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Marketing the new reality with Blippar co-founder Jessica Butcher

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Fending off several six figure deals to stay true to your vision takes gumption, but it's worth it for the promise of augmented reality and it's "Harry Potter-ish magic."

“If someone asks you to get on a rocket you don’t say no.”

Jessica Butcher isn’t about to join NASA, she’s actually reminiscing about the time her friend Ambarish Mitra approached her with a new augmented reality prototype whilst out for dinner.

That friend is now a co-founder of that prototype, now known as Blippar.

They were supposed to be meeting to talk about Butcher’s recent engagement but the conversation quickly turned to technology – they are both entrepreneurs after all – as Mitra demonstrated the AR’s capabilities; replacing the Queen’s head on a note with a perfect representation of his own via a phone screen left an impression.

“It just set my imagination alight in terms of its potential for traditional scaleup marketing, education, for the printing industry…it was magical, like a Harry Potter-ish experience.”

Butcher was hooked from the start.

The technology excited her but she also recognized that she could could have a very interesting role to play in the adoption of Blippar, despite being a “non-techie”.

“My role was to translate what is a quite a technical solution into something content rich and exciting for the consumer and our partners.”

Essentially, Butcher wanted to turn augmented reality into our reality.

And very quickly, for those not in the know, Blippar is a New York-based startup – but founded in the UK – which specializes in visual searches utilizing, most famously, augmented reality on devices like smartphones, tablets and wearables.

Imagine holding your phone in front of a Jurassic Park poster and one of the dinosaurs roaring to life on the screen.

You can also scan and identify products in order to review the digital content locked into the brand as part of the marketing strategy of each company.

Butcher didn’t just fall into this role however, she has carefully curated herself as a scaleup marketing specialist in fast-growth models.

“I’ve always been attracted to [fast-growth models] and I’ve spent 2-3 years at a number of different roles at startups and scaleups (companies too large to be a startup but not quite near unicorn status) that want to disrupt their respective industries.”

Isango, an aggregator of travel experiences, was where Mitra and Butcher met before she moved to Alibaba where she developed her scaleup marketing tools to facilitate their launch into Europe. She then set up her own company – a travel app – in Kenya with her fiance.

Landing at Blippar however was arguably the best decision for her and the then infant technology.

The four co-founders (see photo) were colleagues but ultimately friends, with different skills and backgrounds that seemingly made the perfect square that goes to making any company successful.

“Vision, that was Rish; product and tech-know-how, Omar [Tayeb]; creativity, Steve [Spencer]; and communication and commercial applications, that would be myself. It was the perfect skeleton to scale a team around.”

And scale is one word for it.

Earlier this year, Blippar raised $45 million to fund expansion in a series C round. But well before that, large retailers and media companies were approaching them to design similar apps for them – usually for 6 figure sums.

But they refused them all.

“We are incredibly ambitious and we stayed true to a vision, even though it came at the cost of those lucrative models that were dangled in front of us.”

From the beginning, their vision was to follow in the steps of Google, Twitter and Instagram; to become a verb: to blip.

From there it becomes easier to understand why such a small team kept on refusing proposition after proposition. If they wanted to realise the verb dream, Blippar had to become a single app lens, or browser; outsourcing their technology would have diluted their brand pulling power in the long run.

It wasn’t easy to refuse though.

“We were like *GULP* every time…”

Scaleup Marketing strategies

Butcher and the other founders were more fliexible on other fronts however.

In terms of scaleup marketing, Butcher had to forget her past strategies and think about what exactly Blippar needed.

“We wanted to encourage other people to promote the download of the app through their content, whether that was product packaging or media and we added a healthy dose of PR.”

Some would describe that as non-traditional marketing but it worked for the startup, and for her.

“I loved it all, the negotiating, the brokering, communicating the vision and the big picture and bringing people on board…I suppose it was almost a sort of business development approach.”

As Blippar started to grow faster than expected, the elastic advantages of their strategy came into its own.

They started to redesign their approach to a consumer scaleup marketing proposition and they have now reached a level where they need to spend revenue on self-branding.”

“We’re ready to turn the world on.”

But they want to do it on their own terms; Butcher wants to stop relying on other people to act as their mouthpiece and take control of their own scaleup marketing.

That’s quite a transitional shift and it’s brought about more change than expected.

Last month Blippar announced the appointment of Omaid Hiwaizi as president of global marketing.

“He comes from an agency background with a more global and consumer focused angle that will enable us to push forward and spend money to bring the rest of that more traditional marketing element into the role.”

Decisions surrounding starting a company are tough, but none more so than the decision to step aside.

It was easier for Butcher though: she was named Director from last month and she’s also expecting her second child.

“We’ve got to that exciting position where the company would benefit from a restructured marketing team to compliment our newly global outlook.”

These changes include deploying scaleup marketing individuals to each team and introducing senior executives to manage each region.

New role

And for Butcher, it sounds like she’s also restructuring her methods for her new role.

As Director, she’ll have a floating remit to perform strategic work across the business to represent Blippar across different facets – apparently it’s quite common for co-founders at this stage.

“My preference is more around the evangelism and external brand ambassadorial stuff, public speaking, journalist outreach – actually I expect to be doing more [interviews] now.”

Blippar itself is maturing in its role. As part of its scaleup marketing strategy it acquired Layar one of its biggest competitors, and placed investments in WaveOptics, a UK based startup developing low-energy lenses that provide a live display for the wearer and all fitted onto an ordinary pair of lenses.

Leaps forward mask steps back however and no company can grow without learning from any pitfalls.

Our challenges have been around how quickly we can internationalize, not spreading ourselves too thinly, choosing and re-choosing the order of different markets we’ve gone into and the issues associated with that.”

Blippar have also had challenging investment rounds which have taken longer than anticipated and things like that can knock the confidence from any management team.

It’s also paramount to attract the right leadership and bring on board people that feel comfortable moving into a company that’s growing so fast.

“It’s easy to underestimate how to retain cultural cohesion in a very fast growth business – how can we bring people on board in a way that to stay true to who Blippar is?”

Female Leader

A far larger challenge that tech companies, or the tech industry as a whole, needs to answer to is the growing voice of equality.

As a female leader in tech, how does Butcher feel about the relationship between her gender and her career?

“If I’m honest I personally don’t feel that I’ve been negatively impacted by being female and in actual fact there have been some positive opportunities for me.”

She’s talking about her recent successes at female-only tech events and award ceremonies.

“Those have opened up fantastic doors for me: business development opportunities at panels where I can meet investors. I benefited from this in a way that my co founders, mid 30 year old males, have not.”

Butcher is having to give this topic more thought now she has started maternity leave and being approached to become a female role model and despite the aforementioned opportunities it has already started to change her opinion on the general sexism she’s encountered.

“I am starting to question whether I have underestimated gender dynamics within a few political relationships…I’ve definitely been sat in a meeting with someone from my team, whose junior to me, but male, and they get directed all the questions to and considered to be in control.”

Back then, she laughed it off. Today, she’s a bit different.

“I’m now very motivated towards better representation of women and about keeping women at the top in their mid 30s – many of whom will choose to have families as well – within an industry where we’re seeing a total haemorrhage of women as the ages grow; I think it’s shocking, I think it’s wrong.”

Butcher continues:

“There are definitely female characteristics and styles of businesses which can be more culturally attuned, which can read between the lines a lot better, can ask questions in a different way.”

Maybe that goes some way to explaining Jessica Butcher’s continual dominance in tech circles and in scaleup marketing.