‘Should our brightest minds be building dating apps?’ Upgrade Pack founder Craig Unsworth on the future of technology

Financial Services | Interview | Technology
Craig Unsworth

Craig Unsworth is the founder and CEO of ambitious tech business Upgrade Pack. Here, he talks to BLM about his plans for the company.

Can you tell readers about how you came to start the business?

I previously worked as a management consultant, where I would help companies that were around ten to fifteen years old and focused on what their next phase of growth would look like.

I gradually started to see that technology was running away from many of them and often they had created a business that was too reliant on the founder; so, I would work with them to create and build tech products that could create additional revenue.

After several exits – including trade sales, Private Equity buyouts, and an IPO – I decided it was time to do it in the hot seat, as CEO.

Can you also tell us more about yourself?

I originally wanted to be an IT lawyer and studied at Edinburgh University. I have always manged to work at an incredible pace and get things done from an early age; for example, I completed my GCSEs in one year, which meant that I attended university at an earlier age than most.

I became involved with business at university and started to establish contacts in industry – at places like RBS who funded part of my time at university. Building these contacts and investing time to learn about business and technology is what inspired me to become a consultant whilst I was studying.

I set up a business helping companies to get the most out of new media and e-commerce opportunities. I had built a successful consultancy business in Edinburgh within six years, before selling it to my management team.
Following this I moved to London.

So, what does Upgrade Pack do?

We help large corporates and banks reward and retain their best and highest value customers and employees.

We do this by giving them exclusive access to rewards such as upgraded flights and discounts on hotels.
We have created the technology and platform that they can access to do this. We bring the airlines and hotels on board and don’t charge them fees.

All our revenue comes from the banks, credit card operators and corporates.

Originally this couldn’t be built because consumers don’t want to pay for discounts, so we needed to create the tech and marry up the consumers with the professionals.

The business was incorporated in April last year, but we started in June. It is just over fourteen months old (at the time of writing) and our tech platform is now fully built. We have offices in London and Singapore and employ twenty-six people in total.

How is the business being funded?

Last year we raised £4.1 million in private equity from investors. .We actively decided to not take venture capital funding in the beginning. Partly because we felt the restrictions and reserved matters that most term sheets had (we were made three offers by some truly brilliant VCs) would have slowed us down.

But mostly because we felt that if we were going to take a cheque and form a new partnership, we’d wait to do it properly i.e. when we look for significant scaleup capital. Our aim is to be employee- owned and independent.

What is the future for the business?

We are doing something that has never been done; so, the future is exciting. We of course want to continue to maintain our pace; and keep doing things that aren’t being done.

We have already received offers from people wanting to buy the business, but we want to build something valuable; and build as quickly as possible to critical mass. We’re also open to looking at partnerships or acquisitions as part of our growth.

I want us to achieve unicorn status and have a billion-dollar valuation. We’ve already been valued at four to five times our current revenue.

What do you see as the main challenges you face?

From the beginning I wanted to build a global business, so naturally we’re exposed to global pressures but at the same time we’re not just a UK business responding to a macro and microenvironment in one place.
Another challenge we face is talent and acquiring the best tech talent.

We’re building a different type of organisation that is very authentic and driven by diversity and inclusion, so finding the right people is key.

Flexibility is important to us and our staff can access a pot of 50 days a year holiday and work anywhere in the world.

Are there any other sectors you’d like to disrupt?

I don’t think the venture capital sector is in a great place now. It’s very strong if you’re a twenty-two-year-old software developer with an app and your happy to hand over a chunk of the business. But if you’re a seasoned businessperson with exits under your belt – there isn’t much in venture capital other than the money that you need.

I’ve often thought about creating a hybrid between VC and private equity funding – which can add more value.

I’m also curious about hotels. Could I build and run one? I don’t think I’ll ever retire.

How do you see the tech sector changing?

I’m looking forward to moving beyond the current phase where the tech sector is seen as a Rockstar movement, where you have computer science graduates getting poached with ridiculous salaries.

Technology should be a facilitator and used to make change because we have phenomenal power at our fingertips. Is it right that our brightest minds are working on dating apps?

I also think the novelty around Fintech and AI is wearing off and we need to start taking advantage of how we maximise the opportunities they offer.

Your final thoughts?

We’re building a business that we hope is different. There is little textbook to how we’re building it but lots of instinct. I believe that dropouts and entrepreneurs produce different thinking and outcomes and it’s always interesting to how they approach business.

We also have a huge amount of rigour and robustness in areas like finance and operations – so I guess it’s a hybrid approach.

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