Sometimes startup life puts you in a corner and you run out of ideas. All motivation is lost and you think its maybe time to swap out the converse for brogues and get a ‘real’ job. It’s these particular moments where you have to put all your chips in – make or break. It’s a matter of thirty seconds and it’s those thirty seconds, that will turn your life around.
Richard Corbett found himself in this position in 2014 where he literally went all in with all his savings and needed some help to get where he needed to be. The source of this aid came from Boris himself, the Mayor of London. All he needed was 30 seconds of the Mayor’s attention. 30 seconds that changed a four and a half year-long battle.
“I basically didn’t make any money for over 4 years, living off money that I borrowed from my family and my fiancée whilst working from my own living room to save on office space.”
So it was tough, very tough in fact. How he got there though, is the core of this story.
Richard is the founder of Eyetease, the company that managed to chuck a digital advertising board on top of London’s most iconic symbol – the Black Cab.
I met Richard in Eyetease’s HQ in Bethnal Green under the arches of the Cambridge Heath station. With no windows whatsoever, the ‘underground office’ couldn’t be a more fitting name, and as we speak, a train rumbles overhead shaking the building to it’s core.
Whilst I got totally lost looking for the unit, this particular area is very well known for Black Cab repairs. I get to the arches and there is a long cue of Black Cabs waiting to be seen to. In one particular garage, there is a rather shiny yellow Porsche parked outside… This startup is getting something right I think to myself as I knock rather timidly on the large steel shutters.
“In 2009 I found myself without a job at the hight of the recession, I was 24 years old, had a holiday already booked in New York and although spending money was probably a bad idea at that point, I took it as a chance to get inspiration and new ideas.”
Walking the streets of New York rather aimlessly, Richard explains that he began seeing what will later become his way back in. Yellow taxis over there were advertising on top of of their roofs. A simple static light box showcasing mainly strip clubs and promo nights.
So why can’t the same technology be replicated in London? Perhaps without strippers Richard started thinking.
“When I started, I had no clue of regulatory laws and even how the tech would work. All I knew is that I wanted these ads to be dynamic and change constantly during the day based on demographics, geo positioning, and day/night timings. How would I do that? I had no idea!”
The technology was clearly there, dynamic ads have been running for years, but mostly on outdoor billboards. This technology allows you to have a multitude of different adverts to fit different audiences rather than the one-fits-all model being implemented on top of New York’s yellow taxis.
As soon as he stepped back in London, he made some calls to see weather it would be of any commercial value for a media company to have such a technology on top of the black cab. Most agencies said that it will never work however one of these phone calls was to VeriFone, one of the major players in this space, and the media agency that owns the advertising space on the side of Black Cabs.
“They said that if I could do it, they would be interested”.
The issue being at this stage, Richard still had no idea how to do it. No one has done it before so there are no set guidelines or strategy. When you’re thinking of a new concept however, the first thing you need is market validation and after his phone call with VeriFone, Richard had the confidence he needed to go for it.
Next problem; changing the shape if the iconic London Black Cab isn’t an easy task. Most people on the planet, and it’s especially important that tourists recognise that peculiar shape almost instantly.
What Richard didn’t know at that time was that Transport For London (TFL) is the regulatory body behind London’s Black Cabs. We’re talking about a massive, complicated and fairly conservative organisation here. Not the kind of organisation where you would walk in with a bold new idea and get it approved straight away.
What TFL needed to see was weather the technology that Richard was talking about would be safe for pedestrians, passengers and the drivers.
After a few prototypes and many mistakes, Richard managed to make a version that was safe, functional and beautiful enough to start a trial on three taxis. TFL however, didn’t want to change their regulations.
“Even Google tried to help us by lobbying to get our technology approved, and so did London & Partners and a few other entities. Nothing seemed to work so, we came to a dead end.”
In January 2014 TFL decided to axe the project with the only reason being that they didn’t want to change the iconic shape of London Black Cab. There was no chance of getting the technology approved. Four and a half years of work and all of his life savings in the bin – things were looking bad.
Richard started thinking of the only person who’d potentially be able to help him overcome this hurdle. That person was Boris Johnson himself, the Mayor of London and all he needed was thirty seconds of his time. The elevator pitch.
“In March 2014 I found out that Boris Johnson was giving a talk and I knew this would have been my last real chance! The only thing I needed was thirty seconds of Boris’ time to convince him to help me. So how the hell am I going to do that? I took the three taxis I used for the trial, put them outside the building where he was speaking and set my displays to say “Tech City Loves Boris”.
Apparently his name is not the only one thing Richard shares with Branson, but his creative flair is of a similar nature too.
“The event was packed with media people – perfect! As soon as the mayor came out surrounded by the majority of London’s journalists, he noticed my cabs parked outside and walked towards us. I immediately tried to grab him and get thirty seconds out of him. Whilst he was willing to speak to me, his muscle wasn’t and were constantly pulling him away”
Long story short, after a little bit of banter, Boris agrees to listen to Richard… Briefly. And this is how Richard managed to get the Mayor’s attention and ask him to talk to the person who was blocking the technology at TFL. Two weeks after, he received a letter saying that he loved the technology and that he would be happy to organise a new meeting with TFL and help him get it approved.
Now over 200 Black Cabs have Eyetease’s LED advert displays attached. And this technology, all made in England, closed a 4 million pound deal that got Richard the shiny yellow Porsche that’s parked outside – simple as that.
Eyetease is now a company worth around 10 million pounds, constantly creating new jobs and planning to completely renovate the area of Bethnal Green and to turn it into a hub for startups working on hardware technologies.
So while this whole story revolved around thirty seconds, it takes quite a bit longer to build a business. It takes passion and a lot of perseverance. It takes vision, it takes grit.
Written by Marcello Mari