The harbour pilot who got involved in 'the business of first impressions'
- 26 June, 2018 07:15
We help our customers nail that crucial first impression
Hadleigh Ford was supervising the building of a superyacht in Bremen, Germany, when he noticed an incongruence between the surroundings of the $100 million vessel and the way they register guests on board.
“It was a magnificent yacht that was outfitted opulently, but there was one thing that didn’t add up,” says Ford, who trained as an officer in the Merchant Navy and went to sea at age 17. “We still used a standard paper visitor book to register guests.”
“It didn’t take long for me to connect the dots, and realise that using an iPad would offer our guests a vastly better experience.”
“I let that idea sit and niggle away in the background for a few years, and in the meantime, I left that yacht and took a job as a harbour pilot back in New Zealand.”
He says harbour pilots in New Zealand generally work with a week on and off roster. He started SwipedOn during his time off.
Today, SwipedOn is a software as a service company based in Tauranga.
Its cloud-based iPad application provides a modern visitor management system which replaces paper visitor books.
“While we started out as a modern replacement for antiquated visitor books, we see many ways we can enhance the entire visitor experience and are looking forward to exploring that,” says Ford, who had to leave behind an extensive career in the maritime industry to become a tech entrepreneur and CEO of the software as a service provider.
He had worked on container ships, superyachts and cruise liners.
He founded SwipedOn in 2013, when he returned to New Zealand.
Two years ago, he launched the SwipedOn app, which is now used in over 2000 cities across the globe.
“While it may not be obvious, we’re primarily in the business of first impressions,” says Ford.
“Now, I know that tech businesses traditionally streamline existing processes and optimise what goes on behind the scenes,” he explains. “While we’re great at that, we go one step further and help our customers nail that crucial first impression as well.”
He and his team also focused on key issues faced by their customers across the globe.
“We’ve found that compliance is a huge challenge for most of our customers, especially in recent years and that these needs are rather regionalised,” he states.
“In Australasia and the UK, businesses are looking to increase overall OHS (Occupational Health and Safety) compliance, which our badge printing and agreement signing helps them achieve,” he says.
“Then there are our European clients, who are trying to improve their standard operating procedures and align themselves to the new GDPR policies.
“Indeed, maintaining a paper visitor book is now non-compliant with the latest regulation, which is really driving adoption for us,” he states.
“Last but not least, our customers in the United States find our NDAs and other security measures extremely useful given the litigious nature of the region.”
He says when they first launched SwipedOn, he encountered problems with visitors being unfamiliar with an iPad’s standard user interface. “In this day and age, this has more or less disappeared.”
He says the mandate for the team is to make the experience for users as seamless and intuitive as possible.
“With that in mind, we don’t profess to build an enterprise level product with one thousand features or overcomplicated workflows. We’re replacing visitor books, and we see the beauty in that simplicity,” he says.
“Among other things, we have a firm grasp on our market, and we’re 100 per cent able to deliver on the core features they expect.”
He sees no major setbacks for starting a business in the regional area, outside the main business centres of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
“We have a very defined set of company values - and we find that people who possess the same values generally want to work with us, enjoy Tauranga and its surroundings, so that works out nicely from a cultural perspective,” he says.
A challenge, he admits, was attracting technical talent due to the scarcity of skilled developers.
“Having said that, I wouldn’t say this is entirely due to our regional presence,” says Ford. “In fact, I’m certain that most technology companies in New Zealand face the same problem.”
“While the vast majority of our staff are based in Tauranga, we also have developers in Christchurch and sales members in South Africa and the United States.”
It’s fair to say geography is becoming less of an issue as the company expands, he says.
It was not uncommon for me to come home from piloting a ship, and start replying to customers’ emails in the middle of the night.
As a fast-growing SaaS company, our workforce can be anywhere, he points out.
“It just doesn’t make sense to box our employees into an area where the traffic is a nightmare and houses are frankly, unaffordable for most.”
Valuing what matters most
Before working on SwipedOn full-time, Ford was a harbour pilot for six years.
“I was guiding some of the largest vessels visiting New Zealand into a port that was designed over 100 years ago, with dimensions to match the sailing vessels of the era, not the behemoths of today!”
He says the work was both incredibly enjoyable and constantly challenging. He would be at work on a beautiful summer afternoon or at 3am in the middle of a winter storm.
“As a pilot, you have a large degree of responsibility and added to that, you run the risk of injuring yourself on a daily basis - boarding at sea, via a rope ladder,” he says on the nuances of the job.
“The master and crew that you work with often have limited English abilities, which presents another challenge as well.”
“After that, it became a matter of prioritising my time between my new venture, work and growing family,” he says.
It’s all well and good having a profitable business, but why not support other charitable organisations along the way?
“It was not uncommon for me to come home from piloting a ship, and start replying to customers’ emails in the middle of the night. After the adrenaline rush of pilotage, it was a nice way to unwind and relax.”
“While running a startup is an absolute roller coaster, it’s fair to say my journey has been mired more than others,” he adds.
In 2016, when the business was just starting out, Ford was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer with an incidence rate of one in a million people.
“I would have preferred Lotto with those odds!”
“Thankfully we already had great people in the business to help along the way, especially during my treatment and the subsequent recovery period,” he says.
This meant he could distance himself from the business operations and concentrate on his recovery. “With one meter of stitches after the surgery, that certainly was the sole priority at the time.”
He says these experiences greatly shaped him as a person, and also the values of the company.
“It really does put everything we are doing into perspective,” he says. “Work should never be at the detriment of both your health and time with your family.”
He says this is the reason why his company places value on work/life balance. “Not to mention, if a business treats its employees fairly, that goodwill is repaid in spades.”
He says that irrespective of his personal health experiences, he has always felt morally obliged to give back on a social level too.
Due to his recent health experience, he helps not for profit organisations targeting children battling cancer.
These include the Ronald McDonald House in New Zealand, the Children’s Hospital Foundation in Australia and the FedEx Family House in Memphis, United States.
We give them our software free of charge or link them up with organisations that may want to sponsor an iPad they can use, he says.
SwipedOn also plants a tree for every new customer.
“It’s all well and good having a profitable business,” says Ford, “but why not support other charitable organisations along the way? This is something I have always felt strongly about and we’re in the privileged position to be able to help, if even on a small basis globally.”
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