“If you had one shot…to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment would you capture it? Do not miss your chance… this opportunity comes once in a lifetime,” sang Eminem. It’s advice that can be applied to many situations in life, but rarely is your future either made or broken by a chance 30-second chat with a stranger you’ve accosted. Especially when that stranger is Boris Johnson, the then London Mayor, who has no idea who you are or why you’re talking to him.
Yet that was the scenario faced by entrepreneur Richard Corbett, founder of Eyetease, in March 2014 as he tried to overcome a roadblock that looked likely to derail everything he’d worked for and invested in over the past four years.
Rewind to 2010 and Richard was just starting out on his quest to put digital advertising hardware on top of London taxis. Cabs in the US had displayed ads on their roofs for decades – simply double-sided prints in lit clear boxes. It was inevitable these would eventually be replaced with digital displays, thought Richard, yet at the time no one had managed it successfully. A digital system would (in theory) do away with high cost and long lead times associated with printing and manual artwork changes. It would allow swift remote changes of creative messages from a computer to each taxi via wireless connectivity, and potentially be able to change adverts based on time and location. This could mean that, wherever there is a street there would be an opportunity for taxis to advertise the right message, to the right people, at the right place, at the right time. And that, knew Richard, would revolutionise the industry. And so his mission began.
“When I came up with the idea after walking around New York and seeing the taxis there, I felt I had no choice – I had to make it happen,” says Richard. “I’d already come up with a few business ideas that I hadn’t had the courage to act upon; ideas that later flourished in the hands of others. I didn’t want that to happen again. But it was necessity more than anything that drove me forward. I was out of a job and I hadn’t found my niche in any of the organisations I’d previously worked for. I would often annoy my managers because I’d be able to see things they didn’t, and I’d tell them, which didn’t tend to go down too well!”
All guns blazing and with nothing to lose, following a recession-related redundancy, Richard began calling some of the biggest taxi media companies in the world; one being Verifone Media in Silicon Valley. They told him that they would be excited if someone could successfully create digital rooftop hardware. Their excitement fueled Richard’s fire. “Validation is so important when you’re launching a business,” he says. “You have precious little money and you need it to go as far as possible, so you need the confidence to answer those niggling questions. ‘Am I putting my cash in the right place? Have I missed a trick?’ Verifone’s comments were critical and they provided me with the validation that I needed to make this new concept a reality.”
After masses of hard work, numerous challenges, including a run-in with a shyster of a supplier, and tens of thousands of pounds put up by friends and family, Richard had a working prototype. In late 2010, he contacted Transport for London (TfL) with the aim of rolling out the hardware to London’s fleet of black cabs.
Richard says: “We were lucky because TfL had new management at the helm who were open to new ideas. That said, this is an organisation that still adheres to Victorian legislation: for example, a black cab’s height is still based on the premise that a gentleman can wear his top hat inside the vehicle! When I considered those traditions, it started to feel like mission impossible for me to dream of putting something as revolutionary as a digital screen on top of one.” Yet such was Richard’s belief in his idea and his product that he had to continue.
So he carried out expensive tests – one costing £45,000 – to prove to TfL that the hardware was safe for vehicles, drivers, passengers and bystanders. Then TfL asked for yet more stringent tests including a five-unit trial with five London taxis from October 2013 to January 2014.
The bombshell followed soon after. “After the three-month trial, four years after stating to work with them, TfL said they did not want to progress with the approval process,” recalls Richard. “The reason they gave was that they didn’t want to change the shape of the iconic London cab.
“It was like the whole world had fallen apart. I’d put £150k of my parents’ money into the business. This was my Dad’s retirement fund – he’d believed in me. I couldn’t let it happen – it was awful. But I had no influence, no contacts and no money to get lawyers involved. I was living in a one-room flat – my whole world was in the business. And without it, I was lost”
Richard had to think hard because after such a grueling journey and with the product so close to being ready, failure was simply not an option. A sliver of a plan soon emerged – desperate times call for desperate measures. He explains: “I found out where Boris Johnson [then London Mayor] was talking in March 2014. I got together three of the trial cabs, put ‘We love Boris’ on my taxi ad tops and lined them up on the Old Street roundabout outside the venue where Boris was speaking. When he came out, I grabbed him and said, ‘Boris, can I please borrow just 30 seconds of your time? I want to show you something.’
“I remember his PA saying, ‘We can’t do this, it’s unplanned, it’s not part of the schedule’. But I begged – it was a horrible thing to have to do – but thankfully Boris came over to see the cabs. I gave him the 30-second elevator pitch of my life. My whole life depended on those few precious seconds. I told him about the iTaxitop: it was going to change London and make more money for drivers, and I explained we were a British start-up and the first in the world to make this product. Finally, I told him that we had a big buyer – Verifone Media – on board if we could make it work. All the while his PA who was stood next to him, was pulling him away and giving me what can only be described as a death stare. But I had to keep going. It was my last chance.”
At the end of his adrenalized pitch, Richard recalls Boris saying: “I think it’s bloody marvellous; what do you want me to do about it?” To which Richard quickly explained the bottleneck at TfL. Boris then asked Richard to leave it with him, he put his helmet on, jumped on his bike and cycled off into the distance.
Two weeks later, Richard received a letter from Boris explaining that he thought Richard’s product was a great example of British design and engineering and that a way forward had been agreed.
And sure enough, the following day TfL called to invite Richard to a meeting to agree next steps. The height of Richard’s hardware needed to be reduced, but the ultimate result was a $4m dollar deal with Verifone Media, signed on May 16, 2014. Richard and his company Eyetease Media are now the biggest manufacturers of digital taxi ad hardware in the world.
“Don’t miss your opportunity…When your chance comes along, just grab it…” is a piece of advice that Richard Corbett left us with. This is advice that he, himself, has definitively heeded. And it’s all down to his dream, desire and determination. Plus a little help, of course, from Boris…