"Working with Microsoft has been like being strapped to a rocket ship. They've put us in front of incredible clients, they've put us on their space at trade shows from Helsinki to New York and provided us with a seemingly limitless well of advice and resources."
Richard Hammond, CEO and Co-Founder
The Microsoft for Startups Partner of the Year Award recognizes innovative start-ups from all over the world that are actively solving real-world problems. The winner of the 2020 Partner of the Year award - selected from over 3000 nominations from 100 countries – is London-based Uncrowd who inspired the judges with their next-generation AI retail customer analytics platform.
Uncrowd created their Friction/Reward Indexing (FRi™) platform to help retailers attract and keep their customers by providing unique insights into customer behaviors and likelihood to buy whilst also allowing retailers to optimize their budgets and reduce their cost base.
We caught up with Richard Hammond, CEO and Co-Founder of Uncrowd, to discover more about this exciting and innovative UK start-up.
Congratulations on winning the Microsoft Start-Up award, it’s an incredible achievement. Can you tell me about how you first got involved with Microsoft and about your journey so far?
“Our friend Chris Heap was a senior retail expert at Microsoft and he saw immediately that our platform added something special to a retailer's data-driven armoury. Chris introduced us to the Microsoft for Start-ups Team who from that first second onwards have been incredible. Working with them has been like being strapped to a rocket ship. They've put us in front of incredible clients, they've put us on their space at trade shows from Helsinki to New York and provided us with a seemingly limitless well of advice and resources.”
“This is what I believe sets Microsoft apart from their tech-giant peers right now: they really do ‘get retail’ and have chosen to build retailers the best possible data and tech infrastructure imaginable. They've systematically enabled the best specialists in every area to deliver incredible solutions to retailers. Better yet, they've recognised that there are no firms more focused and specialised on this planet than start-ups. We wholeheartedly recommend that every great start-up investigates Microsoft for Start-ups.”
Prior to Uncrowd, you were involved in the retail industry for a long time both as a consultant and a published author, so you clearly had some great insights into the problems inherent in the retail industry. Is this how the idea of Uncrowd was conceived?
“I've been a retailer for 34 years and I'd had enough of us being let down by thin customer analytics, or analytics that relied too much on what customers SAY they do, rather than on what they have and will do. So for the 4th edition of my Smart Retail book, I set out to find or build a metric that could finally tell us when and why a customer would prefer us to a rival.”
“That lead to our discovery and construction of the Friction versus Reward metric in which it's possible to compare - between retailers - a customer’s inputs (frictions) with their outputs (rewards) and understand the most likely direction of choice over time. It was a ‘hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck’ moment because that's maths successfully describing human behaviours and THAT is a holy grail item.”
Taking a real-world problem and innovating a solution and creating a business around that solution is no mean feat. Many people come up with problem-solving ideas in their industry but the vast majority remain as ideas - what made you take the leap into creating Uncrowd?
“This would have stayed an academic idea in a book if it weren't for the many people who kept sending me messages saying 'this Friction/Reward Indexing idea looks a lot like a customer analytics software platform. I was reluctant but then I went and hid in Sofia in Bulgaria for a couple of weeks to finish the book on it I was asked to write for Pearson. Random choice, superb bars. And my old friend Rocky Howard, a brilliant creative systems architect and now co-founder of Uncrowd, said he wanted to come out for a bit of the trip to sample said bars. We went and did exactly that and through the haze of some surprisingly good Bulgarian craft beers (and some gloriously rotten ones too, to be fair) and after a lot of arguing and testing and sketching and screaming we found we'd drawn up a patentable preference analytics platform.”
“Rocky and I both had our own consultancies so had the luxury to be able to work on the Uncrowd concept for a while at the same time as being looked after by lovely existing clients. Then we won a place on True Global’s accelerator program and decided to go all in. We closed our consultancies, moved into True's offices in Victoria and that was the acceleration this needed.”
Many successful companies attribute their success to having a great team with complementary skills. Could you tell me about how you all met and the team dynamics?
“Never work with friends is the shittiest advice I've ever known. All of my projects of the last 20 years have been with friends, or with clients who became friends. So we built the initial core team around me and Rocky - we’ve been friends for almost all of that 20 years. The first hire was a good friend of a good friend, Craig, who is now one of my favorite people. Our first board advisor was John Phillips, who shared a house with Rocky at university, who I've known for as long as I've known Rocky and who is currently UK CTO at the giant HAVAS media agency.”
“In terms of complementary skills, Rock and I are both incredibly similar and chalk and cheese. It's a rare dynamic but works so well. We get shit made.”
“But, there is one catch to staying within your friendship circle for too long and that is that inevitably you lack diversity. That meant as soon as we were able to expand our core teams, we had diversity at the top of our hiring agenda. If you don't do that, you won't reflect the diversity of your customers but also, you'll get stale without difference. So, the next four hires were not straight-white liberal males in their 40s like me, Rock and Craig. That's worked incredibly well and has added to team cohesion and added to the fun and energy of start-ups.”
It is a tough time for all businesses right now, not just start-ups. However, many successful companies were founded during severe economic downturns. Can you tell me what impact the current climate is having on Uncrowd?
“The covid-19 pandemic is a gigantic tragedy; so many people robbed of years or of their livelihoods. In that context, I'm proud that we have been able to fully support the careers and, frankly, immediate bills of nine people. The UK Treasury's support of businesses such as ours has been above and beyond and our investors happily completed a round we'd started but not finished before COVID-19 hit. Best of all, our clients and prospective customers never stopped talking and new ones emerged as the need to understand things deepened. So tragedy notwithstanding, we've had an incredibly positive lockdown and our future looks if anything even brighter than before. Somehow though that does make the loss of so many other potentially great start-ups sting a little deeper.”
You’ve all achieved something incredible in such a short space of time and I know you have many future goals and plans for Uncrowd. If we interview you again in 3 years’ time, name one thing that would you like to have achieved?
“I'd like to be able to do this interview then and talk about how establishing the principles of understanding friction versus reward has led to great retailers delivering even better experiences and that the industry I love has found it's confidence to beat the Amazons of this world instead of just chase them.”