Boole start-up of the week: CityBcon

1 Jun 2015

Karin O'Brien and John Fleming, founders of CityBcon

Our start-up of the week is CityBcon, a mobile app that provides small and medium-sized retailers with a new mobile sales channel.

CityBcon was a recent participant in the Accenture FinTech Innovation Lab.

The app allows retailers to reach their customers with targeted promotions and offers and to carry out transactions on smartphones (iOS and Android).

“Most small retailers won’t have a native presence on smartphones. With CityBcon, they can,” explained co-founder John Fleming.

The market

“Our focus is on the SME high-street retailer who currently face many challenges — in particular massive and growing competition from online stores,” Fleming said.

“Online sales are growing at a rate of 16pc per annum in comparison to high-street sales growth of 3pc per annum.

“However, the majority of SME retailers have no plans to release mobile apps due to cost, complexity of development, and volume download challenges.”

In the meantime, Irish consumers are avid smartphone users, with Comreg reporting that mobile data usage has grown by 75pc among smartphone users over the last 12 months.

“Customers are increasingly using their mobile device to spend money, with mobile commerce increasing at three times the rate of online spend.

“And with online spend here in Ireland at €6bn, the importance of this trend towards mobile and the magnitude of the mobile commerce market is clear.

“CityBcon ensures that the SME retailer does not remain invisible to its consumers by giving retail partners a presence on our mobile platform,” Fleming said.

The founders

CEO John Fleming co-founded Orbism, a middleware consulting business, in the late 1990s, which he ran for a number of years.  However, that business was naturally different to CityBcon – as building, marketing and selling a “product” can differ to a “service”.

With this in mind, he completed a product management programme at DIT and firmly believes he would have failed many times over without it.

Karin O’Brien joined CityBcon as marketing manager having held a number of roles in channel sales and corporate account management in the telecoms industry for the last 15 years. She has recently completed a B.Sc in Digital Technology and Design with DIT.

The technology

CityBcon’s technology is built around five pillars: content, beacon detection, analytics, messaging and payment.

“The content is curated in-house and is of the highest quality, including high-resolution photography, as this greatly defines the user experience,” Fleming said.

“Beacon detection is core to our value proposition to both retailers and users, providing spontaneous, context-driven content. We’re working with LocalSocial and Aplix in this area.”

He said the beacons do more than provide context. “They are the backbone of our analytics system, which is developed on IBM Watson Analytics.

“The beacon locations are tied to brands in our content management system, which helps us develop user profiles. We further develop user insight through social media integration. Layered on top of this is the messaging system, which only communicates with users about brands (and businesses) they love. We’re using another IBM product in this area.  Finally payment, which is to be confirmed shortly, is likely to be via FEXCO’s mobile payments solution.”

He said all of this technology is largely hidden from the retailer and user.

“The retailer can work with us via email, we do the rest. For the user, they just get a great experience that they can control.

“A key innovation for us is building a list of loyal customers for our merchant partners. Once a user has been on the app for a few minutes, we note this via the beacon and add this person to that store’s CityBcon fan list, essentially building a marketing list for subsequent targeted communication. These footfall additions are then combined with the users’ social media brand and store likes, creating a 360-degree view of the users’ shopping habits.”

Digitising the high street

Fleming said the goal is to make a difference on the high street, “giving powerful native mobile solutions to retailers of all sizes while building a shopping experience that users fall in love with. And to do that around the world, via partners. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?”

CityBcon has more than 20 beacon sites live across Dublin, including retail, restaurants and hotels.

“We’re currently in discussions with a variety of partners about building very large scale deployments. We’ve just completed the Accenture Fintech Innovation Lab and validated our proposition with FEXCO, AIB, PayPal, Realex Payments and others.

“The IBM Global Entrepreneur Programme is helping us build product, and Google Adopt-a-Start-up is great for thinking of solutions at scale. There are challenges of course, but we’re operating in a very large market and have a strong product/market fit, so we’re optimistic.

“Funding is always a consideration, but right now we are ‘heads down’ on building the business.”

CityBcon’s journey to where it is now has not been a straight road, Fleming concedes.

“We had to work out how to really demonstrate value to retailers and so introduced beacons into our product.

“Working out how to scale is hard, and building trusted partnerships takes time. We funded this ourselves with some help from Enterprise Ireland. It is our firm belief that a start-up is a series of failures, culminating, hopefully, in success.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years