In this week’s Founder Feature, we’re talking to former serviceman in the British Army, serial entrepreneur and Co-founder of Tillo, Alex Preece.
Nightmare after nightmare, Preece did not back down. From bad hires to bankruptcy he soldiered on, launching the UK’s first daily deal site, which went on to sell for millions only eight months after launching.
Now, Alex has set his sights on a building a successful new empire; a global SaaS platform making it super simple for reward, incentive and perks businesses to get gift cards, instantly.
Read more about Alex’s remarkable journey in the interview below.
Q: Could you tell us about your company and what you’re striving to achieve?
A: Tillo is a global SaaS platform making it super simple for reward, incentive and perks businesses to get gift cards, instantly. We’re building a single software solution to help businesses reach and acquire their customers with instant offers and incentives.
For example Employee benefit and reward businesses use our technology to instantly access 1k+ brands globally for all their corporate clients’ employees, offering perks and rewards.
More recently the government’s free school meals initiative saw our technology to deliver 1.3m families a week with gift cards to spend in a range of supermarkets. Our infrastructure was used to deliver these gift cards in real-time to the people who needed them most.
We’re striving to simplify the buying process globally and to open up even more use cases for rewards and incentives for our brands.
Q: What made you decide to take on the challenge of founding your business?
A: Like a lot of businesses that start, we stumbled into it after trying to offer gift cards in a mobile payment app and we saw how difficult it was to get everything set up for our customers in another business. The gift card industry is dominated by a few old incumbents, and was ripe for disruption, it is a huge market expected to hit $2tn globally.
The industry is very fragmented and fraught with lots of processes and manual dealings with spreadsheets offering very poor and often lengthy delays for customers waiting for their rewards/incentives. When we looked at it 4 years ago we saw an opportunity to make things more open and simple for the businesses and brands that work in this industry.
We wanted to create the underlying infrastructure for these businesses to take advantage of. Like Visa and Mastercard have done for banks and Stripe for payments, we wanted to do the same for this incentive and reward space
Q: Who are you and what is your story?
A: I have a bit of an odd background – I left school and immediately joined the Army at 16 years old to jump out of planes and shoot guns. After two operational tours of Bosnia and Iraq I decided to leave and find my way in business. At 22 I personally went bankrupt starting my first business but later sold it to seek opportunities in SEO and finance in Brighton and Hove.
It was at a comparison website where my business partner and I then came across a fast-growing business called Groupon and we decided to leave and set up the UK’s first daily-deal business. Timing and execution were something we got just right here as we later sold that business in a transaction worth £11m only 8 months after we started the business. Scaling that business was a real eye-opener, I learnt so much from that business, it has helped so much in starting Tillo and growing this business.
Q: Tell us about some of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome?
A: I personally went bankrupt at 22 years old and could have easily given up. I feel as if we’ve gone through it all with Tillo though, from nightmare fundraising stories, to being sued, right the way through to hiring and firing – you just can’t take these things too seriously. Being sued is obviously very serious, but it’s not going to kill you. That’s the way I look at most things, in a bizarre way!
With Tillo though, building a two-sided marketplace business is super hard. You start with a chicken and egg scenario. You need brands to show value to your partners, but have none, and your brands want sales via your partners, but you have none. It’s about creating value for both sides and finding that tipping point fast. Luckily with Tillo we found value to offer both sides after a lot of hard work. Once you show this value it becomes a very strong and robust business that you can scale.
I’d also say finding good trustworthy people is another, this is super hard in fact. We’ve made some very bad hires in the past who made even worse recommendations. In the early days I’d say this can nearly kill a business or massively hamper it’s growth. We’ve been lucky though that although some of the poor advice we got and later got rid of, we were able to use a core of very good people to help fix these issues and start afresh. Finding and keeping good people should be a CEOs top priority.
Q: What’s most exciting about your traction to date?
A: So many things, honestly. It’s fascinating helping so many businesses and in turn millions of customers with software where quite often the end customer has no idea they’re using us. It’s just part of a seamless transaction and experience.
We’re also fast growing in a recession and employing more and more people, that in turn are helping businesses not just in the UK but in many other countries reward and incentivise customers or employees for doing a great job. Never did we think our our software would be used in so many use cases. I feel proud and lucky to have started something with a team that share the same values.
Q: How are you measuring your success? What are your metrics?
A: The normal ones you expect, ARR, MRR, we are also hot on customer satisfaction and use tools to track this internally. We use our own tools to get this data but also Quicksight which is provided by Amazon. Operationally we stand out from our competitors offering the best tools and technology the industry has to offer.
We also track industry sales such as retail, supermarkets, travel, we can do this because of our large sales volumes that pass through our network. This gives us in-depth understanding on how our businesses consume our brands, using this it gives us very important data on how to offer the services we do to both sides of the network.
Q: What are your biggest threats?
A: Our biggest threats as I see them are our existing brands that depend on footfall or an entire industry such as travel in the new COVID world we’re operating in.
Brands that have the best online experience have done very well throughout the year but others have hit the wall. This is upsetting and we’ve had to mitigate this by bringing more brands on board that have a more resilient business model given the times we’re living in.
Q: What keeps you up at night/what are you paranoid about?
A: I don’t get paranoid but things on my mind are, like most of us, when can we get out and see our clients, face to face? We have no idea like most businesses in our situation and this does make me wonder how things will get back to normal and if they ever will be.
I think it’s so important in our industry to meet and collaborate even though it is a very large market, the industry itself is small. I’m conscious that potential new ways of presenting and selling in the long run could involve new tools trying to make the process more personal and different. That said, relationship-building face to face could become a luxury and/or worse, disappear altogether.
Q: Do you see yourself as an underdog?
A: We did yes and we used this to our advantage against the big US incumbents. Not anymore though, now we’re pioneering and leading the way in this industry and are referred to as the innovators.
Being the underdog helped us when we started Tillo but sooner or later you need to grow up and out of that. It’s hard though, naturally you have start-up roots and you want to keep them, but the bigger the team becomes, your culture changes, which is needed too, and before you know it you’re no longer a start-up but a “proper” business!
Q: How many hours of sleep do you get and what is your morning/evening routine?
A: I’m a massive believer, probably because of my military background, of routine. It helps with consistency in all aspects of my life. I try to get to bed for 22:00 but I often wake early to workout, pre-COVID this was 5am! Now there is no need so I normally get up around 5.45/6.15am. I train 6/7 times a week but I aim for the magic 8 hrs of sleep and at the weekend have a rest day. I leave my phone anywhere but my bedroom so as to not get distracted before bedtime. Working out is a big part of my life and I love all aspects of fitness like CrossFit, running, Oly lifting and now Peloton!
Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is key to progression and fitness is a great way to humble yourself
Q: How do you manage the duality between driving new business and overseeing daily operations?
A: It’s difficult. It’s key to have data so you know where to focus and prioritise, but we’re now at a point where bolstering our management team to help – so delegation comes in but also empowering our team to execute our vision so we can focus on the levers that move the business forward rather than treading water.
The key ultimately is having a kick ass team around you, this helps you focus on the things that matter leaving the day to day items to get picked up by your managers and other team members. It’s easy to get caught up in this though, especially if clients are used to dealing with you personally. Sometimes you just need to say NO!
Q: How far are you willing to go to see your idea become a success?
A: My business partner and I haven’t just raised other people’s money to prove our business, we have also put a lot of our own money in too, so failure isn’t an option. That said, we’re a long way past the will it/won’t it work phase; we’re now in the growth phase of our business – so just a different set of challenges.
Q: What has surprised you in your journey so far?
A: Seeing our technology being used in such a public large scale way with the free school meals showed us all at Tillo how much we’ve come on as a business. We never set up Tillo with this sort of project in mind, but it goes to show if you make things work for the better then the opportunities are limitless.
Things do take longer than you think, it’s just the way it is.
Q: What are your goals over the next 1, 3, 6 and 12 months?
A: In the short term we are expecting to batten the hatches for our busiest season, we hope all our high street brands weather this Covid era and continue to find ways to reach customers but also evolve with them. We have high aspirations and as such are continually looking to sustain our high growth with “moonshot” projects that challenge the status quo. That said as I mentioned it’s imperative to support our clients during this very difficult time – not just that it’s essential we all help each other during this time so we can continue business for the long term.
Q: Do you have a plan B if your venture isn’t successful?
A: Put bluntly, no – Tillo is our only focus and although very few businesses are risk-free, ours is out of the woods and we’re growing very fast making the failure risk now very small. We’re just putting plans in place to ensure we can continue our growth for the years to come. Failure isn’t an option!
Q: Can you tell us who your mentors and heroes are, and what impact they’ve had on you?
A: In terms of heroes, my grandad was always someone I looked up to. I joined the Army because of him, he’s such an open minded man who is so humble and down to earth but also is always learning new things which I think is quite unusual for an 83yr old.
I genuinely don’t have many mentors and it’s something I’m working on for myself and business. That said, our business has Paul Forster who was the CEO and co-founder of the world’s biggest job site, Indeed.com, invested in our business very early on and is another person who we’re lucky enough to have to ping ideas off and get advice from. We also have Robert Dighero from Passion Capital but also the founders of Conviction Investment Partners on our board to help us.
In terms of heroes during my time in the Army, I’ve met many others too from veterans who have been seriously injured and pursue enormous challenges given their circumstances but also others looking to help people they’ve never met by doing the most incredible things like running around the UK in 200 days – 30 miles a day for 200 days! Paul Minter is his name and he really is a hero. He’s doing all this for mental health awareness specifically for veterans.
Q: Do you see this as UK centric or will you conquer the world by going global?
A: We started on that journey some time ago as we have clients in many countries. We see our service being used by many businesses no matter where they operate from. We’re proud to be based in Brighton but our services are being offered on a global level with many of our partners using our technology in over 26 countries.
Obviously there are challenges with this but this business is doing great things not just in the UK but in other countries around the world.
Q: What was missing from your business plan (be honest)?
A: When pioneering Tillo in the early days this industry lacked clarity and openness. We tried very hard to work out how to charge for our services and this evolved over time. Our pricing as I said evolved a lot in the early days, probably the first year – that said after our first 12mths it became clear what value we were bringing to the industry. We started high and came down to a level where we gained confidence and traction!
To also be honest, we didn’t even have a plan, we just had nicely designed packs and plenty of energy and passion to get the job done!
Q: What’s one piece of advice you’d give to budding innovators taking the same journey?
A: Be honest to yourself, customers and employees – being trustworthy goes a very long way. People buy from people as we know, and it’s important that if you truly are solving a problem or selling something that has real value it’ll shine through and although the journey will no doubt be hard, you’ll succeed.
Learn more about Alex Preece and Tillo here: www.tillo.io