The Big Interview: serial entrepreneur Robin Knox
As co-founder of point of sale specialist IntelligentPos, Robin Knox is among the most high-profile names in Scotland’s effervescent tech scene. He’s also earning a reputation as a serial entrepreneur, driven by the thrill of the start-up stage in any enterprise.
“It’s the most exciting bit,” Knox insists, which is why his role in founding tech accelerator Seed Haus to help other start-ups is so precious to him.
But just now his focus is on a new venture which Knox hopes will revolutionise home security, just as IntelligentPos – whose successful sale is one of the feathers in his cap – shook up retail accounting.
He and Ipos co-founder Paul Walton have injected a six-figure sum into Edinburgh-based smart home security firm, Boundary Technologies, which is aiming to install systems in 100,000 homes in four years to achieve £6 million in annual recurring revenues.
Knox was inspired by a “disappointing” experience buying a security system for his own home, which he found too hard to programme and “not very attractive”. While he was away on his honeymoon he discovered that the system could send him a video clip of his house being burgled, but could do little to prevent it.
The venture will launch in two stages, he explains. The first is improving on products already on the market, coming up with an offering that is easier to use and cheaper, with a range of price points.
And the second, further down the line, is to bring in artificial intelligence (AI) to monitor footage from a camera placed outside the home that “learns as it watches”, involving emerging technologies such as facial recognition and gait analysis. Knox notes that AI is already used commercially, for example, to monitor unattended baggage in airports. “We think there’d be an amazing advantage if we could bring this into the domestic space,” says Knox.
And it is hoped that such a system could prompt an alarm before rather than after a break-in. This approach “could put Boundary into a market-leading position because there isn’t anything like that on the market at the moment,” says Knox. “Let’s solve the root of the problem rather than copy what’s already there.”
The firm is aiming to launch around August 2019, in what is becoming a very lucrative sector. According to a recent report by MarketsandMarkets, the sale of home security systems will be worth $74.75 billion (£57.5bn) globally by 2023, compared with $45.58bn this year. The research firm also said the integration of AI and deep learning and the growth of “smart cities” initiatives around the world are generating “huge” growth opportunities for players in the market.
In response to the issue of consumer fears over AI, Knox stresses that Boundary doesn’t involve cameras inside a property. “I don’t think there’s any harm in having a camera outside watching over your front door and making sure that you’re safe,” he states, adding that Boundary isn’t trying to create “scary Skynet AI” – a reference to the dystopian future portrayed in the Terminator films.
Boundary is aiming to launch a Kickstarter campaign in February, aiming to sell 500 to 1000 units, with the hope of raising £1.5m to £2m thereafter.
Hiring of staff is under way, with the team set to grow to five “fairly quickly”, and reach 20 to 30 next year.
The head count at Ipos had reached about 80 when it was sold to Swedish commerce platform iZettle, Knox notes. As Boundary is selling to consumers rather than to businesses, he expects the workforce to grow more quickly. “I shouldn’t think it’ll be long before we get up to that 80 again – if not higher,” he says.
While Boundary will begin by selling to householders direct, ultimately the system will be on retailers’ shelves, targeted at the residential market, particularly for detached and semi-detached homes in the suburbs. The commercial sector is not a focus currently.
The venture immerses Knox in the creative, product-making phase he relishes, knowing from experience that getting a business off the ground “kind of gets harder and harder as you go along because you’ve got more stakeholders to keep updated”. He remembers all too well how the buzz of reaching the first few milestones gives way to the arid formalities of board meetings.
He and Walton have also set off on the Boundary journey armed this time round with a much better feel for where potential pitfalls lie. “There are so many things that you know now that would have done differently before,” says Knox, while admitting ruefully that in an unfamiliar business he is bound to make mistakes.
Knox knows that the kind of experience he and Walton have accrued in growing and successfully selling Ipos carries a premium in technology sector. It’s the inspiration behind is other pet project, Seed Haus.
“There are certain things that we know now and that’s part of the reason why Seed Haus was an idea – because it was how we can give all that knowledge to start-up companies”.
Based in Leith Seed Haus invests, at the pre-seed stage, in “outstanding” founders and pre-founders addressing real problems, in large markets.
Knox’s networking skills have helped secure leading names in Scottish business as partners, from Sir Tom Hunter and BrewDog’s James Watt to Chris van der Kuyl and Paddy Burns, founders of Minecraft games developer 4J Studios. Co-founder Calum Forsyth, a former KPMG financial services risk consultant, sits in the chief executive seat.
As well as giving entrepreneurs a place to work and mentoring them, Seed Haus offers financial help – Knox and Walton ploughed about £500,000 into early-stage businesses between them in the last year. Organisations that have benefited include media engagement platform PingGo, with the announcement in April that it had secured five-figure funding and a six-month residency at the accelerator.
Seed Haus “just seemed like the ultimate package of helping a business get off the ground”, says Knox, filling what he knew was a gap in the market since he and Walton struggled to raise money launching Ipos. “We felt pretty in the dark and we thought there’s got to be a better way of doing this.”
It should be easier for start-ups to get up and running, he believes. “In my opinion the way that we stimulate the economy is we have to help that first stage because actually all the help unfolds as you go along. I don’t think businesses need money when they can raise it from angels – they need money before that to get there.”
Walton and Knox – who had dropped out of medical school and had a stint as a night club manager – started Ipos at the kitchen table. The move was prompted by the first “real” business Knox had set up, a paintball company, where he sought an electronic point of sale system to track his stock and track how much profit the business was actually making.
Ipos was in 2016 sold to longstanding partner iZettle for an undisclosed sum. The Swedish firm was itself snapped up by payments giant PayPal in a $2.2bn deal revealed in May this year.
Knox admits it would have been tempting to take a break from the business world after his success to-date, but the lure of launching a much bigger firm with new “exciting” challenges proved far too tempting.
“It’s always fun to shake something up”, he adds. Cash tills were “a legacy thing”, were costly, and hard to use and programme. He tackled that problem with Ipos, and now sees burglar alarms as suffering from the same issues.
“It’s nice if you can take something and make it a bit better and fun if you can make a new product.”
But he is also taking a more philanthropic attitude towards any future endeavours – mulling something he can look back on and think “that actually made a really big difference in the world”.