reporting and communications agency, Great Circle Communications, which they established after moving back to Edinburgh in 1998. The agency was sold to investment firm Vitruvian in 2011.

“Along the way,” Jones became a parent and, frustrated by the inadequate provision of high chairs at many establishments, she invented the Totseat, creating the first prototype from the lining of her wedding dress and securing John Lewis as an early client in 2005. The product swiftly evolved to serve a global market, with overseas sales accounting for the majority of its six-figure revenue.

“I worked really hard on registering the intellectual property for the product,” says Jones. “I knew I would never get a patent but I did register European design rights and lots of trademarks. Totseat was the smallest company ever to register and there was quite a hoo-ha about it.” People seemed confused as to why Jones, with a company then still in its infancy, would bother making the effort to sign up with the various authorities.

“I was saying, ‘We have a global brand and at some point somebody is going to counterfeit it.’ We had our eyes open when we went into producing,” says Jones.

The business later moved production from the UK to Shanghai, China, when the brand took off in the US and Japan, as this made it easier to export to North America and Asia. Again, Jones devoted time and energy to gaining the relevant trademarks and copyright authorisations for the new markets. After Totseat had been running for around six years, Jones received a call from the border force at Southampton: customs had seized a counterfeit Totseat, along with a shipment of fake GHD hair straighteners and Sony Walkmans. Jones responded “tenaciously”, chasing every avenue she could find to shut down the counterfeiters.

She says: “The fake Totseat was seized on a Wednesday, and by the Friday I’d already found two Chinese speakers who were students at University of Edinburgh Business School to come in on the Friday afternoon and help me look online, in Chinese, for fake Totseats.

“Any fakes that might have got into the country, any country, had the potential to harm children. And I was really worried about that. I’d worked hard to develop a product which was incredibly safe. The safest, most versatile children’s high chair on the market, and I wasn’t going to have anyone else ruin its reputation, or divert revenue. We made ourselves incredibly unpopular with the counterfeiters.”

Jones’ response was so thorough that Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, the online site through which the counterfeited products were found to have been purchased, sought her guidance to bolster their defences for SMEs.

“We were the smallest business that had ever taken counterfeiting seriously, I think. They engaged very actively with us and asked for advice about SME strategies and we worked closely with them, as other businesses did, to influence the fact that any business can register their trademark with Alibaba.”

As a result, any brand, regardless of size, can now register on the platform, and the site has since changed its policy so that brands can defend themselves with non-Chinese registered IP, something Jones says is immensely valuable, as Chinese IP is notoriously difficult to obtain. “I spent a lot of time helping small businesses and not getting paid for it, so I decided to set up SnapDragon, and here we are.”

SnapDragon began trading in 2015, but has enjoyed accelerated growth in the past year, seeing staff numbers jump from four to 25, with clients including Harris Tweed, MorphCostumes and, of course, Totseat.

Jones is proud of the diversity of her team, which, with the exception of the Shetland-based tech department, is located in Edinburgh. Its members, with a broad age profile, span ten nationalities and speak 15 languages. Many work part-time around other commitments, which can include setting up (non-competing) businesses.

“I’m a huge proponent of bringing people back into the workforce after they’ve been out for a long time, particularly bringing women back after maternity leave. There’s lots of people that just want to work a couple of days a week, and you get brilliant brains for a price you can afford and a commitment which is absolutely unfaltering.”

Although Jones has been recognised for her work in diversity, including winning a nomination for Diversity Employer of The Year at the Women in IT Excellence Awards next month, she confesses she doesn’t deal well with the attention.

“I go to the award ceremony and don’t tell anyone I’m going, then if I win an award I just put it in my handbag and shuffle home. It’s very nice to be recognised, of course it is, but it’s not just me. You can’t run a business without the passion and diligence and tenacity of the people you work with.”

There are an increasing number of women coming to the fore in tech now, says Jones, but it is vital to make the next generation aware of the options open to them. “It’s still relatively unusual to meet senior women in senior positions in tech, but it’s always delightful when you do,” she adds.

Jones is also in the running for SME Innovator of the Year and the coveted Entrepreneur of the Year prize, won last year by PensionBee chief Romi Savova. As a woman without a tech background who went on to become a pioneer in the industry, Jones is a keen advocate of encouraging others to try their hand at new skills. “It’s proof that you can do really good stuff after you’ve got to 50 and you can still learn and still make a difference.

“We’ve got mature women in the team here who didn’t know the first thing about tech and they’re all happily using the algorithms and contributing to development, because they passionately believe in what they’re trying to do. I don’t think tech should always be seen as something which is all about high-end coding.”

This is also true of SnapDragon’s product, Swoop, a “do-it-yourself” monitoring application which is offered as an alternative to its bespoke managed service. The machine learning software uses image recognition and key words to detect counterfeits in online marketplaces such as Alibaba, Amazon and eBay, utilising artificial intelligence to evolve as it does.

“It doesn’t matter whether you make pipes or toys or bike components or fish food, if you’ve got a brand to protect and you’ve got some IP around it, Swoop can be used to do that,” says Jones.

“Our vision is to make it accessible to as many businesses as possible, in as many sectors as possible and in as many territories as possible. The people and the businesses are going to be in a better place because the revenue is protected, the brand’s protected and the consumers are kept safe.

“We’ve prevented tens of billions of dollars of fake products from being sold, so that’s quite an achievement but, my God, we’re not finished.”