We talked to Prask Sutton of Wi5 on how to serve customers at the table and for click and collect with ease and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Prask Sutton: We’re good, thanks. Of course, there’s the impact of not seeing a wider circle of family and friends — especially my folks — but we appreciate we have it better than many. The pandemic’s day-to-day impact is far less intrusive than if we were back in London, for which we’re grateful.
I’ve missed being in the office in London every day. Although, one of the upsides to working from home is being around my family more. I used to get the 5:34 am into London Bridge, but now I’m around to get my five-year-old son, Tobin, ready for school in the mornings and bed in the evenings. I’ve also got into a morning routine of taking our dog, Rosco, for a walk and getting plenty of fresh, country air before breakfast with the family. That sets me up nicely for the day.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Wi5.
Prask Sutton: I was born and raised in Brixton, London. I went to school in Brixton, then Streatham and finally Clapham, and always interested in tech.
I read Physics & Astronomy and Computer Science at UCL, and then History & Philosophy of Science as a post-grad at the LSE. I’d was in music for a while, and by the time I graduated, was doing this full-time. There was a lot of travelling involved, and I ended up being based out of Stockholm for a decade, even though I was initially only meant to be there for a weekend! A lot of my work was late in the day or at night, and over time I got more and more interested in marketing and advertising. With my tech background, my advertising career quickly evolved into specializing in interactive design. I developed all manner of weird and wonderful digital and mechanical solutions for brands like YouTube, Microsoft and Nike.
It got to a point where I was product managing and engineering amazing tech solutions, but they’d only ‘live’ for a few days or weeks before the brand campaign would move on and we’d be onto the next thing. I noticed the imbalance between the perceived effort vs reward of most engagement mechanics and the resulting drop-off going through countless of these mini-startup builds. It got me thinking about removing the usual barriers to entry and creating a genuinely frictionless mobile engagement experience.
In the early days of Wi5, Jon Clarke, my co-founder and COO, and I set about creating a frictionless way for consumers to engage with the brands we’d been working with over the past few years. We delivered app-like content using ad hoc Wi-Fi networks without customers ever having to download an app or even need internet access. We had a lot of early success together with brands such as BMW and Jaguar, creating engaging ways for customers to learn more about their vehicles and book test drives, before expanding across other industries with Capital One, IMG, Samsung and Telefónica. It resulted in us delivering the default Wi-Fi experience at The O2 Arena, the world’s busiest music venue.
We soon learnt while we’d created a great way for audiences to engage with rich, app-like content, the usage and engagement metrics were way up when consumers approached our platform with a real need. Specifically, we saw a massive demand for this type of engagement mechanic to place orders and accept payments for food and drink in bars, restaurants, etc. The space was ripe for it — we’d found a problem all parties deemed worthy of solving! — with existing mobile Order & Pay solutions falling far short of the mark. So that’s how Wi5 came to focus on payments.
How does Wi5 innovate?
Prask Sutton: Trial and error lead to innovation for us. We’re always trying to anticipate the market. Thinking about what both the operators we work with and their end-users will want, and lead rather than follow. Each time our world-class team comes up against something that pushes us, and we’re triumph, we know we’re building a more robust and more vigorous product and business. We’re a better company with each hurdle we clear.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Prask Sutton: The pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated the take up of mobile ordering. We always knew it would happen, but the penetration and usage are now probably 3 to 5 years ahead of what anyone predicted. With mobile Order & Pay, we went from a nice-to-have to pretty much a prerequisite to remaining open and trading. Our team feels more responsibility than ever to ensure we provide the very best possible products and services to help these businesses this critical time.
As with many businesses, we are getting into the rhythm of home working has taken some trial and error. Pre-pandemic, we encouraged people to be in the office as much as possible to get that all-important face-to-face time. It means we’ve built a close-knit group of “Wi5ers” — a term the team coined — who genuinely enjoy each other’s company. As such, there’s a personal struggle, missing the buzz and banter from being together in the flesh.
When the first lockdown started, I scheduled weekly one-to-ones with every staff member and took the view over-communicating was probably the best way to play it. Over time, most of the scheduled calls have fallen away, but in its place is an environment where our staff know (and do) get in touch with me whenever they want or need to (and vice versa), without hesitating. That ingrained and understood open door policy is significant to me — and a key to our success — and I’m pleased we’ve managed to maintain this culture, even while having new starters join whilst we’re working remotely.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Prask Sutton: Thanks to the retail sector and delivery aggregators paving the way, consumers have come to expect (and demand!) fast and frictionless payment transactions, so it was always only a matter of time before the hospitality industry caught up. Of course, I never expected it to happen under these circumstances!
The situation the world’s faced in 2020 is horrific, and I’m mindful of not coming across as Wi5 having profited from such a tragedy, but it’s been a case of us being in the right place at the right time. It was challenging to marry this with my ambition to grow the company and be accelerated by other businesses’ challenges in the hospitality sector. However, we get such great feedback from operators; it’s excellent to know Wi5 has played a part in supporting them, keeping them afloat, and in many cases, genuinely excelling. Together, we’ll shape our industry’s future feels like a stable positive out of a genuinely tragic situation. The team and I are very proud and excited by that. We’re only just scratching the service of the benefits we’ll bring to operators and customers, alike.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety?
Prask Sutton: I’m an optimist. I think founders tend to be, and it helps. Maybe not about everything, but most successful founders I know have a glass-half-full approach to their companies.
Since the pandemic hit, I haven’t flown, though I used to find sitting on a plane to be deeply therapeutic. I think because, for some reason, I felt I had permission to relax and do less — not always being on the phone. If things are terrible, I’ll pick up a copy of Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, which hands down my favourite book and puts me in this optimal frame of mind. I’ve given a few copies to colleagues at Wi5. It’s phenomenal. Get a copy today and read it.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Prask Sutton: When we started, there were very few companies playing in this space, and those that were, to be brutal about it, weren’t doing it well. The experiences they provide to customers and staff were lacking, and these businesses seemingly had no long-term or scalable plans. Since the pandemic, there’s been a surge in “Covid solutions”, but again, nothing that impresses. Most of what on the surface appears to be competition aren’t productized offerings in the same way that Wi5 is. We stand apart with our massive investment in design and technology to ensure we have the most intuitive, reliable and secure mobile Order & Pay solution on the market. There’s competition in the US — competitors that need to be looked at seriously —, but our roadmap and the plans we have in place should hopefully see us leapfrog those other players. We’ve released into production to date just the infrastructure; the rails on which we’ll evolve.
That sounds a bit mysterious, but it makes sense to keep these plans under wraps till the big reveal. It won’t be too long a wait, though. And I promise it’ll be oh so worth it!