Entrepreneurship is not only about that great idea, it’s also about good timing and sacrifice as Bonnie Lawson-Brown recently reminded me. After more than a year away from the media, the military wife behind SilverIMP, a geo-fenced notification and data service, agreed to participate in a Startup Interview. We met up to chat about her big idea, the importance of patents, life as a businesswoman and military wife, and why entrepreneurship isn’t all plain sailing.
Bonnie has recommended that we meet in Black Medicine on a sunny morning in early June. She’s just arrived when I get there so has not yet had the time to order herself a coffee and gluten-free macaroon. She does so before taking a pew on one of the many wooden benches in the middle of the café. As she does so, she tells me a little bit about herself; “I’ve recently turned thirty-six, a number I didn’t quite believe was real until it happened,” Bonnie says with a laugh. “I’m a mum of two, wife of one, friend of many, confident of,” she pauses to think, “over the years, I’ve probably met thousands of people, but hand on heart, I have a very tight handful of great friends that I would call on.” I find this interesting because, so far, Bonnie has yet to mention her business. It’s an interesting insight into the thoughts and focus of an individual behind their entrepreneurial mask.
We’ve met before, albeit only briefly, at the Engage Invest Exploit conference now infamous as Scotland’s best showcase for tech startups, however, I have to admit that, from our brief encounter and my pre-interview research, I am none-the-wiser as to what it is that Bonnie does so I ask her to explain the idea behind SilverIMP. She explains that it all started with an idea to be able to “access instant media notifications via poster, video or a piece of text but only from businesses and brands that interest me.” At the time, Bonnie was taking an Open University course in Retail Marketing and Management in order to become a retail manager — “so I wouldn’t have bosses above me, I wanted to be a boss and have my own team,” she explains — and the idea came to mind as the course paid very little attention to digital marketing, focusing instead on television, radio and print. Not wanting to be distracted by countless campaigns adorning the high street windows, she felt that a digital application could better filter advertising for each individual. A few years on, a variant on her idea can now be seen in the likes of digital shopping applications, however, Bonnie’s vision for her innovation goes a lot further than simply being the latest means for advertisers to get at you.
“iBeacons are becoming very popular and well established and they aren’t something I want to try and compete with,” Bonnie tells me. “I still want people to be able to receive media and messaging dependent on their location, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be advertising.” She recalls how she was sat in Starbucks one day when her patent application for proximity media marketing came through and that she downloaded it out of excitement, not sparing a thought for who might be watching her internet movement. “I thought to myself, ‘what if that email had waited until I’d arrived back at home where I could use my own WiFi — which is private and secure — to download it to my device?‘” she says.
“I thought to myself, ‘what if that email had waited until I’d arrived back at home where I could use my own WiFi — which is private and secure — to download it to my device?’”
Over the next half hour, Bonnie describes the many alternatives for how her Intelligent Media Provisioning technology could be used, detailing everything from securing health records to students being paid to carry out ‘affiliate marketing’ style activities. It’s fascinating to imagine the countless applications to which her technology could be applied.
I ask Bonnie to tell me a little bit more about the value of her patent which is currently pending in both the United States and Europe. “I’m a person that likes to talk,” she says with a laugh. “I enjoy talking, I enjoy communicating. But I realised that I wouldn’t be able to talk about this thing unless I secured it.” But her patent does more than simply protect her from competition when it comes to her technology. It also gives her leverage when it comes to meeting with potential investors. “If you’re meeting with investors, IP is always going to come up. It’s no good just saying that you have a wonderful logo or a great piece of technology without protection,” she explains.
“So, given the length and costs of the patent process, would you encourage other entrepreneurs to patent their ideas?” I ask her. “If you believe in what you’ve got and you believe that you have something that could be very valuable in the future, it’s only right that you protect it,” she responds. Nevertheless, she emphasises that it isn’t a decision to take lightly. “My patents today have cost me twelve thousand pounds,” she warns. “I’ve sold two cars to pay for the patent — I sold my very sweet, beloved Fiat 500 and, just a few months ago, my husband sold his beloved Alfa Romeo.”
“If you believe in what you’ve got and you believe that you have something that could be very valuable in the future, it’s only right that you protect it.”
“And how will you use your patents in the future?” I ask. “There are two options,” Bonnie explains. The first, and arguably the best option, would be to develop the technology to a stage where she can sell licenses to use it to businesses. “I had some very interesting discussions last year with Orlando airport about how we could use Orlando airport as an affiliated marketing partner for the likes of Disneyworld and Orlando resort itself,” she says. “At the time, I hadn’t fully completed the technology to a point where I was willing to have them use it. I want to give them something that’s finished, not something that’s buggy because you only get one opportunity to make an impression.” The second option would be to sell her patent rights to another company who could finish the development of the technology and use it for their own purposes.
I change the subject; “so tell me a little bit about being a military wife and how that’s impacted your journey as an entrepreneur,” I ask. “Well firstly, I can’t sing, unless you find me in a pub at the end of the night,” she says with a laugh, referencing the now all-to-common association of the term ‘military wife’ with Gareth Malone’s TV sensation of a choir. Well, there goes my hope of an introduction! “Having said that, I do a cracking Mustang Sally at Karaoke when I’ve had a good few drinks. It’s a shouty one — not a singing song.” On a more serious note, however, she tells me of how, although she is incredibly proud to be a military wife, it was her desire to do something other than attend coffee meet-ups, etc that led her to start her own business. “Was there lots of support within the military for starting your own business?” I ask. “Not really,” she responds. “I’d like to set up my own charity, specifically for women like me because there was nothing for me at the beginning. There aren’t funds that help you set up your own business.” Bonnie stresses that many military wives run their own businesses, however, she has yet to meet any other military wives who run technology startups. “Generally their businesses focus around around the healthcare, beauty, childminding or cottage industries — so handmade products that they sell through their own website or social groups,” she tells me.
Something strikes me about her desire to set up a charity to support entrepreneurial military wives. During the course of our interview so far, Bonnie has mentioned on a number of occasions as to how she has attended entrepreneurship events targeted specifically at women (such as Business Gateway’s ‘Women in Business’ group) or how she was the only female entrepreneur in attendance at other events. As a result, I’m interested in gauging her opinion on whether she feels the entrepreneurial community in Scotland is too segregated or whether this segregation based on gender is necessary. “I think it’s not necessarily right,” she says hesitantly. “Everybody deserves support and everybody deserves advice so why, just because you’re a woman, should you get to go to this particular group?” Clearly concerned about taking her answer further, she pauses briefly before turning to defend her ‘Women in Business’ group; “the thing about Women in Business was that it was women like myself who were often at home as mums and wives and, like myself, had just started a business. The whole ethos was to provide a nurturing environment — a little bit ‘sisters together’ — and we supported each other in ways which men maybe wouldn’t,” she notes.
“Everybody deserves support and everybody deserves advice so why, just because you’re a woman, should you get to go to this particular group?”
— Bonnie Lawson-Brown, Founder of Silver IMP
I glance down at my watch, aware that I have another meeting to attend. We’ve been talking for an hour — the longest Startup Interview to date — but I realise I have yet to ask my classic question. “Are you an entrepreneur?” I ask. “Oh wow,” she says with a tone of surprise. “I suppose it depends on what you consider an entrepreneur to be.” I ask her what her definition of an ‘entrepreneur’ would be and she points towards the classical definition of an individual who recognises a need and acts to meet that need. Although Bonnie can easily be associated with this definition, she isn’t convinced. “My bio on the website doesn’t call me an entrepreneur,” she says. “I’m called an awesome businesswoman which, actually, I think is better. Because how long can you be an entrepreneur for?” I push her a little further on why she doesn’t associate herself with the term ‘entrepreneur’. “I don’t think I fit the description of an entrepreneur. The fact that I’m not a young teen or twenty-something, fresh from university — I’m not your Mark Zuckerberg am I,” she replies. This leaves me with a worrying thought as I leave our interview; have we really been blinded by the success of a few young Silicon Valley tech startups into thinking that nobody else can be successful as an entrepreneur anymore? It might be something to consider.