Business Technology

Tuesday 22 October 2019

'The fight is everything' - BriteBill founder is back for round two

Entrepreneur Alan Coleman sold his last firm for more than €60m. Now he's ready for a repeat performance with Sweepr, a startup that aims to fix our smarthome problems. He tells Adrian Weckler why

Cleaning up: Alan Coleman hopes Sweepr will attract electronics, tech and appliance firms. Photo: Adrian Weckler
Cleaning up: Alan Coleman hopes Sweepr will attract electronics, tech and appliance firms. Photo: Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler technology editor

Alan Coleman has a leaky fridge. It wrecks his head. "The water constantly pools at the bottom of the fridge and then freezes," he says.

"Then every so often, I pull open the bottom drawer and it splashes all over the floor."

Every month he promises he'll address it. But then he doesn't bother. "I'd have to go look up some manual," he says.

So, like 90pc of the rest of us, he just leaves it as it nags away at him in the background. "What I found myself wishing for was some way of asking Alexa or Google to diagnose or fix it," he says.

A year into this Good Life disruption, he has a new company for everyone who might have a leaky fridge. Or a misfiring wifi router. Or a play-acting smart telly. Or any of the other plethora of semi-smart devices we now have in our homes, which sometimes don't work as they're supposed to.

His company is called Sweepr and it aims to do for smart devices what Coleman's last company, BriteBill, did for telecoms operators.

That firm reinvented billing software for the world's biggest telcos, cutting out whole chunks of the wasteful, manual processes that were attached to delivering and resolving mobile and telecom bills. It was big success for Coleman, who sold it in 2016 to the multinational firm Amdocs for over €60m.

Sweepr, says Coleman, aims to be a new platform that big tech and home appliance companies use to sort out technical problems in a much quicker and more accessible way for ordinary people.

"Say you're watching a show on Netflix and it starts glitching," says Coleman.

"Today, the average person has to pick up the phone to their ISP and wait in line to talk to an agent. You're getting angry. "Eventually you get to talk to somebody and they look at it. They do what they can, but may not be able to resolve it. So now you may need to talk to somebody else. And then you're 30 or 40 minutes into a journey. It's really poor."

Sweepr, he says, will be able to shortcut a lot of this.

"We looked at this problem and thought that, as we're at a point now where technology has progressed, there has to be a better way of doing it. Because not only is that an awful customer experience for the homeowner, it is a prohibitively expensive one for the provider.

"And the number of times that we require help is increasing. And the economics to support that availability of agents in call centres simply isn't there."

Sweepr, Coleman says, will look at the diagnostics across your home. It will also examine the "overall connectedness" of your home, including your wifi and various devices.

"So in this scenario, what we'll do is say 'hey Adrian, are you watching Netflix on your TV in the living room, or the TV in the kitchen?' And then we'll test that TV for its connectedness to the router and then the router itself. And we'll look at the various measures of the performance of the network to see if you have enough bandwidth, the right levels of latency and so on.

"The answer might be for us to come back and say, 'hey Adrian, it seems like Netflix is having a problem with our servers at the moment'. Or we might say 'two or three other people in your home are trying to stream on devices at the same time' so that maybe you can decide which stream to prioritise.

"And then Sweepr can take a number of actions. Like it will know whether there's the capacity to make a change on your router, or to make an adjustment or a prioritisation so that you get to watch your show uninterrupted.

"Or maybe it's explaining that your wifi isn't strong enough to reach through the walls you have or that your TV is too far away. It might even offer to upgrade your service."

Thanks to advances in voice technology, the platform should also do this using voice technology, possibly through an Amazon Echo or Google Home speaker.

Sweepr, then, is something that Coleman hopes to entice the big electronics, appliance and tech companies with. According to his model, they would license or buy it and use it in a trouble-shooting or customer support scenario. Coleman is already in early discussions with some of the largest home appliance companies about deployment of the technology.

Other than his own cash, industry sources say that Dan and Linda Kiely, the Cork-based entrepreneurs who sold their call centre technology firm Voxpro to the Canadian company Telus International for a reported €150m, are also participating in an early funding round for Sweepr.

Aside from being frustrated with having a leaky fridge, why does Coleman want to head back in the world of creating a startup from scratch? "It's about getting a real kick out of seeing a problem and then affecting change," he says.

"For example, with Britebill, the economics of [customer] support and how much it costs was eye-watering. It made me understand how expensive it is to employ thousands upon thousands of people in call centres, many of whom are doing very repetitive jobs, answering the same questions.

"One of our clients used to spend $500m a year answering questions from customers about their bill. They had 28 million customers. What we discovered was that when we redesigned their bill to make it more user-friendly and intuitive, we were able to reduce that volume in the first year by 15pc. That opened my eyes."

There's also a 'why not me' factor to it all, he says. "Once I have an idea in my mind that this is inevitably going to be the way in which the world works, I then think, 'why couldn't I do that? Why shouldn't it be me that starts the path to that inevitable outcome?' I'm an extreme optimist."

But why a startup? Why not within the safer, less manic infrastructure of an existing, well-funded company?

After all, Coleman has tasted that world, too. He worked for seven years in Accenture, structuring commercial deals between IT suppliers and Accenture's clients. He also worked for a spell as a business analyst at the banking giant, Morgan Stanley.

"There's an enjoyment out of taking something that is literally a fleeting thought and building it up into a working company," he says.

"It's the struggle, the fight. It's pulling together the most talented people to do their respective jobs and having that team become greater than the sum of their parts. And then, yes, attracting the capital and all the mechanics to go into building it.

"There are lots of good ideas out there. But the execution is fraught, it's really hard. There's a lot that's stacked against you."

But Coleman also knows when to cash in his hand.

Having grown his last business, Britebill, into a force within the telecoms industry, he took a cold, hard look at what he might get out of it in future.

He decided to sell in 2016 for over €60m to the Israeli multinational firm, Amdocs. At the time, it was processing over 25 million individual bills - worth almost €5bn - for telecom operators.

"At that point, I thought we had done as much as we could in the market we were in," he says.

"There was a huge execution risk of us taking what we did really successfully in the telecommunications market into any other market. So I had to ask the question, do we take what's a very decent and generous offer for the value we've created today? Or do we not take that and roll the dice again, to see if we can repeat the trick in a different vertical?"

Coleman also had to take into account the views of BriteBill's shareholders, who favoured a guaranteed return on their investment.

"But I was fully supportive of that decision," he says. "Every company has a life cycle and not every company will be a billion-dollar unicorn.

"When you're building a business, you have to understand what its life cycle is.

"If you do, you'll make the right decision at the right time for where that company should go."

If it all goes to plan with Sweepr, Coleman soon won't need to look up a manual or dial a call-centre when his fridge leaks water again. He'll simply ask out loud, maybe using his Amazon Echo.

"Roughly 50pc of homes in the US now have a voice agent of some type," he says. "Manufacturers are embedding those agents into everything. It's on track to be the fastest-adopted consumer technology ever.

"The goal here is to help non-technical people in an increasingly complex and technical home. We're moving past a time when it's mainly technically competent people who make proactive decisions to buy connected goods. We're now coming into a phase where it's everyone."

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