Jo Eckersley is the CEO of Bubbl, a mobile platform that enables brands to share content based on location and preferences. Jo was named one of the five rising stars by Computer Weekly in their ‘Most Influential Women in Tech awards’ 2019. It was while working at InnovateUK that Jo became aware of emerging technologies and came up with Bubbl.
“In my experience, a woman will build far more solid foundations for a business, with far less, so encouraging women to go for more funding earlier, and recognising entrepreneurship and supporting women who, like me, are single parents and have to wait to really exploit their business until their kids are older, is a big piece.”
Entrepreneurship is in my blood
I’ve always been a bit of an entrepreneur, setting up my first business, my school’s shop, when I was 13. By the time I had done my GCSEs, A-levels, and art and design foundation course, I was supporting myself and working two jobs.
Despite getting a place at a university to study graphics and photography, I was fed up with education and ready to work, so I took my first role in the world of media advertising. By 21, I had gotten some travelling under my belt, and after trying hard to get into PR, decided to set up my own consultancy, from my living room floor.
I grew the PR business over the next ten years and that business led to me establishing a London-based innovation agency, driving innovation funding, and running projects across the creative industries.
Over the years, I got involved in a number of initiatives to help drive digital technology into the creative industries, advising various government initiatives and contributing to the set of up of the Digital Catapult and the early days of the KTN.
When InnovateUK was set up, I was one of the original assessors and monitoring officers, which gave me a massive insight into the emerging technologies heading our way, seeding my ideas for my company Bubbl, and leading to our initial Proof of Concept.
As CEO of Bubbl, I am responsible for the productivity of the team, and I oversee my two senior team members and the progression of the product and the tech. I am also responsible for getting funding and driving revenue until we are able to build up our sales and marketing team.
I am always on the lookout for interesting collaborations that might move our tech or commercial opportunities forward and I keep an eye on the shifts in the industry and the potential impact on our product and routes to market.
Starting a business right before COVID-19 hit
Bubbl is a mobile marketing platform that turns any app into a content marketing channel triggered by context and user location. We launched our tech two months before COVID-19 and the first lockdown started.
Our tech was rapidly gaining interest in the ticketing, events, music, festival, tourism, and sports sectors. But with these sectors impacted as they were by the pandemic, we were immediately stopped in our tracks by the shutdown of all the events we were working on with prospective clients, and most of our investors withdrew to focus on helping their existing portfolios of small businesses.
Thankfully, we have received grants and support from some of the COVID-19 funding available, so we have come through it, but it is no easy feat trying to pull together investment at the pre-seed/seed stage of a company in normal times, so that has been a challenge.
Despite the pandemic, the demand for tech like ours has escalated as both privacy legislation and technology adoption have rapidly advanced.
Our technology is relevant to any sector and is delivered completely remotely, so as a result, we have pivoted sector and established a number of partnerships with sector-specific resellers and app developers, allowing us to continue the business despite the impact of ongoing lockdowns.
Personalised data or identity theft?
AI currently contributes to a lot of the problems in the sector of technology ads (AdTech), and is used widely to programme ads to appear in specific digital places, and try to discern intent from third-party data, scraped by using cookies to track your movements in the digital world, and then used to make assumptions about what you might do or want next.
Personally, I have always been very opposed to this approach, as it seems more like identity theft rather than anything useful. Maybe I’m just old school, but the whole reason I set up Bubbl was because I knew there was a better, more human way of engaging people using mobile, rather than constantly pushing unwanted and intrusive ads at them that are badly targeted based on personalised data assumptions.
At Bubbl, unlike the current approach above, we capture physical and digital data relating to action and physical context, like location or engagement. This gives us the opportunity to solve a number of challenges in the appropriately nicknamed ‘MadTech’ sector, like fraud due to click bots, and annoying pop-up ads, developing new products and alternative revenue streams.
We are exploring the use of AI to provide real-time, contextual, and relational analytics and enabling the distribution of content based on user’s preferences and their location.
Data personalisation is changing for the better
Apple has recently announced powerful new privacy protections in its operating systems that help users better control and manage access to their data. This will impact the way companies are able to target new customers using AI, as for a start all the assumptive personalisation will be removed. This is a good thing.
Humans have never been predictable in that way anyway. It is far better to discern intent from location, and real-time contextual data. The new privacy rules mean that users can stop the tracking of their digital search footprint themselves as Apple start the march towards giving the consumer the chance to opt-out of ad tracking. The new permissions mean we can say no to ad companies who are determining consumer intent from our movement between apps and online.
Let’s hope that this means much more engaging interactions, podcasts, videos, immersive and interesting content that is relevant to where we are and what we are doing. If we use our heads as marketers as well as AI, I think we have a chance to get mobile marketing right this time!
Women need to win an award to be given more credibility – this has to change!
The recognition I gained from Computer Weekly as one of the most influential women in tech was a complete shock as I actually didn’t even know I had been nominated. I was only at the awards event because I am very keen on inclusivity and that was its main focus!
The recognition meant a lot, as it is constantly surprising to me that despite women being the bedrock of the tech industry and its innovation in the early years, nowadays it’s still regarded as unusual for a woman, especially an older woman, to be a tech founder. That’s despite women being among the first programmers in the early 20th century, contributing substantially to the industry.
As technology and practices altered, the role of women as programmers has changed, and the recorded history of the field has downplayed their achievements.
When people realise that I have the award, they respond differently, it definitely gives more credibility to my work and is an acknowledgement of my efforts to innovate and disrupt in the world of APIs and apps, but as AdTech is apparently a dark art to most investors, it does little to help encourage them to trust me and my sector knowledge and experience, and to invest in this space.
Better work, less funding
The government-commissioned Alison Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship (March 2019) found that up to £250 billion of new value could be added to the UK economy if women started and scaled new businesses at the same rate as men.
The angel investors tend to follow investment trends like sheep, they love financial technology, for example, as most of them came from banking. I find it weird that the advertising industry produces so few angel investors, and that most are ignorant of the vast opportunity for innovation and returns in this sector.
You can do anything as a single parent
In my experience, a woman will build far more solid foundations for a business, with far less, so encouraging women to go for more funding earlier, and recognising entrepreneurship and supporting women who, like me, are single parents and have to wait to really exploit their business until their kids are older, is a big piece.
I have been a single parent for 18 years, and was already an entrepreneur when I had my daughter. I had to put my career and growing my business on hold, in the absence of better access to childcare and advice. I was even told by some that it was selfish of me to want to be an entrepreneur when I had a child, and I should go and get a job and a reliable income.
Luckily, I didn’t listen, and have a wealth of experience as a result which only adds to the abilities I use every day in my business today.
Creative industries are crucial for society
I’m excited about the potential of emerging technologies and how we are planning on using them in our tech in the future.
For example, triggering 2D and 3D augmented reality, leveraging contextual data and AI, spatial sound and immersive experiences are all on our radar, along with the potential of 5G and emerging technology that will allow us to enhance the precision of location both indoors and outdoors.
I’m also finally seeing a shift to acknowledge the importance of the creative industries as a sector in the UK, particularly on the international playing field, and increased awareness of the technology changes in the advertising and marketing sector thanks to the privacy and data legislation I mentioned earlier.
Hopefully, we will secure the funding we need to fully exploit these opportunities and be part of the Tech for Good movement to drive change and a more human way of engaging that I believe is so important for today’s society. Advertising is a huge societal influence. It’s important that it is a positive not a negative in our world. I look forward to the day that is the case.