This week we speak to Jack Blundell, founder of RouteBuddies. RouteBuddies is a safety app that aims to empower local communities. While it is certainly an app for social good, RouteBuddies also has a commercial model built underneath it to ensure its longevity and success.
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HQ: Cardiff, Wales
Founders: 1 at the time of recording, now 3 co-founders
[Transcription auto generated, please let me know if any issues]
Rob: Welcome to Insider Stories from Wales in Tech. This week, I'm talking to Jack Blundell from RouteBuddies. Started while Jack was at university, RouteBuddies aims to make our streets safer.
Rob: Thank you, Jack, for agreeing to be part of Wales in Tech podcasts this week. First of all, we're going to start with the usual five questions. What is your company called and what does it do?
Jack: RouteBuddies is the name of our company. Thank you for having us, by the way. And we are the first safety app to allow people to actually help each other stay safe on the street. So, we're an app to find walking groups, to find running groups, and to share information with local members of your community.
Rob: Okay, so I think you've answered this question, would you then class yourself as B2C?
Jack: No, both B2C and B2B. B2C is a large part of this because obviously we need community members and a large part is the public. But B2B and the fact that we're going to universities, that we're going to councils to try and roll this out on a wider basis, that's where we see a lot of value.
Rob: Oh, cool. Okay. And so, what is this? Is this like a SaaS business? Is it a subscription model? Or is it premium or free or advertising supported?
Jack: Yeah, so we're definitely a freemium model. So, we really like being in the ethical space where we're providing value for free, but then we have the option to charge a little bit, not too much, because it's a safety app, to basically offer more social experience through the app, which is where we differ from other safety apps. We have that community and the social aspect in there. So, that's where we're planning to charge for a subscription.
Rob: Are you looking for investment, or have you bootstrapped so far?
Jack: So, we've bootstrapped so far, but we are looking to get investment on the table now, especially we're bringing somebody new into the team, somebody who's not a guy, not a white male, which is amazing. So, we're going to be looking for investment. [inaudible] bootstraps, which I'm very happy about.
Rob: Great. Okay. So, let's move on to basically who you are, where you come from, how you got to this point, why you started this business essentially.
Jack: Yeah, amazing. So, I mean, I'm a 23-year-old guy. I come from Cornwall. I come from quite an alcoholic family. So, I think that has always been a big driver to get the hell out of that and to get into a better situation. Coming to university, I was always passionate about making something huge, making the next Google, making the next Facebook, I had plenty of ideas about party apps. And that was where my life was at the time. And it really came down to the Sarah Eberhardt case and people sharing their experiences of harassment on the streets that really started to reframe my mind about, right, how can we make something to help here? So, all of that kind of culminated into me making this app and carrying on with it, getting a job and working on it on the side and hiring on until we got to this point now, which is nice.
Rob: If I take you back then, what did stage one look like? You know, you've had this idea, you want to solve a really pertinent problem in our society, hopefully drive to make it safer for people to walk home at night. But how did you get from that idea to actually putting pen to paper, developing an app, etc?
Jack: Yeah. So, I think the big thing was obsession. I became obsessed with this problem. Everybody I spoke to— I'm a guy, I don't experience problems. So, I would just speak to everybody, my girlfriend, her friends, her parents, my parents, my sisters about what could be something to solve it, which was very natural at the time, because everybody else was doing the same thing. People were setting up groups to help each other, different things within their family, WhatsApp released a live location. So, it was all very natural. And it was just really a big obsession. And the more I spoke to people, the more things started to click in place.
And somebody said one day, “well there's a WhatsApp group where people are walking each other home”. And I was like ding, that's it. That's a brilliant app idea. And then from there, it was really having to learn how to make the app. And you know, I knew how to make a website, but I had to go in and make the app. So, I could show you videos of the app a long time ago. But even then, it was a fraction of what it is now. And it was very insecure. And we had to— You know, I built part of the app, and I'd show somebody and they'd be like, “But I can see that woman's location”. And I'd be like, “Oh my gosh, yeah, that's terribly unsafe”.
Rob: Are you developing the app yourself then? Or were you?
Jack: Yeah, absolutely.
Rob: What was your degree in?
Jack: Applied Software Engineering from Cardiff University.
Rob: You said in your reply that you're a young white guy who hasn't really experienced this problem. Do you think as you've been doing this, it's kind of opened your eyes to all the different parts of society, perhaps not just young women, but also LGBT, or all manner of diverse groups who experience abuse on the streets?
Jack: Yeah, absolutely. It’s been the biggest eye-opening experience of my life. It’s not only on the one half where it's the problem and the people who experience it, but then the people who absolutely refute it, who say “It's not a problem, they dress up a certain way”. It's been very enlightening to see both halves of the spectrum. I think the more we've delved into it, the more we've spoken to our like customer base and our audience, different communities have different needs for safety. And that's been really enlightening. So, that's the big thing. You can talk to one person who says, “Yeah, I don't mind walking with guys home if they're safe”. And then you talk to other people who say the bipolar opposite. And that differs in each in each community. So, yeah, that's been very eye opening. Yeah.
Rob: Yeah. So, you— I've downloaded the app. And I'm aware that as a white male as well, and I'm six foot four, and perhaps look imposing, if you didn't know me, I'm aware, when I was signing up, do I— should I even do this, right? Like, who's— I would think I was safe walking someone home. But is there any point to this? So, how are you finding the people who are signing up? Are they mostly in your target group or diverse mix? And also tell me a little bit about how you check them? You know, how do you know that I am, “safe”?
Jack: So, yeah, the way we do this is, well, we're using TikTok, we're using Instagram to kind of pump this out to as many people as we can. But the big thing is safety, how do we check people are actually who they say they are. And we have that a lot when we speak to guys, like, what's the point of me going on? So, this was a big transformative thing. In terms of verification, we take a picture of your ID, we make sure that you take a selfie with your camera with your hand up. And we make sure that you verify your identity, that your details match as well. And we've had multiple guys sign up with like, bold heads saying that they're 19-year-old females. And It’s quite easy to spot out as well as fake IDs.
So, to actually access any of the parts of our app where you communicate with other people, you need to verify your identity. But that's been the biggest problem. How do we turn this into something that guys are going to feel like, “well, what's the point of me being on there?” to something where they feel like, “right, I need to be a part of this change”. And that kind of came from changing this from a “let's walk together” like an Uber app into a community app. So, now we're actually opening the door to having a men only community, a woman only community and a general community, which are already things we kind of have in there. But going down this community route, we hope that in the future we can also offer these communities to different minorities, different charities, to different areas, different universities, if that makes sense.
Rob: I like those safe spaces for these particular communities. Are they then just like forums, like discussion boards? Or like, are they basically like WhatsApp groups within the app? Or are they a mixture of different things like awareness campaigns?
Jack: Yeah, it's a bit of everything, really. I'd say we're going for is hyperlocal, either street information or hyperlocal requests. So, what does that mean? You have access to a feed where you'll be able to see people's requests for say, “I need a running buddy on Saturday. Can somebody come with me?” But then also the app is used as an instantaneous system. So, you might be there at home, and you might instantly get a request saying, “Jennifer needs somebody to walk her home from Live Lounge. Can you help her out?” But then there's also other parts of the app. So, our prototype, it sounds really messy when I describe it, but on there you've got everything from route avoidance. So, we're looking at the crimes from the police. We're not just putting them on the map, but actually helping you avoid those dangerous areas. We're taking some of the features that are really prevalent on the other safety apps that are really essential to somebody who's on their own and incorporating them so that even if you can't find a route buddy, you have those valuable features as well.
Rob: I suppose I'm going to then play devil's advocate a little bit just to get out of you. All these great ideas to solve unfortunate social problems we wish didn't exist often fail when they can't generate revenue. So, how does the revenue model look? Where's the money coming from? Is there affiliations? Is there a subscription charge? So, how is it generating or going to generate? I can appreciate that it might not yet, but what is the plan?
Jack: Yeah, absolutely not generating revenue yet. We really have been keen on having it free, but the big moneymaker is subscription. We know that parents of students and we know that students in particular find tremendous value in not only the safety aspect of this, of having safety numbers, but also the social aspect of this. But we see more value, to be honest, in places like universities where they have a responsibility to cater to their students, to provide them with safety initiatives, with the information they need to stay safe in a brand new city. And we're actually going to be doing a case study through the summer with a university that I can't say the name of yet, because it's not really in writing. But yeah, that's the direction we're going.
And yeah, so B2C, the big goal here is to do a bit of a Robin Hood thing. We're trying to do something as free as we can and charge in the right places. So, for business industry districts, that's where we want to go as well. So, that's our big moneymaker. Hopefully, we can get a lot of accounts rolled out to a lot of community members either in universities or organizations. And that's where we really see this taking off because there's a responsibility on their behalf, but then there's also our functionality, which really aids the community members and can really bring them the positive things that we hope to bring.
Rob: Yeah. So, how long ago did you start this mission? I think I saw you at that pitch day probably about a year ago now.
Jack: Yeah, 2020 even I started this. So, it's been about three years now since starting. And yeah, it's been a while.
Rob: [Inaudible] Who's on your team? So, like, what does the team look like? Because you keep you say we, and I believe from your website as well, there's a few of you working on this now, and you've got a new hire coming soon, which is great. So, yeah, who's working on this? And what do they do?
Jack: Yeah, so we're very development heavy. So, we've had people come in and come out. We've recently brought on our new marketing person, Leo. I say marketing person because it's a bit up in the air. They might be coming on a different role. So, that's one person who's really a big part of the team now. And then it's myself and a developer who are working really heavily on the product. And then we have a couple of videographers who are working for us as well. So, it's still pretty small and humble, but we're growing. And what I'm really happy about is these are volunteers. So, these are people who are coming in without a stake in the business, who are really passionate and believe in me. And it just, it really fuels me to be honest, it really helps.
Rob: I said earlier, you were part of a pitch program. Do you think those accelerators helped in this journey?
Jack: No, I'm in the Northwest Entrepreneur Accelerator, and that one's absolutely brilliant. I'm in this for six months, I have free office space, I have a community of individuals I can bounce off of. I think that's really valuable.
Rob: What is the best part of it? Is it the people or the office space? Because lots of people like to work remotely, but I know at the start of a business myself, because I've done it myself, that kind of coffee maker conversations are really, really helpful sometimes.
Jack: It's a mix of both. I think having this network entrepreneurs who are all extremely passionate in one place and as well, we do have this routine every couple of weeks, we go in and we have group sessions, we sit down with people who are at the same level as us and we say, “what do we need to do? What's the reality?” And then everybody goes around and says what they want to do. And that, for me, is the most valuable part, because I'm 23, a lot of these people are like a lot older than me, a lot more experienced. And for me, it's incredibly valuable.
Rob: Yeah. So, if one of those accelerators or even just the networks that you've been building turned around and said, “look, we're going to give you a quarter of a million to build out this app and this whole ecosystem”, what do you think that money would be spent on?
Jack: Money would be definitely spent on hiring our development team and marketing team to be in place five days a week, primarily, as well as trying to look at— Well, that's actually the big thing, to be honest, right now we're working myself five days a week, other people, two days, three days a week. So, that would be the big thing to really drive up how much we can actually accelerate with this. But then as well, things like, I know that micro influencers are a massive thing on TikTok right now, and that's a huge part of growing. So, that's where I'd want to explore. But generally, I don't know, I wouldn't want to spend it all at once. I think that's a sensible answer, right?
Rob: It goes very quickly, actually. It's an amazing thing. If you can get a few clients, like by that universities or organizations signed up before you go for funding, that's the golden ticket, because it proves the model. You know, it's much more investor friendly.
Jack: Fingers crossed.
Rob: Yeah, fingers crossed. You're coming up to the end of university, I imagine? Or have you got another year after this?
Jack: Oh, I finished a long time ago. Yeah, I graduated in 2021. So, yeah.
Rob: Oh, wow. So, you hung around, you stuck around.
Jack: Yeah, I followed university. Well, following university I got a job at Virtustek, who you might know, an amazing company to work for. They were very supportive with I was always very honest with like, “this is what I'm doing on the side”. And they were super supportive. And yeah, it was only at the end of last year I decided to leave that role just to really manage this.
Rob: Oh, that's great. Okay. So, you're doing this full time, and you're hoping to get funding so others can do it full time with you. What about ways in which to get people signed up? So, you've got these kind of channel partners, who are hopefully universities and large organizations. But what about like direct to the consumer? How do you— What is the sell? Like, how do you get maybe a woman who is 22 years old to sign up?
Jack: I think the big thing is, there is a problem admittedly. Women aren't safe on their own and safety apps are still providing them apps where they're on their own. I think that is our big sell sales point and kind of bringing people in to be a part of the change. Rather than just having another tool on your phone, you are actually being a part of the change. You can get help, you can give help. That's the whole thing. You can make your local area safe. In terms of actually directly bringing on larger numbers, I think that where we really shine again is communities, existing communities.
So, as I mentioned before, there's plenty of groups out there that are for women walking each other home, for women who want to take care of each other, which are really natural points for us to say, “Hey, this is what our app is actually designed for. Come on here, we'll give you a community”. And not to give away the secret sauce, but that is pretty much our plan for the rest of the year, we're going to be approaching several different groups at several different levels, which include just general community groups, charities, societies, and sports clubs, because we know for sure that— And as well as co-working spaces, I think as well. So, these are kind of how— I know that's a bit of an ambiguous answer, but those groups of females, that's really where the value comes from.
Rob: Are you finding that it is majority female or is it also— Because you also advertise or brand towards LGBT as well. I've noticed that you get that as well. Do you get members from that community as well?
Jack: Absolutely. I think what we really find is people really resonate with our mission. It's very current. It's very socialized. It's very much in the woke stratosphere. So, I think people within that, and I hate to say it, but woke world really enjoy our product because they see the value in it and they see themselves being a part of it. So, yeah, everybody in the LGBTQ community— Not everybody, but the LGBTQ community really resonated. Females really resonate, and students’ parents really resonated as well. That's kind of a big one. People whose kids have gone away or people who I speak to say, “Oh my God, I would have loved this when I was 18”, [inaudible] early adopters [inaudible].
Rob: I imagine they want to not track their kids, but make sure their kids are safe. So, they want their kids to—
Jack: Yeah. A lot of the time I speak to them and it's like, “Well, my daughter is on Life 360” and I'm like, “okay, you'll get a notification if they die. If they go off the face of the earth”, like that—
Rob: That’s the experience.
Jack: But it is. In this industry is that real. It's whereas I don’t know, I like to think that ours kind of perhaps a little bit more because you actually initialize yourself into that walking situation rather than it always being just a location. So, that's also another thing where it's all good and well seeing locations, but you need actual activity updates, which is something other apps don't provide.
Rob: Yeah. There's a whole like halo of community effect here as well, which it is primarily about safety, but you've also got this whole incidental meeting someone you may share a lot in common with or like, and it creates community. For the last like a [inaudible] and a half since the app store came out, people have been talking about like Tinder for friends, right? And it's happened so many times, but inevitably it always becomes a dating site, and that's not great. And then people leave because that's not what they were there for. I can see how this could be. You've almost done the check up front. You've got people who think similarly and perhaps walking home in a similar direction as well. It could create friendships as well, which are longer lasting.
Jack: Yeah. That's a huge part of it. I think when we're looking at universities and like houses within them, I've mentioned our communities, but as well as circles, which are user created are a big part of this. So, when you do find people who are your current part of your circle, you can actually invite them in and have that benefit of seeing when they're nearby, giving them that request when you need somebody. Absolutely that is a huge part of this. And as you carry on using the app and gaining more connections, your feed is just going to become even more in depth, even more personalized.
Rob: Yeah. So, so far you started building this up yourself. What has been the biggest challenge you faced from a business or technical perspective in getting it off the ground?
Jack: I think lack of experience is a big thing. Every time I think I'm doing [inaudible].
Rob: That's really interesting to the people starting out for the first time, like experiencing—
Jack: You don't know what you don't know. Like that's the thing. So, like, you can go— I mean, there's so many times where I've been like, “right, we're going to get this done for this due date”. That was a mistake, and they got to the due date and it wasn't ready. And so there's a lot of things like that. The biggest challenge for me has been monetarily financing this. We're not making money yet, so I'm still, I'm doing freelance work on the side, which is not really desired, but you have to pay rent. And that that's been the big challenge I think for the longest time. Just trying to convince people was a big challenge of like, “Hey, this is my idea and getting it beyond—” “that's nice”, you know?
So, that was a big challenge. But really moving the product forward and actually the product kept changing, that's been the biggest challenge and being on my own and having to keep pushing it forward. It's pushing a big boulder up the hill, which has been a challenge.
Rob: Wales, right? You obviously came to Wales to study. Tell me a little bit about like, why you've decided to— Well, why did you choose a Welsh university in the first place? What you thought of Wales before, what you think of Wales now, and obviously you've decided to stay here as well. Tell me a little bit about that and the thought process.
Jack: Yeah. So, 2018, going back a few years now. 2018, I was deciding on universities. And to be honest, I was going for— I can't even remember my second choice, but I know I was going for Russell Wood universities and Cardiff was in— And Cardiff did a fantastic software engineering thing. They literally called the software engineering place the NSA. Like, how can you get any more like appealing than that? So, I remember, I think it won 50% because I wanted to go, 50% because I'm lazy. Because I went to Cardiff for viewing of the university. And I was like, “wow, this is really cool”. I went to the university, they had hot coffee taps where it was like, you didn't even need to use the kettle. And I was like, “sold. Okay, I'm going here”.
And yeah, I just found it amazing. For me, that was just more of a Cardiff wasn't too far, Cardiff is a city, but It’s big, but it's not too big. It's much bigger than Falmouth and Cornwall. And yeah, It’s fantastic to be fair. So, I just really enjoyed— I remember one of the first nights, those nights I was here, I went to like a couple of the bars, like see what it was like. I was like, “wow, this is so different”. And yeah, it was that kind of like that blend between “yes, this is a city, but it's not London and it's not hectic. And I can deal with this as an innocent Cornish man”.
Rob: I mean, a lot of people do the same. So, it is kind of like the right size city, I suppose.
Jack: In terms of staying in Cardiff, because sorry, I kind of got distracted. I always say Cardiff is very incestual. Everybody knows everybody. And if you don't know somebody, somebody you know will know them. And you know, it's just like that. So, I think naturally, I mean, starting a business here is amazing because things like Transfer Tech Startup Academy introduce you to the world of people. And it's not so big like London, we do generally get to know everybody and everybody supports each other. So, I think that's very nice.
And I'm not sure if it's unique to Wales, but it feels quite unique to Wales. Like we're all supporting each other. And you know, we're a bit of an outsider in terms of the UK. So, we're all kind of like, “Come on, let's get it”, which I think is nice.
Rob: Yeah, it's an interesting one, because a lot of cities around the world have entrepreneurial communities. I used to live in Munich in Germany, much bigger city. And certainly, there was a lot going on way more than what happens in Cardiff, right? But at the same time, here, I can walk from my house to the city centre and I will see someone in our tech community who will just wave to me from the other side of the street. And it kind of makes you feel— So, it's kind of like the mass of people, the critical mass, like density, rather than like the pure just number of people.
London is very spread out, many different things happening. Certainly, there's loads more people you can learn from there, because there's lots more experience there. But at the same time, this kind of like supportive, all in the same boat kind of community that exists in [inaudible] as well. But South Wales is really helpful, especially when you're starting out. Yeah, it's good that you say that.
So, do you think you will stay in Wales with the business? Or will you go where the business takes you?
Jack: To be fair, we'll always be true to the fact that we were Welsh born and bred, we are red because of the dragon and because of Cardiff University. So, that's actually where our company colour comes from, as well as a lot of other things. So, yeah, no, but definitely, we're going to be moving wherever we're taken, to be fair, because the land of opportunity is very large. And I mean, it'd be great to hopefully be like a massive unicorn and Wales selling that, right?
Rob: I will support you, definitely. Wales will support you all the way if you're going to do that. Oh, great. How about non-equity funding? Have you approached or had any grants from Welsh government, for example, or Cardiff Council?
Jack: Yeah, we've been very fortunate. Big Ideas Wales, as well as Prince's Trust, we've had some grants from. And that's been really, really pivotal in supporting me to just move this forward, to be honest. Some of that has just been used to like pay for groceries, but most of it, literally most of it has just been— Well, when I say pay for groceries, paying me as a developer, which I've been used to, just saving myself there. [inaudible].
Rob: I want to see those head forms.
Jack: [24:36] But really, it's really helped us. So, a lot of that was used for marketing during the initial parts of our beta, which drove traction to our app, which drove us beyond the news. So, really, all of these kind of grants really helped us to get where we are today, which has been really pivotal. We still got a few we need to [inaudible] which would be nice to get.
Rob: Great. That's really good. And it's I hear so many good things about the Prince's Trust. So many businesses started that way. Another guy we interviewed on this a few weeks ago also had money from Prince's Trust, and it was pivotal in changing his career from maybe apprentice to running a whole business, which employs 30 people, which is fantastic. So, what are your biggest asks now, I suppose, like looking at the next six months, if you could ask for anything from anyone, what would it be?
Jack: Money, I'd say. Yeah, we're looking really at the minute, I guess we are looking for investment, but the big thing is to really get our foot in the door of universities. So, I think our big thing is universities and bids across the country. That's really our big thing. I'd love to have a chat with people who are either safe— Health and safety related in universities or within larger organizations within Wales or outside, just to really strengthen our understanding of how our products can help and how we can really streamline our adoption process for these places.
I think that's the big thing right now, as much as it would be nice to say, “yeah, give me a million pounds”. That's not realistic. So, yeah, that's our big thing right now.
Rob: Have you got a board? A board of directors?
Rob: Or advisors or a mentor?
Jack: So, we have a couple of mentors and advisors who are from Big Ideas Wales. And we've played around with getting people onto a board. It's something I need to do, to be honest, to get people. It's been hard to identify key players who are going to help us. So, we need somebody who's going to be within the policing world to help us. That's a big part of our app to be efficiently doing these things like stopping crimes, which is what we are ultimately trying to do and prevent them and identify them. As well as for the actual feminine side of things of female safety, we need people in it. It's been challenging, I guess, to find the right people, but that's something we need to be focusing on and bringing people in to basically get those outside opinions. Yeah, that we need.
Rob: Yeah. I would probably recommend getting the— Like you've just said, the skills that you're not strong at on your board. So, yeah, someone who represents minority groups, female groups, someone maybe who would be your ideal client, put them on your board. So, a university, I don't know what team that would be, something like student welfare officer, someone with experience.
Jack: It always does come back to the inexperience thing. I always feel like, “Well, can I do that? And what do I need to do?” And these kinds of things really get in the way of my own progress. I'm always—
Rob: We're all the same. It's like imposter syndrome, in startup founders is massive. But my best advice is just to ask and people can only ever say no. So, yeah, there's no point spending hours trying to work out how to target and how to court them into saying yes, just ask and see what they say.
Rob: But I think— You know, I loved the idea when I first saw it, I of course questioned how is it going to make money, but I can see from what you've said, if you get the right channel partners and offer the right service, I can see it being possible. So, yeah, it's really great to see someone trying to tackle this issue with actionable steps and with an actual product. So, I'm quite excited to see what you do in the next few months or years. And I'm hoping that every student and everyone else who wants to use it will have this up on their phone.
Rob: That's great. All right. Well, thank you very much.