Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Blerter's Richard Gill on staying alive with software, sacrifices and cognac-based inspiration

Vodafone xone Innovators Series: Blerter's Richard Gill on staying alive with software, sacrifices and cognac-based inspiration
Richard Gill, serial entrepreneur and founder of health and safety software company Blerter, is on a mission to save lives with software. He talks with Idealog's publisher and editorial director Ben Fahy about his journey.

To mark the arrival of the Vodafone xone business accelerator, Idealog is interviewing a whole heap of established New Zealand innovators, as well as the founders of the 10 startups selected by Vodafone to receive mentorship, funding and the potential benefits of working with a global network. First on the list of startup founders is Richard Gill, founder of health and safety software company Blerter. 

Ben Fahy: Technology and capitalism often are a ruthless march to efficiency, about finding solutions to existing problems, better ways to do things. What was the problem that you were trying to solve with Blerter? Was it a classic eureka moment, or was it a longer gestation?

Richard Gill: I think it was quite a long gestation, actually. We started off in the civil defense space, working with trying to help governments connect and keep populations safe en masse. We've done a lot of work, particularly in the Auckland region. With that being very successful, we looked and said, "How can we actually keep people safe on a daily basis? How do we engage with organisations to do that?" One of the things that we looked at was health and safety, and to be perfectly honest, it was really low on our list of visibility. We were working on all sorts of cool things. We're a high-tech company, we want to do really exciting, cool gadgetry cloud things, and health and safety looked like a bunch of guys with clipboards and hard hats.

We thought, "How boring?," but then what happened is I looked at it and said, "Well, actually, what's the problem?" The problem was that we actually kill a lot of people in New Zealand every year.

Not you?

Not me, no. As a country. We actually kill a lot of people, 70 odd people a year, through injury. Another 6-900 through illness and disease, and that's not to mention the people who are hurt, can't work properly, who go home to families, time off work, lost time for injury, etc, so it's a major, major problem. It actually costs 2% of GDP.

Wow.

It's a $4 billion a year problem to the New Zealand economy.

It's one of those maybe dull but very important areas that technology can assist with in many ways, I think.

Yeah, exactly. It seemed to be dull, but it's like any problem. Once you get into it, and you start to look at it, you realise that actually, there's a huge opportunity for change. That's what we're all about, and my career has been building companies that bring about dramatic change in an industry, and health and safety is right across the board. It affects every worker, every workplace in New Zealand, and it's not just New Zealand. It's across the globe. This is the same problem everywhere. Actually, the statistic that really motivated me, the one that gets me up every morning is that globally, 6,500 people are killed every day on the job.

Is that where you're heading? You see this as a much broader opportunity than just in New Zealand? Is it the test market?

Yeah. New Zealand's a great place to innovate, it's a great place to do really cool things, solve problems, but I'm a Kiwi, I'm passionate about keeping Kiwis safe, and I want to really have an impact in New Zealand first, and then take this to the globe, and have a dramatic change.

What was happening in your professional life when you decided that this was a business worth following?

Just before starting this company, I had been doing a lot of work in the environmental space, helping a number of Kiwi companies commercialise technology around clean energy, and clean water, around the globe, but my background's always been software. I've had a career of building software companies. I came back into this, wanted to do something in the mobile cloud space, really helping businesses engage, and so that was it. This is the niche that we found where we could make the biggest difference.

What led you to ask for some support to join the accelerator program?

With Vodafone? I think it's come about from a multi-pronged approach. For us, it's all about reach. If we're going to affect the numbers, if we're going to help keep people safe, we have to actually be able to reach them. We have to be engaged with people. We have to be engaged with businesses. For us, it's very much about finding a model that enables us to reach lots of Kiwi businesses so that we can help them keep their people safe, and do it in a far more productive way than they're currently doing it.

Has that already proven to work? How's the business going? Where do you see it going in terms of either revenue or companies or any kind of context?

It's been phenomenal. It's been really phenomenal. We've got companies from 2 or 3 man, the sparky with 2 guys who works for them, up to some very, very large enterprise customers. We cover the broad spectrum, and one of the things about Blerter that's unique is that instead of just digitising the current process, instead of just making electronic clipboards, an iPad that actually fills out forms, actually we've built it on a social network. It's all about the social connections. We're all about the conversations between people, and how you enable people to hold those conversations in a digital form with their workmates, with their colleagues, and really bring about change.

That message is resonating with a lot of companies, and so we're growing very, very fast. We're exploring the challenges of where to take it, and so what Vodafone does, is they help us with the reach. They're also helping us with some technology and helping us put the right things in place to help us scale.

You mentioned some of the challenges, and starting a business often involves sacrifices of many different types. What are some of the things you've had to give up or work with and face up to, to get to this point?

Scott McNealy, who was the founder of Sun Microsystems, one of my favorite quotes from him is, "Business isn't difficult, it's just grueling." I think the 80 hour weeks that go into building a business like this one, they go on more than a few months into a few years. It starts to take its toll a bit. I'm looking forward to the day when I'm spending a bit more time with my family, and I don't have to introduce myself to my kids every now and then, but I think those are the challenges, and the bigger the vision, the bigger the goal, the bigger the dreams. I guess the more the universe puts in its way to make it an interesting set of challenges.

Is that something you've found mentors can help with in terms of balance? I know I see a lot of entrepreneurs who have a dream and a vision, and you obviously have that, but they maybe let the other side of their lives out of control, or they see that they can't do both. Is that something you've had to learn, as well, as you've gone on?

Yeah. I've been building tech companies for nearly 30 years, so you'd think I knew all the tricks, but actually I don't. Every new business, every new opportunity, every new set of challenges. I think the good thing about having mentors around you, whether it's casual acquaintances who you can have a cup of coffee with and brainstorm, whether it's in a formal setting like xone, where they're bringing out some industry experts that you can just brainstorm and talk about your problems, right the way through to having good governance, and I'm blessed with a great board, and some really fantastic people around the business.

All of that's really important, because as the entrepreneur can be fairly lonely, and it can be quite challenging. One moment you're dealing with team and recruitment, and team issues, and the next moment you're dealing with customers, next moment you're dealing with lines of code and compilers not working, and it's quite a challenge to keep your sanity, and stay on target, and stay on message through all the noise the business generates.

Failure is an important part of the process. Is there one thing that sticks out for you? Something that maybe didn't go to plan, that you've actually now used to your advantage?

Man, I could tell you some stories.

Go on.

Look, I think, I heard this term that's become very trendy which is "serial entrepreneurs." I tend to think of myself more as "serially unemployable," which is why I end up with my own companies. Look, I think you learn a lot of lessons on the way. I think the key one is to take people with you, and that's always a challenge. As a company grows and changes, the mix of people and skills, and resources you need also changes. The number one thing for me is to have the right people around the business, as well, from your board, your advisors, your mentors, all those sorts of people, because it's a tough journey, and you need that support, and the people to help clear the way for you, and to help pick you up when you trip.

Well often it seems entrepreneurs, one of the most important things is to hire the right people and get out of their way.

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, and delegation. Learning how to delegate is always a challenge.

From your experience, your vast experience, what's the maybe one piece of advice that you can give to someone who has an idea, and wants to turn it into a business? Is the idea the thing, or is it the execution of that idea that matters most?

Oh, it's absolutely execution. I mean, one of the things I've always found, especially with Kiwis, they'll hear about what you're doing, and then they'll say, "Hey, I've just had this idea. If you just do this one other thing, you could open up this whole new market," and what I've found is that, the market's big enough as it is, I don't need more ideas. I need to execute on the ideas I've already got. You have 100 ideas every morning before breakfast. Actually, you need the one, and you need the thing that you're actually going to get across the line.

The one piece of advice I would have for people who want to do this, is first of all, count the cost. Don't jump into it naively, and we all do, but it's tough. Be prepared to go the distance. It's not a lottery ticket, it's not a goldmine, it's not going to work in 3 years, it's probably not going to work in 5 years, but with persistence and determination, and smarts, and getting the right people around you, and really, really, if you believe in what you're doing, and you have to believe in yourself, because what you're doing will change over the course of the business, it always moves and navigates. It's like a river. It goes around corners, and gets some rapids, and the odd waterfall that you career off the side of, and those sorts of things, but if you believe in yourself, you'll get there in the end, so that's my experience.

Maybe to finish off, what's with the name? Are you a Bruno Lawrence fan?

I couldn't tell you how many times I've been asked that. Yes, but actually, that's not where the name came from, and we're spelled slightly different. It's e-r.

Yes, startups do need to have strange names. They're all taken, aren't they? A lot of the time.

Yeah. We had a product called "Alerter," and this was about business alerting, so Blerter came out from that, but actually, it was one of my co-founders, I think, and a large bottle of cognac that actually settled on the ...

How the best ideas for businesses start.

Absolutely.

Excellent, thank you very much, Richard.

Thank you. Awesome.