Time for women in tech – Leah Hutcheon, Founder and CEO of Appointedd, the world’s first cross-time zone booking system

Leah Hutcheon - Appointedd

Leah Hutcheon is the founder and CEO of Appointedd, an Edinburgh-based start-up revolutionising the way small businesses sell their timeslot appointments online. From personal trainers to massage therapists, driving instructors to photographers, Appointedd enables online booking, and offers small businesses access to CRM, marketing and business management tools, including the world’s first truly multi-time zone online booking system, enabling people to take bookings across different time zones seamlessly. Leah is a proud Ambassador for Women’s Enterprise Scotland, Director of Future Leaders for Entrepreneurial Scotland and a #ScotEDGE Award winner who was featured in BBC documentary, The Entrepreneurs.

Leah Hutcheon - Appointedd

Leah Hutcheon

“…Being open to saying ‘yes’ to as many things as you can is important. You obviously need to make sure you’re not over-stretching yourself, but if there are opportunities that you can see that might lead to something internationally, just grab them…”

My career to date and what drove me to become an entrepreneur

I had quite a varied career. My first ever job was as Mr Blobby on Blackpool pier! From there I had various jobs in hospitality, before I went and did a drama degree. So I have literally no formal qualifications to be running a software company.

Following my degree I worked as a comedy and theatre producer in a festival venue in Edinburgh, but unfortunately I was made redundant from there. After that I went back to the job at the bar where I’d worked when I was at uni, where I was able to do a management trainee qualification, which was really made me realise how much I enjoyed working in teams and managing them.

From there I started working in a magazine. I was really keen to get into a media or marketing role, so I took as job as marketing executive at a homes and interiors publication called Home Plus Scotland. It was basically an on the road salesperson, so from there I worked my way up and ended up as editor of the magazine, which took me a good five years or so. I loved that job! I adored getting to nosey around people’s houses, and to go to amazing hotels and restaurants.

The push for me to go it alone

Unfortunately I was made redundant again during the recession – we were very reliant on housebuilders and those kinds of people for advertising spend, but that took a hit in the recession. I think that was really the push for me to go it alone. After having been made redundant twice from roles where I’d put so much in and where there was no nice redundancy pay off I found it hard.

I’d seen a gap in the market when I was at the magazine. As my team had been getting cut and my hours were getting longer, I got used to doing everything online. The only thing that I didn’t do online was booking hairdressers’ appointments.

I’d literally drive to work every morning and think: “Right – I need to book a salon appointment…” and then I’d drive home every night going “Oh no. I didn’t book that!” By that time it was always 8pm or midnight and it always struck me that as a society that did everything else online it was frustrating that we couldn’t interact with small businesses in that way.

Developing an initial prototype

MacbookWhen I was made redundant I started working with lots of smaller business clients. I initially scoped it as a personal project, but I realised that to do the bookings side of things we would need to build some fairly hefty software. I’d tried to outsource that in the first instance, but there were no companies at that time that wanted to license me their online booking software, so I started working with an outsourced web developer to develop the initial prototype.

From there I won one of the first ever Scottish Edge Awards. We were really lucky there. We were awarded £30,000 so I was able to bring on my first staff member, our lead developer, Billy. From there we were able to build enough of a product so we could raise private investment.

Appointedd and how it works

Appointedd is an online booking and business management software system that connects with any web presence and turns it into a live online booking engine. We work with small businesses and entrepreneurs who essentially sell time, whether that’s their own time or someone else’s – so that could be hair salons, physiotherapists, accountants, car valets – really anybody who’s selling a service via a time slot.

It’s also for people who sell a resource by time, which could be meeting rooms or events, or equipment hire – anything that you would book for a time slot.

We can give the business either a one page online booking website – a standalone page so they don’t need to have their own website. We offer a templated page with a few different designs so they can put their marketing information on there with photos and the location of their business. It will list all the services, with the all-important ‘book now’ button against all of them!

We have other tools too. We’ve got a booking app that can connect to a business’s own website, so it feels like the whole transaction is taking place on their website, so there’s no redirecting off to other pages or anything like that.

We’ve also got a booking app for Facebook, so the whole booking can happen right there on a business’s Facebook page. So it’s really about allowing anybody who sells time to sell to their customers, wherever their customers might be. If they know they’ve got an active fan base on their Facebook page, they can take bookings from there.

If they’ve got a website that they always drive traffic to, they can take bookings from there. They can even put it on partner pages, so we have people that put the online booking tools on to blogs or a partner business’s page. It transforms any web presence into an online booking engine.

Unlike our competitors, we’ll then manage the impact of that booking right the way through the business, so we have a CRM [customer relationship management] tool within the software, there’s a marketing automation suite in there so the business can schedule emails or text messages.

Confirmations and reminders are standard, but we can also automate full campaigns. It’s an intelligent marketing suite that allows the business to set up their campaigns and then forget about them. Equally they can use it to fill any last minute cancellations. There’s also staff management and task management. They can allocate tasks against different staff members.

There’s also a whole host of reporting tools so they can see how much money they’re making, which staff member is making the most money, and which customer is spending the most with them – all different kinds of metrics. It’s a full business management platform for anybody who is selling time.

Launching the world’s first cross-time zone booking system

Appointedd Time Zone ConverterWe started getting approached by companies here, there and everywhere – mainly in Europe through random things that we’d been doing or people hearing about us. One of the companies that got in touch with us is a business development agency who is based in Germany, but they’ve got offices all around the world – in Singapore, Las Vegas, New York, and San Francisco.

They’ve got lots of people in different offices and they do a lot of travelling between the offices, they do a lot of travelling to clients, so the founder and chairman got in touch with us. He’d been calling around different online booking services and asking them if there was any way that he could use their tool in a flexible way so he could travel between time zones easily without him having to change his schedule because he was in a different country.

Nobody had said that they could do this and he got in touch with us just at the time we’d decided we needed to internationalise. At this point we didn’t support any other time zones at all. It came at a time when we were thinking about that as a project, so we started building what has now become the world’s first cross time zone booking system and also multi time zone booking system.

The easiest way to explain it is through the benefits – the cross time zone part of it means that somebody can schedule their normal availability (say 9-5) and change the time zone that they’re in on specific days, so if they’re travelling they’d say: “Tomorrow I’m going to New York and then two days later I’m off to Japan,” so rather than them trying to calculate time zones, they just tell the system where they are and it automatically calculates that and makes them available in their time zones.

Leah-Hutcheon - Appointedd

It also does some clever stuff on how it presents that to the person booking it, so if you were to book a phone call and I was in New York, you would have seen my availability in your own time zone and also when it was confirmed it would go into my diary in the local New York time zone, so it cuts out anybody having to do fiddly time zone maths.

Last, but not least, it allows people to be bookable on one platform but in multiple time zones. This is the thing that has received interest from larger corporations. So if an organisation has offices and they offer ‘follow the sun’ support and they have people bookable around the clock, the customer just books in at the time that suits them and it is allocated against the correct office, so it gives real flexibility to that online booking.

“Well, can you do this?”

It literally just came out of somebody asking: “Well, can you do this?” It was a massive project, but it’s opened so many doors for us, because it’s not really our core business – salons and local businesses in the UK probably aren’t ever going to use it, but it’s opened us up to larger enterprises. It’s secured us large scale partnerships we wouldn’t have got previously that get us access to our core demographic.

We’ve just launch a partnership with National Australia Bank. They’ve put together a platform of twelve apps that they’ve hand-picked and that they believe add real value to their small business clients – they have 700,000 small businesses that bank with them. They’ve selected us to be part of that platform, and because they know we can handle all small businesses – it doesn’t just have to be their local salons, it can go from helping somebody who travels a lot right through to a multinational business.

The flexibility from doing the cross time zone side of things has got us some fantastic partnerships.

Assistance from UKTI

Leah speaking at the EntrepreneurLIVE 2014 tour

Leah speaking at the EntrepreneurLIVE! 2014 tour

We’ve had support to get out on trade missions and travel internationally. Everything has happened quite quickly for us on an exporting level. I received support from Scottish Development International, which is an arm of UKTI [UK Trade & Investment], to go on a trade mission to a series of exhibitions that were running in Las Vegas. That gave us 30% towards our costs, allowing us to go to a series of exhibitions and exhibits, and off the back of that we met the company in Australia who we’re partnering with to deliver the National Australia Bank platform.

We’ve been lucky and we haven’t necessarily had to travel to these territories. I’ve never been to Australia, yet it’s our biggest exporting territory. We’ve got business in America and I’ve only been there twice for those things, so I think it was interesting to them that as an online business we benefit from being able to do a lot online –it means some late night or early morning Skype calls, but outside of that, because our product is online people can test in thoroughly.

The bank and our other partners have all done rigorous testing to check the product is robust and they all did that remotely. It’s not like taking a physical product and you have to come and see the factory.

Advice for female entrepreneurs looking to grow their business though exporting

I would say get out there and network with as many people as you can. I always love the Arthur Ashe quote, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” That would be my advice for other entrepreneurs looking to export.

For us, the American trip came out of the cross time zone stuff that literally was just from a phone call from somebody who wanted a product. Being open to saying ‘yes’ to as many things as you can is important. You obviously need to make sure you’re not over-stretching yourself, but if there are opportunities that you can see that might lead to something internationally, just grab them.

For us is has been a slow journey – the layer upon layer of building something that actually has ended up being of international interest, rather than us setting out to say, “I want to build a product that is going to be international and is going to take over the world,” it’s been, “Do we think this feature has a relevance in our product? Yes, it does.”

Out of building the cross time zone functionality it became apparent that it was helpful to certain businesses in the UK, but we’re quite lucky with time zones in Europe, so the majority of companies that do travel are still only travelling between an hour or two. Whereas in America there’s much bigger time zone differences that can still happen when you’re doing domestic business.

Punching above our weight through partnerships

AppointeddI think being open to opportunities, speaking to as many people as you can, and looking to partner are really important. A lot of our international opportunities have come from partnerships, rather than being driven solely by us as a company. That has allowed us to punch above our weight.

If we’d have gone to National Australia Bank and said: “We’d like to supply all your customers with online booking tools,” it wouldn’t have been something that would have ever happened, but because it came through a company that was working with them already, it allowed them to see the value of our software and we got involved in a deal which was much bigger than we could ever have chased ourselves.

Also, do as much as you can online, so we have a big deal with a virtual and serviced office network who is headquartered in the U.S., and that came from just sending marketing emails, essentially to a list of offices across the world. It came because we were working with a consultant who has had a lot of experience in that industry and it was a list of her contacts. We sent an email and it just hit the right time for that opportunity.

You don’t have to do everything in person these days, especially if you’ve got a business which is online. Sell it online as well.

Taking part in Entrepreneurial Spark

I was one of the second ever intake of Entrepreneurial Spark back in 2012, right at the beginning when we had no product. I had an idea and I was working with some outsourced developers. They were fantastic at supporting the idea. They totally ‘got it’. They care about small businesses and empowering them. They loved that I wanted to help bring small businesses online.

It was a really nice fit and I was in Entrepreneurial Spark (ESpark) for about 14/ 15 months. First of all I used to commute to East Glasgow because that was the only Spark Hatchery that was open, and then when they opened the Edinburgh one I transferred there.

It was a fantastic opportunity, so the BBC documentary, The Entrepreneurs, was about ESpark and as I happened to be there at the time I ended up getting featured. It was an amazing experience to go through that. It prepped me for the Scottish Edge Awards so that was very helpful because I’d never pitched for investment. I’d pitched for other people’s businesses and I’d pitched as a freelancer, but I found it quite different pitching my own start up for the first time, knowing it wasn’t a fully formed product yet.

ESpark made me realise that building a product is a long journey and you’ve got to own that journey from start to finish. You’ve got to be confident about speaking about your business from the word go and if you can’t explain it simply and wish passion, nobody’s going to understand it.

For me it was a wonderful, wonderful experience and I can’t speak highly enough about it. The friends that I made when I was in ESpark are still now some of my best friends. I share an office with Mallzee, who are an online shopping app. Cally and I used to travel to ESparktogether. He’s now employing about 23 people. We share our office with them and another couple of freelancers.

Agile workingA lot of the other companies from ESpark are my regular support group. We meet up every month or two to catch up with each other and ask any of the difficult questions. We celebrate together, cry together – all of those things!

Coming up next for Appointedd

We’re currently closing investment for our next stage of growth. That investment will build out the team. We’re four people at the moment and we’ll be growing to 12 people with that investment. It’s a massive challenge and we’re super excited about it as a team. We’re going to treble in size and hopefully take on the world in a more proactive way by chasing new opportunities and we can’t wait.

 

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