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Profile: Hugh Geiger

“If you’re feeling comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.”

That’s Hugh Geiger’s advice to founders trying to get their startups off the ground.

The Ollo Mobile founder and CEO has just seen his company’s Indiegogo campaign breeze past its target of $50,000 with fifteen days to spare, so he might be forgiven a momentary feeling of comfort. Maybe even relief.

Geiger regularly gets out of his comfort zone. He claims to be an introvert; a typical Myers-Briggs INTJ. Evidently, we caught Geiger on one of his more extroverted days. Geiger’s passion for, and obvious frustrations with, running a startup in Brisbane came to the fore during a very candid interview.

Geiger and his nearly two-year-old company are on a roll. In the past few months they’ve picked up a catalogue of awards: the CeBIT Startup Pitch & Funding Day competition; an iAward merit prize for R&D; the Rackspace “Small teams big impact” award for which the prize was a round trip to San Francisco and an interview with Robert Scoble; and, most recently, two awards at Tech23 last month.

They’re also in the running to be named Australia’s Coolest Company.

Geiger is a fixture at local networking events, where our paths have crossed many times. He’s the entrepreneurs’ entrepreneur, having gained the respect of many of his peers for his sheer determination and unwavering desire to fix something that is wrong with the world. Seemingly equally at ease in a baseball cap at the pub or a dark business suit when the occasion calls for it, we met with casual-mode Geiger.

Geiger says of his win at CeBIT: “It was about presenting an idea that was big and world-changing. So we convinced them that ours was the best on the day. There were some really good pitches there, so I was pretty surprised.”

What’s Geiger’s big idea?

“We enable the family to deliver care in an industry where it’s traditionally delivered by a call centre.”

Geiger was driven to look at the telecare and independent living space after a family incident.

“My partner, her great aunt fell and fractured her hip,” Geiger explained.

This injury resulted in a hip replacement.

“She was told she needed to keep walking. She had to keep using the new hip otherwise she was never going to get through that process.”

“Her family was saying, ‘Hey, you’re even wobblier than you were before, stay in your house until you get better’, and the doctor’s saying ‘If you don’t get out and use it, you’re not going to use it!’ So that paradox got me looking at the marketplace.”

“I looked at the tech available in the aged care space and thought “My family needs better.  They’re charging so much, and they’re delivering so little.”

His first thought was to import something from the US. But Geiger wasn’t impressed with the solutions on offer.

“Everybody was still using a call centre. But if I’m injured, the last thing I want to do is talk to a call centre.”

So Geiger and his Ollo Mobile team developed a one-touch dialling, voice-controlled device, Cloudphone 3G, that keeps you connected to your family. While the device itself is dead simple to use and fits on a key ring, the cloud-based platform underpinning it enables the family to configure who the call goes to, and what happens when nobody answers. For instance, the call can be cascaded to another family member or another nominated caregiver.

The market is currently dominated by Tunstall and Royal Philips, which have about 3-3.5 million customers between them. Their solutions are built around call centres.

“Seniors don’t want to talk to the call centre,” claimed Geiger. “Our pitch to investors is that there are several hundred thousand of these systems currently installed in Australia. They’re not liked by consumers. It’s a significant overhead of the business, and they’re inflexible. We think we can disrupt that industry. We think we can also introduce this managed service into Asia. At the moment there’s not really a concept of a managed service in Asia.”

Are there other potential uses for the Cloudphone? Yes, according to Geiger.

“It can work as a supervisory tool for parents. So the child can press and say ‘Call Mum, call Dad, call my brother’, so you have a limited range of calling options, which are just managed through a single button press. Because it does geolocation, we‘ve got a system we’ve developed called SafePath, which is automatic monitoring of regular transit paths.”

This feature enables parents to specify paths along which they’d expect their children to be travelling within a particular time window each day of the week. So, they’re trips to and from school, or soccer training. If there’s a deviance from the route, the parent will get a notification, and it’s up to the parent to decide what action to take, if any. The solution also works indoors, such as in shopping malls.

With a service such as Cloudphone 3G, there are obvious privacy implications. But Ollo Mobile have taken steps to significantly mitigate the privacy risks.

“We’re quite privacy conscious,” said Geiger. “With the tracking data that we collect, we only keep it for a limited amount of time. We don’t want to hold it any longer than is absolutely necessary. When you press the button on the device and call family, it’ll report it’s location. That data will be available for three hours, and then it’s scrubbed.”

Geiger clarified this further.

“It’ll be available to the family for three hours, and we’re going to keep it for another 24 hours after that, just in case law enforcement or someone else decides they would like to have that history, and then a script deletes it and it’s gone.”

The backend system is currently on a PHP-based stack, but there are plans to migrate to Java. Geiger will be hoping to avoid the curse of the rewrite with that move.

This decision means Ollo Mobile is on the lookout for one or two Java developers with experience in building large-scale systems. An engineer experienced with digital PABX systems is also required, but less critical.

As for the cute little hardware device itself, Geiger says that’s not the interesting part for him.

“We see the hardware as a commodity. If someone made a similar device, we’d be like great, that’s awesome, sit it on our platform!”

The journey for Ollo Mobile hasn’t been easy. Convincing local investors has proved to be incredibly difficult.

“Aged care is kind of invisible in Australia. We don’t have a good handle on it. It’s someone else’s problem. I’ve even had investors tell me we should go after a bigger market. Totally ridiculous.” Geiger said.

“When I go the States, I say ‘Aged care’, and they go, like, ‘Oh great, aged care, tell me more!’ Over here they were, like, ‘Have you got an app or something?’”

To some degree, Geiger puts this less than enthusiastic response to Ollo Mobile in Australia down to a general lack of awareness about aged care in our society as a whole.

“We haven’t had the big ad campaigns, like ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up’. They’ve been running that same ad since the eighties,” said Geiger of the (in)famous LifeCall television advertisement.

Investors here also told him that pensioners were broke and not attractive as a market.

“That’s what you see on A Current Affair. There are some people that are living quite meagrely, but as a general demographic, they’re not generally poor. And these kinds of services are necessary for them to live independently. It’s not a luxury item. It’s something that is necessary for safe and independent living. There are also government subsidies.”

Nevertheless, Geiger has been able to attract some influential people to his advisory board, and counts Steve Baxter, Bob Waldie and Andrey Shirben amongst his experienced network of mentors. Renowned independent living researcher Stuart Smith has also joined the team as an advisor.

Geiger clearly believes in Ollo Mobile and is passionate about fixing a problem in aged care.

“This is a really important service that could change people’s lives.”

Ollo Mobile is Geiger’s third startup. He started with a social review site in Canberra in 2003. He described it as akin to what Yelp has turned into. At that time his day job was doing customer analytics for Telstra. He was looking at all the metrics around customer satisfaction of tech support and changes to policy. He was tasked with identifying changes in customer satisfaction due to changes in the way that Telstra was doing things.

But asking customers for feedback, Geiger believes, is a selfish thing.

“It’s not to the customer’s benefit, it’s to the business’s benefit!”

His reviews site was partially a response to this observation. Geiger raised $50,000 in Canberra in 2003 to finance his social reviews startup, and spent four years trying to get the company off the ground.

The service never launched.

“The software that we developed was too unstable, and I didn’t want to bill people for a service that didn’t deliver everything. The reviews would be working, and then search would fall over, and then the business console would fall over.”

That wasn’t the last of their problems.

“We had a falling out with our lead investor at the time. He’d never invested in a startup before. Neither of us really understood building a complex web platform, and it got pretty bitter, because he was frustrated that the software wasn’t finished. I was frustrated that the software wasn’t finished. You know, we’d been running around doing all the sales, and the software guys just kept tinkering, kept tinkering, kept tinkering, but it wasn’t getting there.”

Geiger attempted to raise additional money from a new investor who he knew from another business he was involved with. The new investor was initially very keen, but it didn’t work out.

“My lead investor got into a argument with the new investor, and it was a very unpleasant thing. The new guy went ‘You guys are dysfunctional, best of luck with it. I’m out.'”

It was at this point that Geiger also left the company. It was a massive learning experience for Geiger.

After taking a seven year break from startup land to work in project management at big companies, the startup bug bit again.

Geiger’s second startup was a cloud computing business which he formed in partnership with the investor who had previously come close to investing in the social reviews business. While Geiger helped to set up the company, conducting the business and risk modelling, it wasn’t a business that he truly believed in. The huge capital costs involved in the cloud infrastructure business were a deterrent for Geiger, who didn’t feel a local company could compete with the likes of Amazon. Geiger left that company soon after setting it up. The company is still running today, but it hasn’t turned out to be the raging success the founders had been hoping for.

But it’s Brisbane, not Canberra, which is home to Geiger’s latest startup, Ollo Mobile. We asked Hugh what he loved about the local tech ecosystem.

“What do I love about it? I love the weather,” he laughed.

Geiger struggled to find other aspects of the local tech scene that he could genuinely claim to love.

“There’s a lot of enthusiasm here, there is a fantastic community that digs in and helps out. But we’re all in the same boat, and it’s just not concentrated enough here.”

According to Geiger, there are a few things entrepreneurs could do to improve their chances of success and to improve the community as a whole.

“The things that startups here could do a lot better is that they could show up to networking events, they could spend their evening time building their networks and interacting with other people in this space.”

As TSJ reported earlier, this sentiment was also voiced by Silicon Lakes director Aaron Birkby, after returning from a learning tour of Silicon Valley. Networking, it seems, is undervalued by local entrepreneurs.

What else is broken about the local scene according to Geiger? Having worked out of iLab at Long Pocket, Geiger is now based at River City Labs in Fortitude Valley, so he’s very familiar with the problems of distance.

“Brisbane’s public transport sucks, our events are spread out a bit, and travelling long distances with spread out events, it sucks.”

But that’s not all. Geiger can be scathing about some of the advice given to him and his startup.

“I went to an event. I’m not gonna say which one, but it was a major event, advising high growth businesses how to improve their marketing. I didn’t see a single Twitter tag anywhere. My first question was ‘Who the hell are you people and what are your Twitter handles?’. They were telling us (high growth companies) how to market, and we had a guy here talking about newspaper advertisements. Like, congratu-fucking-lations. That’s really cutting edge.”

As many other entrepreneurs would agree, Geiger feels there’s a lack of maturity in the early-stage scene here around portfolio theory. Many local investors, he says, try too hard to pick winners. And they seem to think that they can pick a winner.

“At seed, or around seed, these guys should be doing lots of small deals. Uncertainty is extreme, and based on stories I’ve heard, many early stage guys are getting in too big, and too infrequently. When they should be doing a higher volume of smaller deals. If you’re sweating over a deal, it was too big. Over [in the US] they understand they need to do twenty deals to get one hit, if that.”

Related to that issue are the planning requirements local investors demand prior to investing even small amounts.

“I see a business model as being very separate from financial projections. So being able to say this is my costings to be able to deliver this service. Understanding that, absolutely critical. Wanting meaningful revenue projections for the next five years, totally ridiculous. If it was that predictable I’d go to a bank.”

Did Geiger have anything else to get off his chest?

“No, feeling pretty vented!”

Ollo Mobile’s Indiegogo campaign runs for the next thirteen days.

About Ricky Robinson

When he's not writing for The Tech Street Journal, Ricky's working at NICTA, Australia’s ICT Centre of Excellence, where he performs a mix of industry engagement, research and, of course, software engineering. Ricky holds a Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Queensland and spent some time in Mountain View, California, at Sun Microsystems Research Labs. Ricky's the prime instigator of TSJ.