Highlights of my conversation with Colin Hewitt
- Insights into pitching and attracting the right venture capital
- The impact on the business of working with an investor
- Experience of being part of the Xero add-on eco-system
- Forming CodeBase a co-sharing space and the Edinburgh start-up scene
Subscribe to Episode 2 of Cloud Stories on iTunes:
Heather: Welcome Colin to Cloud stories. We’re so pleased to have you here.
Colin: Hi Heather, good to be here.
Heather: What’s the weather like in Edinburgh at the moment?
Colin: Well it’s a little bit cloudy at the moment. We had a good stretch probably about a week of good weather. It’s come to an end unfortunately today but we’re hoping that’s it’s just temporary.
Heather: Sensational. So Colin, I’ll start with a really hard question upfront.
Who is your favourite superhero and why?
Colin: My favourite superhero? Well, I’m not sure if you have the same superheroes as you do in Australia but I was always like a big Spiderman fan.
Heather: Sensational, that’s Scottish Spiderman version.
Colin: Scottish Spiderman, of course, yeah. I like the way he had a spider sense, you know, how the spider sense was tingling. That’s always a good line and sometimes I think have that as well.
Heather: The spider sense. That’s a good heading for a story about you. Sensational, thank you for that Colin.
Can you share with us what your business [Float] does Colin?
Colin: Yeah, so our business Float is a piece of software that we’ve designed to try to help business understand a bit more about their business. Really the main thing that we focus on is how much cash is in the business and what your bank account’s going to be at any point in the future. So we think that’s one of the most interesting or the more interesting parts of the business. You can get lots of insightful management reports but sometimes you just want to know, can I afford to pay for this and will there be enough cash at the end of the month to pay the salaries? That’s what we focus on at Float.
Why is it important to have a forecast or a cash management system in place?
Colin: Yeah, I mean the story of where we got Float from is I used to have a web design agency, and we were always asking that question of, you know, is there going to be enough to do X or Y, and having to go back into a spreadsheet was a painful process because it was always out of date and we always felt well, hold on I can answer your question in a couple of hours when I’ve put in all the figures. So yeah, having a forecast is really … is definitely important but certainly it can be a bit of a pain to manage if you don’t have it updating automatically.
Heather: I know that spreadsheet pain.
When did you start your business Colin? When did you start this business which is Float.
Colin: So Float … there was kind of an overlap period. We started as a side project while we were running the other business, so I think we started in about 2010. It was me and my co-founder. So he was working on it in his spare time. I had the idea, I had the spreadsheet and I said, “This is what I’m looking for,” and he thought it would take about three months. So four years later, we’re still working on it. It was a sort of gradual start but my co-founder came on board full time I think in around the beginning of 2011. Then I sold the web agency in the beginning of 2012. So we’ve probably had about just over two years being full time on Float.
Did you come from a numbers background?
Colin: Not at all. I actually flunked my Maths A level exam.
Heather: You didn’t need to share that with us but it was interesting you said coming from a web design business into numbers which a …
Colin: No, absolutely. I guess where I came from was I was the one who was having to deal with the numbers. We were using spreadsheets to run our business and I thought our spreadsheet was pretty darn good. I’d worked on it quite hard and it did everything that it needed to do. It just took so long and we actually started using cloud accounting software. We used a package initially called Free Agent which is great for our really small business, also another Edinburgh company, and then we just realised that it was amazing to have a lot of that stuff automated all of a sudden and in the cloud.
It took a lot of pressure off me but then it didn’t have the forecasting part that was really important to me, so we still had to use the spreadsheet for that. But yes, I wasn’t a numbers person naturally but I’d kind of come to this out of necessity. Then I found I kind of had a little bit of pleasure just about getting everything to match up to the penny but it probably took me a lot longer than it would for some other people. Yes, numbers weren’t my strong point. I had no background in accounting, and when we spoke to some accountants about forecasting and read about forecasting, it all seemed very complicated. We just thought, “Gosh, it’s got to be simpler than this.” Even some of the language, just clarifying, was a helpful starting point.
Yes, so we really approached it from a non-accounting point view and then tried to get back to some of the corporate language from accounting as we’ve gone on.
Heather: That’s an interesting perspective to take it from certainly. I’m a great believer that everyone can get their numbers, so it’s exciting to hear someone coming from a different side but sort of coming to the numbers party.
Where did you get the name Float from?
Colin: Good question. So what we really like … for me the concept of cash flow is like a wave, you know. Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re down and when we look at our cash flow graph, it is much more like a wave; we’d get high points in the month and then low points. It was always trying to make sure that the low points weren’t too low.
So we sort of have this nautical theme, you know, riding the waves of cash flow and making sure you don’t sink and all this kind of thing. We explored a lot of nautical themes, thinking about life boats, binoculars so you’re looking out over the horizon and all that kind of thing. So we really like the nautical concept of now beginning your way through the business. Yeah, we’d also liked concepts that were about flow, so it was flow, flow, flow. Then we sort of thought, “Float, that works, you know.” Then somebody pointed out that there is also a concept of cash float in a business, you know, you’ve got enough cash in a till to get you started at the beginning of the day. So it all came together pretty nicely for us.
Colin: Yeah, we’ve played with the few different variants but Float was the one that stuck.
Heather: So what are the waves off coast of Edinburgh?
Colin: Well, unfortunately they’re not great for surfing because it’s sheltered but if you go up to the north of Scotland, I think you’ve got some of the best waves in the world. But yeah, for the Edinburghers’, it’s not a great … you don’t get a lot of great waves unfortunately.
Heather: So you weren’t inspired by looking at your window and seeing the floating boats coming?
Colin: Well, I also grew up with the North Coast of Ireland, so I was quite used to being in the sea.
Heather: Yeah, I think it’s always good to have a name that has that connotation attached to it.
Colin: When we started off the business, we actually had a lot other parts in the graphics. It was a lot more fun and we’ve kind of grown up a bit but we had light houses and sharks and all those kinds of stuff.
View the other Float logos here: http://blog.floatapp.com/2013/11/01/7-steps-to-our-new-logo.html
Heather: I went and had a look at those.
Colin: Did you? Yeah.
Heather: So if listeners are listening, go and have a look at floatapp.com blog. I think if you just do a search for logos, there’s a list of all different logos that you’ve got there.
So you’re based in Edinburgh, what’s the internet connection like there?
Colin: Yes, it’s great actually. Scotland seems to have … they’ve really invested in that. We’ve just moved into a new building with a lot of other start-ups called CodeBase in Edinburgh. It’s right next to the Edinburgh castle.
Heather: Oh wow.
Colin: We’ve got a fibre line directly into the building and we get about one hundred megabytes up and down which is incredible. It really makes a big difference just having that consistency.
Heather: That’s amazing. That’s really good. So you’ve moved into Codebase, is that an incubator or a sharing spacing?
Colin: Yeah, so it was interesting, I actually spent a bit of time over in Boston and went to see some incubators there, one called Techstars. Came back to Edinburgh and just said, “Look guys, there’s no point all being on our own. If we were in together, there’d be a lot of synergy, a lot more sharing of knowledge.” Just at that time a building came up and about fifteen start-ups all decided to move into it together. We worked on it, we painted it, we stripped out the carpet. It was a really good experience for the local sort of start-up community.
Heather: Sounds like a reality TV show.
Colin: Yeah, it was. It was a really interesting time just sort of getting the work together and the community forming. That was about two years ago. Then from that building, once there was enough start-ups in that building, we realised we could do with more space and we found this other building which is obviously huge. So there was lots of room to expand. There are about 300 people in here now.
Heather: Oh my goodness.
Colin: Yeah, they’re all working on sort of technology start-ups and a lot of shared talks at lunch time. It’s really … if you’ve got a problem with something or other, we can go and ask somebody else who’s an expert from another company. It’s great, we really love being in here.
Heather: Sensational. So if someone is in the start-up innovation space and they’re visiting Edinburgh, should they pop down into Codebase?
Colin: Definitely, yeah.
Heather: Is that a sort of okay. There’s an open invitation, arrive at the door?
Colin: Yeah, come and see us. You can come and work in our office if you need a desk for an afternoon. Yeah, Codebase is great. It’s really helped Edinburgh and sort of set us up as one of the main start-up hubs in Scotland. It makes such a difference to your business having all these around.
Heather: No, it certainly does. I liaise with some of the ones locally to us and the people in there say that it moves them ahead so much faster than if they were at home doing it, which is interesting. It’s the ideas, I guess, and the connections that you’re making and the inspiration that you’re gathering. Sensational. Now, I have to ask, while this interview is taking place, the Glasgow Commonwealth Games are on at the moment, have you travelled across to them?
Colin: You know what, I haven’t.
Heather: You’ve got to go. You’ve got to go.
Colin: I watched the opening ceremony on TV. That was probably the main investment that I’ve given in my time to the Commonwealth Games. Not that I don’t enjoy it but it’s just been such a busy couple of weeks. Yeah, and apparently it’s quite difficult to get tickets. Edinburgh and Glasgow are …
Heather: Just go to the town. Enjoy it.
Colin: Yeah, there’s a bit of a rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Heather: I know.
Colin: They’re about 40 minutes away. I think it’s always a sort of thing of which one should really be the capital city of Scotland. Maybe we’ll go over for a day just to soak up the vibe.
Heather: Soak it up.
Heather: I know that … I went to the Sydney Olympics Games which is slightly different but it was amazing. We just got the crappiest tickets to anything we could and we really, really enjoyed it but I digress. We enjoyed it and it created a lot of memories for us. It didn’t matter what it was, it was such a good vibe, and you can’t work all the time.
Colin: I will take your wisdom and put it in my diary.
Heather: Sensational. So Colin, late last year you received a significant investment of a £110,000 from Rob Dobson, the tech incubator. Now, Rob Dobson for the listeners, I hope I’m saying his name correctly, was the founder of a mobile phone software company. So with this investment;
What insights do you have to share with our listeners who may be keen on attracting a significant investment into their business? What insights do you have to share to them about that?
Colin: That was a good time for us but it was also a very hard time because we’d been pitching for a while, probably about a year of trying to raise some funding. The first piece of advice was that we were probably initially pitching to the wrong audience. The investors that we were pitching to weren’t software based, that was not where they made their money. I think it’s difficult to always understand the software business if that’s not your background. So, when we spoke to Rob, it was a completely different kettle of fish. He really understood it, he really got the prospect, and having run a business himself he understood the pain points. So definitely aligning the investor with the story of your own business is really important and will save you a lot of time.
The other thing would probably be making sure you tell a good story. Sometimes it’s easy to kind of play … I find you can play yourself down and certainly in the UK, we don’t like to brag. We can kind of say our … you know, “The business is okay and we’re doing all right.” Actually, you need to tell the story in a way that’s going to caught their imagination and make them want to be a part of the story. Yeah, I’m really thinking a lot … we’re actually going into another funding round pretty soon and just thinking about how do we tell the story? It is a great story, you know, it’s something we’ve put our lives into and we’ve got a real passion about.
It’s all about telling that story and really painting the picture of the possibilities of the future. We want to grow a great company and think this product can be wide reaching and really make a difference in the lives of business owners. So yeah, it’s all about putting that compelling story together so that investor can get excited about it as well.
What tips do you have about sharing your story? Do you work through a process of that? Do you work with someone to help you do that? Does it just come to you while you’re drinking?
Colin: Well, I think if you sit down and really think it through it terms of where did the idea come from, what really gets me excited about this, what’s my dream for this company, and you start really tapping into some of the bigger picture stuff first of all … especially for me, it’s easy to get bogged down in the details, you know, how you’re going to do something. Then that tends to become quite small picture, like we’re going to add this, we’re going to add this feature next month and then we’re going to hire one more member of staff, and then we’re … you’re thinking through a very specific plan whereas the story has to come from a much deeper place of the beginning of where the idea came from to the end of where you can go to. If that’s not an exciting enough story then it brings up a few questions as well.
One thing I find helpful is actually asking other people, to say, “How do you perceive the story of Float? What are you seeing?” Then sometimes they’ll say, “Well, I think this is incredible that you guys manage to go for so long without raising any money,” or “I think, you know, what you’ve achieved with a small team is amazing.” Then you sort of think, “Oh yes, that’s a good point, I didn’t realise that.” So having other people feed back to you what they perceive the story will help you understand things that are actually true but you’re missing or you’ve neglected to include.
Actually I had a breakfast with Rob yesterday and he was sort of saying, “I was getting prepared for this next funding rounds, here’s some of the ways that I see this, this product is innovative, the space is really hot right now and there’s all this activity happening, there’s more and more people moving into the market.” You know, just hearing him describe it makes you think, “Oh yeah, that’s true.” When you’re in it for four years, you sort of … it becomes you don’t get the same perspective, so having another perspective is really helpful.
Heather: Is Rob Scottish or is he American or is he something else?
Colin: Yes, he’s English.
Heather: Oh he’s English, okay.
Colin: So, unlike many good Englishmen, he’s moved to Edinburgh with his wife. There are so many people that I meet here who I ask them where they come and they say it was because of a woman or a man. So they moved up after he sold his business. You know there are some great schools up in Edinburgh and they have some family up here as well. They looked around and decided Edinburgh was the city. Yeah, it was good for us.
So Rob Dobson has joined your firm as a director. Apart from the money and the investment, how has he impacted … how has he becoming a director impacted Float?
Colin: I’m a big fan of Rob because I think … we spoke to a few other investor and they all have very different agendas. Rob manages to walk the line very well between pushing us and not interfering too much, so it doesn’t ever feel like we’re working for him but he really provides us sort of mentoring and just a constant push, you know, because sometimes it’s easy to kind of not have that when you’re running the business if you don’t have a board set up. So Rob really just pushes us, he was pushing me the other day about how much money we want to raise, how fast we want to grow.
It’s easy for me to think that the first step is about survival and the small picture, and he sort of lifts us out of that and says, “No, I think we can do more here. I think there’s more potential.” So Rob really brings a different perspective, especially because he’s been there before. He’s done it, he’s grown a business, he understands the process, and that gives him a lot of credibility in terms of if somebody else was saying that from he hasn’t been here before and done that, you don’t tend to listen to them the same way. Yeah.
Heather: Absolutely, yes. It’s interesting because the newspaper headline that ‘a small tech has received a large amount of funding’, you sometimes think, “Oh, that’s going to be good,” or “That’s going to be bad.” So it’s always good to get your insights in finding that right person and you obviously have done that and it’s working out really well for your business. When these people do it, the passion, which is their baby, their small business, is taken in another direction and it’s kind of heart breaking.
Colin: I think that we looked at another investor at the same time as Rob and it was much … you can tell that the incentives were much different for the other investor because he was looking for board fees and consultancy fees. He was going to take a very active role. It’s a very different place when they’re seeing it as a monthly income, whereas Rob’s never taken anything from the business. He just really wants to see it succeed.
Heather: That’s sensational. I hope we don’t get an influx of people going and harassing Rob after this. He sounds like the greatest man in the world.
Colin: Yeah, he’s a good investor. I’ve definitely introduced a few people to him. He seems to manage to see everybody. He picks the ones that he likes but we need more people like Rob up here. Hopefully there are a few Edinburgh companies that are going to be having a few big exits soon. We’ve got a great company called SkyScanner here that are doing quite well, and everybody is hoping that they’re going to get their IPO away soon and make few people some money so they can go back and invest it into the start-ups here too.
So your product, Float, integrates with Xero. What has your experience been as being a part of the Xero add on ecosystem?
Colin: Yeah, it’s been amazing really. When we started building Float for Free Agent, we felt Free Agent was the best piece of software out there. We felt that Xero was nice but it was a bit bland. At the time, there were roughly about the same number of users in the UK but what Xero managed to do in terms of growth over the last three or four years has just been incredible, and we realised that at some point we have to get this integration with Xero built. That actually took us about a year to do. So it was really a big investment of our time and resources to rethink how Float was going to work because there’s such a larger … Xero has a lot of larger companies. Free Agent is typically freelance … freelance one or two people businesses, so the volume of transactions is quite small.
We moved to Xero. It was the big investment of our time but we really recognised that they were the ones that were leading the way. The degree I think about Xero is the support that they give to us and the encouragement and saying … that feeling of, “We’re going to help promote you. We want this to work, the add-ons Market page, the add-on support team. Yeah, everything has been really good there, and just a willingness to promote the add-on, that was really a step up for us. We probably saw about a ten times increase when we launched for Xero in terms of signups. It was a big step up for us.
Did that affect your infrastructure then?
Colin: Yeah, it did actually because we launched it in September at Xerocon in London …
Heather: Oh, okay.
Colin: Last year and basically we soon realised that a lot of the larger companies weren’t able to … we weren’t able to get all the information displayed in time before the browser timed out, we were trying to load everything in at once. So we had to then take another couple of months to rebuild Float in order to allow for these much more significant companies, some turning over upwards of a million dollars a month. It was a big change for us, so we have to rethink the whole thing.
In terms of hosting, we host it on the cloud and it’s really … that wasn’t such a big issue. We can scale that really easily now which is such an advantage for cloud businesses that were … you know, before we might have to have upgraded our servers and changed everything around, and now that’s really not been the problem. It’s more just been about how we build the software and how we handle the page load speeds and all that kind of stuff.
So if Xero releases an update, say it releases an update next Sunday, do you have to do something in your backend or is that okay? It’s just goes with the flow?
Colin: Yeah, it’s fine. Nothing that Xero do on the actual Xero app should affect us because they have their API teams separately. It’s really only when they change something in the API that affects us. More often than not, the API is a little bit behind what the main office is doing, so we’ll only get access to certain data, you know, typically a couple of months later. There hasn’t been, touch wood, there hasn’t been problems yet in terms of Xero changing something, that we haven’t come across. Generally it has been changes for good so we get more and more information that we need.
Because that’s always been the thing with cash flow forecasting is it requires a vast amount of data to achieve it. That’s always been the thing, trying to get that in the right place.
Colin: Yeah, there are a lot of transactions that we need … we actually forecast right down to the transaction level. So we’re building up a whole report based on your transactions. It’s not a report that we can just pull out of Xero. We have to only start from scratch and build out ourselves, so we put in a lot of information. As I said, that’s a challenge.
I know you use Xero in your business; do you use any of the add-ons from the Xero eco space in your business?
Colin: Yeah, I’m a big fan of Receipt Bank. It’s something that … I met the guys a few times up in Edinburgh first actually. Didn’t really feel the need for a time, and I think I was chatting to Michael at Xerocon and just thought, “I’m going to give this a try,” and really haven’t looked back since then just in terms of processing all my expenses. Now, we’ve actually upgraded to the business version and we send our invoices as well. You know, it just saves me so much time. So we’re looking for a system … we’re looking for a complete system basically where we don’t have to have any much touch on the bookkeeping side of things. Receipt Bank is a big part of that and, you know, they’re improving all the time as well.
Heather: Yes, they’re definitely evolving. Was Michael wearing his kilt at Xerocon?
Michael: No, I haven’t seen that.
Heather: Haven’t you? Every time he wears the kilt, he wins a prize. That’s the theory.
Colin: Ah, I’ll have to bring my kilt over then to the Xerocon Australia.
Heather: Yes, you will. Oh my goodness, if you turn on a kilt, you definitely win a prize.
Colin: That’s it.
Heather: That’s the rule.
Colin: That’s the secret, okay.
Heather: Michael’s obviously not sharing that secret.
Colin: No, he hasn’t.
Heather: There are many photos of him in a kilt at Xerocon.
Colin: Okay. Yeah, so the other one we’ve been looking at is a new one that you probably won’t have heard of. It’s more in the UK but it’s called CreDec. What they do is they connect into … they set up a box payment system, so in Xero you can just mark all your bills as paid on a certain date and they’ll actually then set up a box run and it will just go automatically for you when you approve it. That’s quite a nice one to have when you go into your bank account and sort of do all the pay run and pay all the bills.
Heather: So it kind of creates a bank file does it and then extracts the income and pays … extracts the money and then pays it?
Heather: Okay, and what was the name of that again?
Colin: It’s called CreDec I think.
Heather: Okay, sensational.
Colin: They’re pretty new. They’re also Edinburgh based. I’m not sure if they’re just the UK at the moment but the concept of having that complete system is really great.
Heather: Yes, it is. I don’t recall them being … hearing of them in Australia but I’ll check and I’ll include them in the notes for show listeners.
So, in your business, can you share with us any other useful tools you actually use in your business that other listeners may benefit from?
Colin: As a product business, we feel that customer support and feedback are absolutely crucial. So we use a product called Intercom to do that. It’s a relatively new product but it’s absolutely fantastic in terms of it lets us send automatic messages to users, it does all our internal communications with the users, and we can send out newsletters. It makes building newsletters really easy as well and it also uses our support system, so anybody can write to us from within the app and we can assign that to one of our team and everyone can track their responses as well. It’s kind a like Zendesk from that point of view but also MailChimp.
Also it’s having the auto messages going on at fixed periods during the trial is a useful part of it as well. This can be in-app notifications that just pop up on the screen or they can be emails. It’s a great way just for us to say, “We pushed a new feature,” or “We’d love to get some feedback on this if you’re interested, get in touch,” that kind of thing. We really try to maintain a close relationship with our user and that’s a tool that I think is fantastic if you’re a product company. You’ve got a web based product. That’s one thing we use.
We use Evernote quite a bit just to track all our documents and keep little notes of things rather than trying to have a complex filing system where you have to dig around for a lot of things. Evernote seems to work pretty well. We use an app called Trello to do our product management and bug tracking. Have you heard of that one?
Colin: It’s like a sort of card based thing, you can drive them around. That kind a keeps us organised. Those are kind of the main ones. I’m always looking for new tools to bring us up to the weekly integrating but it can be a bit of overkill as well.
Heather: Yes, there can be and sometimes you have go and test one for a while to see whether it’s actually going to fit in with what you’re doing. You can see how it fits in for other people but the way you’re doing it, you either have to perhaps change your methods or sometimes they just fit right in. I have one last question for you Colin.
Colin, what would you say to a 17 year old about to leave school who wants to be the next Colin Hewitt? He wants to found a tech space, he wants to found a tech company, he wants to attract funding, and he wants to live the dream?
Colin: Wow, there are a couple of things. One is you need to discover what it is your passionate about and don’t try and fit yourself into some mould that isn’t you because that’s just not going to work. I think for me, I find … at 17, I would have said, you know, “Go to university if you can. Go and get some experience,” because I didn’t have a clue at 17 that I wanted to do a tech company.
It was actually after university that I worked freelance for a bit and then came up with that concept. “Spend a little bit of time in America,” I think because there’s a really … there’s a real sort of positive can do attitude you can pick up over there which is actually where I get the courage and the idea to start my first company.
Heather: How old where you when you started your own company?
Colin: 21, 22, and it was just that can do Californian attitude, people saying, “Yes, go for it, why not.” I kind of came back to went, “Yeah.” That’s the attitude. It’s always about the level of passion and energy that you can muster because there will be hard times and you have to kind of be able to ride those out. The other thing I think is for us ending up with Float was something we found because we worked in a business. I’d say that it’s an evolution. If you do something you love then it’s often within that process you’ll actually find a real problem that needs solving.
That was the case for me but I think that often guys at 17, the apps that they come up with, the ideas that I’ve heard are all very much around something like you want to go out with your friends and you don’t know where they are so you want to be able to have an app that finds your friends. That’s just not … the chances of you solving that problem socially on a B-C level, is going to be really difficult. Whereas actually if you go and work in an industry, it’s much easier to solve a problem that there’s a niche of people that have rather than trying to be the next Twitter or Foursquare or something along this lines.
So I think at 17, you’re going to perceive a very different view of the world. Building up experience and working with good people and sort of learning what you like and what you don’t like about the way other businesses run is a good principle but also not to get sucked in. One of the things I was tempted to do is just go and get a job straight out of university with a big software company. I kind a resisted that and I’m glad I did because I think you can get sucked in for a quite long period of time when you get comfortable, and then you don’t want to try anything new. So if you’re not feeling it, sometimes holding off and just taking some time is a good option rather than jumping in.
Heather: Excellent. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us here Colin today. We really appreciate it. It was really interesting.
Colin: Yeah, pleasure.
Heather: If people want to get in touch with you, they can go to your website at floatapp.com or they can go and knock on the door of CodeBase. You’ll be there with a cup of tea waiting for them.
Heather: Thank you so much.
Colin: No worries Heather. Good to chat.
- Float website http://floatapp.com
- Float logos http://blog.floatapp.com/2013/11/01/7-steps-to-our-new-logo.html
- CodeBase http://www.thisiscodebase.com
- Sky Scanner http://www.skyscanner.com
- Receipt Bank http://www.receipt-bank.com
- CreDec http://www.credec.com
- Intercom https://www.intercom.io
- Evernote https://evernote.com
- Trello https://trello.com