Julie Grieve
Julie Grieve

Interview: Julie Grieve, CEO and Founder of Information Apps

When did you launch the company?

We launched in December 2016 with a 3-month free trial

What does your company do?

Information Apps has built and now sells software on subscription called Criton. Criton allows hospitality accommodation providers to publish their guest information book into a branded app.

We all know that feeling of when we arrive at a hotel or AirBnb not knowing quite how to find it, the best things to do around it or even just how to switch on the hot water, or operate the cooker. Even with the most proactive systems and easy to use appliances, sometimes the guest struggles. A 30 second video accessed via the accommodation’s app solves the problem instantly.

I’ve built Criton for the hospitality sector based on my experience of running an accommodation business but also owning and renting out a holiday home.

Criton is the UK’s first self-build ‘digital concierge’ app and it is ideal for today’s tech savvy traveller. It provides the who, what, where, when and how about a place to stay via a bespoke mobile app. It can be up-dated at any time and is very user friendly, capable of incorporating instruction videos on how to use appliances and directions through to contact details and information on and links to nearby restaurants and attractions for a flawless customer experience. Areas of the app can also be padlocked for additional security.

It taps into the growing trend for an authentic travel or holiday experience. Who better to tell you about a place than the people who live there? Technology is an increasingly important part of the customer experience and we are bringing together local knowledge and information and delivering it through the phone, or mobile device, that everyone carries with them.

Why did you launch the company?

It’s been my ambition for as long as I can remember to have my own business (I blame my parents who have been mostly self employed!), I had lots of ideas but none that I thought had the potential to be a sustainable business. Having worked as MD for Abbey Business Centres and more recently as CEO for Lateral City, I felt ready to start up my own business. As the former, I helped grow Abbey and guided it through its sale to Regus; as the latter, I had launched a portfolio of luxury serviced apartments. Having seen the business process from start to finish, I felt ready – and driven – to do it for myself.

When I moved into the hospitality sector I could see how technology was changing the travel industry and wanted to be part of this wave of new development. Travellers are becoming increasingly tech savvy and the industry has been slow to catch up with the new consumer behaviour of the millennials. I believed that there was an opportunity and decided to go for it.

 

What is your background?

Prior to setting up Information Apps, I was CEO of Lateral City, which operates luxury serviced apartments Old Town Chambers and Merchiston Residence in Edinburgh. I was brought in to establish the business, set up all the business processes, launch Old Town Chambers and make the company ready for growth.

Before that, I was MD of Abbey Business Centres, a serviced office business with 13 locations in the UK, I became MD in 2004 when the business was really struggling and saw the company through to its successful acquisition by Regus.

I am a generalist or jack of all trades; do they say master of none? I enjoy all aspects of business but my default is sales, how are we getting this to market, who will buy this?

I have also been a business mentor for many years, working with start-ups through Scottish Enterprise, Princes Scottish Youth Business Trust (as it was then) and Young Edge. I love mentoring, I get so much out of it.

 

Tell us about your target market – Who is buying your product / service?

We have a growing base of customers across all segments in the hospitality sector including hotels, serviced apartments, Airbnb hosts, self-catering operators, B&B’s and a barge. Criton at its most basic works for small operators looking to digitise their guest information.

In terms of hotels we are now working with several partners to add to the serviced we can offer including messaging services and location based marketing services, the possibilities are endless to be honest, it’s very exciting.

What startup process did you go through?

I kicked off looking for a technical co-founder, but didn’t really know any techies and so eventually I recruited a developer who started in June 2016 and then another in July 2016. In the run up to launch I received a lot of support from Scottish Enterprise, helping me to flesh out the idea and understand the competitive market place, as well as working with me on the strategy. I was also fortunate to win an Innovation Award from Scottish Enterprise, which has supported the launch.

Working out of Codebase has also been a tremendous help. The other companies here are happy to help each other and I picked the brains of a lot of successful people, all of whom are generous with their time and advice.

What process have you gone through to get to where you are now since startup?

A lot of hard work attending exhibitions and hospitality conferences, building our networks and reaching out to the target audience through face-to- face meetings, PR, social media and email marketing.

What are your plans from now to grow the business?

We are hiring a sales exec to give me much needed support and continually developing the offering to ensure we stay ahead. We are also starting to get guest feedback which is invaluable to let us continue to innovate to meet the expectations of the tech savvy traveller.

We are working on multilingual and door access as well as other developments, so it’s very exciting.

As well as the messaging and geo fencing we are looking at integrating all sorts of technology into the product, no guest will download two apps for one accommodation so ours allows plug ins which improve the overall guest experience.

What are your goals for your business?

The first target is to secure 5% of the hotel, serviced apartment and holiday home market in the UK over the next three years. I want to capitalise on our first mover advantage and want to take the product overseas. To do that I am currently seeking new investment.

Did you get any start up support?

Scottish Enterprise provided both financial support in the form of an innovation grant and support through advice. Funding is important but I’ve also been fortunate to have a couple of great mentors, for example being able to bounce ideas of Peter Lederer who knows this industry inside out has been invaluable.

Are you getting any growth support?

I am currently on the SE Growth Pipeline until early next year at which point I hope we will make it onto the account managed programme with SE. I am also currently in the process of raising further investment to help us move to the next stage.

Have you ever entered any competitions?

Yes we got through to the semi-final of Scottish Edge, next time I am optimistic we will get some funding. We were also a finalist in Scot Hot and recognised in the recent 101 Rising Stars in Tech by Business Cloud.

What kind of research did you do into the market?

Extensive and it’s ongoing. When I first had the idea it was focused on self-catering properties and getting a handle on the size of that market was tricky, it’s growing at such a pace. Fortunately we have access to research from Scottish Enterprise and there are good statistics available on the tourism industry and the behaviour and expectations of travellers.

Beyond that I read a lot of industry news from Skift for example.

What are the three main challenges you’ve faced so far?

Well finding the right people must be the biggest challenge and that will continue. To be honest I think that is always the case irrespective of the industry, it’s the people that make a business, techie or not. However in this situation, I am a non-techie CEO and so I need good communicators in the team so we can ensure the product develops as planned; so being a non tech is maybe number 2, although I am determined to remain the customer champion, if I can’t use it its unlikely to fly.

The final challenge is development. I have so many ideas of what to add to the product, but we have limited resources. It does mean we are very focused on what our customers are asking for, so challenging but by no means a bad thing!

Have you ever had to pivot or change direction?

In a small way when I realised this would work for hotels and not just self-catering.

Have you ever approached a mentor or business leader for advice?

Yes, all the time! I find it really interesting to hear other people’s thoughts and feedback, although of course ultimately you have to make your own mind up!

I’ve also been fortunate to have a couple of great mentors, for example being able to bounce ideas of Peter Lederer who knows this industry inside out has been invaluable.

Having been a mentor for years through Scottish Enterprise and PSYBT I believe mentoring has a hugely important role. In fact one of my mentees, Robin Knox of Intelligent POS is now reverse mentoring me, it’s super useful.

Who inspires you?

I know so many inspirational people, it would be hard to list them all here. My parents who went through several knocks in their entrepreneurial journey and survived. My friend Linda Urquhart OBE, who was CEO and then Chair of Morton Fraser and now has a portfolio of non execs including Edinburgh Airport, Adams Bank and Investors in People. She has properly shaken the tree in the legal profession and the wider business community.

Another friend Jacqui Low, Exec Chair of Indigo PR and Board Director of Patrick Thistle, another tree shaker, forging a hugely successful career and then building a business and then taking those skills into charities and the world of football.

Robin Knox who started IntelligentPOS with Paul Walton and sold it recently to iZettle, Leah Hutcheon of Appointedd, Callum Murray of Amiqus, Patrick Clover all of whom are growing amazing businesses right here in Edinburgh, the list goes on.

In terms of people I haven’t met it’s great to have Gareth Williams and the Skyscanner team in Edinburgh, having watched their journey from afar that is such an inspiration. Generally, I admire people who go their own way, sorry it’s a bit Fleetwood Mac, but it’s true!

What startup lessons would you like to pass on?

1. I would have run our beta test with less people and spent more time with the potential customers who were testing.

2. Don’t make lots of changes just for one customer

3. Your product will not be for everyone!

How can the Scottish startup/entrepreneur landscape be improved to help more businesses start up and grow?

The eco system is strong and interconnected now. I would say that access to capital would make a huge difference. I spoke to an American VC recently and he couldn’t believe how poorly funded our start-ups are. When you look at some of our start-ups in their infancy taking on similar businesses generally in the States and funded sometimes 20 times more, you realise why they are successful. You need to get to market quickly to gain market share.

Bootstrapping is of course an important element for many businesses and raising capital isn’t for everyone, however for those with global aspirations the money will often bring board strength and experience which is so important as you scale.

One final thing, Scottish Enterprise is focused and that’s good, but the form filling is very painful and so I would vote for a way to streamline that to make it easier for time poor founders.