Leah Hutcheon couldn’t find time to book a haircut and so she invented Appointedd
Leah Hutcheon couldn’t find time to book a haircut and so she invented Appointedd, a piece of software that’s helped scores of small businesses to book appointments for their customers and which is now securing international deals, as Peter Ranscombe finds out.
I arrive late for my interview with Leah Hutcheon. Not by much – I got lost in the building when I realised I didn’t know which floor her office was on – but it’s a bad start when I’m meeting someone who’s forged her career by helping customers to book appointments online with small businesses through her Appointedd software.
I needn’t have worried though. As I step inside the company’s shared offices – complete with multi-coloured beanbags and a stunning view over the west of Edinburgh – Hutcheon’s massive grin tells me I’m forgiven for my tardiness.
Perhaps I should have used Appointedd to arrange the meeting instead of relying on email. Since Hutcheon launched it five years ago, the software has grown arms and legs and does much more than simply booking appointments. Originally intended to help small hair salons to take online bookings, the program has now expanded into a whole suite of software-as-a-service (SaaS) that not only allows online bookings “for any business, on any device, in any time zone” but which also gives users access to services including email and text message marketing, online payments and staff management tools.
“People always think I must come from a techie background – so they’re a bit surprised when they find out I studied English and drama at university,” chuckles Hutcheon. She cut her teeth as a producer at Cowgate Central Theatre, which ran performance spaces at Wilkie House during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s biggest arts festival.
During her time at Cowgate Central, she helped give stand-up comedian Russell Howard his first gig and staged the first 24-hour performance by Mark Watson. The theatre eventually closed, but the excitement of working for a start-up stuck with her.
Wanting to further explore her creative side, Hutcheon joined Home Plus Scotland magazine as an advertising sales executive. The magazine’s editor, former Scotsman newspaper journalist Rick Wilson, helped Hutcheon to develop her writing skills by encouraging her to attend events and interviewing interior designers in her spare time.
It’s an unusual route into journalism – and it always feels odd interviewing journalists who have morphed into entrepreneurs – but the switch from advertising sales into editorial allowed Hutcheon to take over as the magazine’s editor in 2007. That’s when the hair problem raised its head.
“It was a very busy role, working at evenings and weekends as well as during the week, so I was doing more and more through the internet, like ordering my Tesco shopping or doing my online banking,” she remembers. “But one thing I couldn’t do was book a hair appointment on the internet and that got me thinking about how many salons were missing out because they didn’t offer online booking.”
The idea stuck with Hutcheon and when the magazine was closed in 2010 she had the opportunity to develop it. While working for herself as a freelance copywriter – handling a range of briefs from penning text for the public consultations for Sainsbury’s latest supermarket sites through to working with a variety of small businesses – she began scoping out what her Appointedd software could look like and what functions it could offer.
The coding behind the original version of Appointedd was written by Edinburgh-based app developer xDesign, with Hutcheon carrying out copywriting work for the firm as payment, showing that the bartering system is alive and well. Later, winning £30,000 from the Scottish Edge Fund allowed her to recruit her first member of staff, developer Billy Jones, who is still with the company.
“I was really lucky because, although my job had been made redundant, working as a journalist had helped me to build up a lot of contacts,” she explains. “Working with small businesses as a copywriter also gave me an insight into what they needed from online booking software.”
Hutcheon became one of the “chiclets” in the first cohort at the Glasgow “hatchery” of Entrepreneurial Spark, which has grown to become the world’s largest free business incubator. Her fellow entrepreneurs in the initial intake included Cally Russell, chief executive at retail app Mallzee and winner of BQ Scotland’s emerging entrepreneur of the year title back in 2014, and Victoria Arnold, who founded Desk Union, an online marketing place for renting work space.
During her time at E-Spark, Hutcheon was one of the stars of the BBC Scotland documentary The Entrepreneurs. On the back of the television programme, dozens of small businesses got in touch to ask if her software would only work for hair salons or if it could work for their businesses too?
“That was a real turning point,” she says. “I had focused really heavily on hair salons but then we had everyone from skip hire companies to language schools getting in touch and I realised that we had a much bigger market opportunity.
“It also helped when it came to raising investment. Business angels were really interested in the ideas behind Appointedd – it was cloud-based, it was globally scalable – but when I started talking about hair salons I could tell that they were losing interest so, when we realised we could offer the service to other businesses too, that’s when everything clicked.”
Equity Gap, the business angel network, led a £160,000 fundraising round for the business in 2014, with a top-up round taking the total up to £220,000. The Edinburgh-based syndicate has invested in a broad range of start-ups, from product design company Safetray through to golf analysis specialist Shot Scope.
Last year Equity Gap led a further £595,000 fundraising round to allow Appointedd to scale its business, with investors taking part in the round including Gareth Williams, who later sold flight comparison website Skyscanner to Chinese peer Ctrip for £1.4bn, and Marie Macklin, who was named BQ female business leader of the year at the 2016 Scottish Business Awards. The Scottish Investment Bank – the investment arm of economic development agencies Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise – has also provided match-funding during each of the investment rounds.
“Gareth and Marie have been brilliant because they’ve not just invested in the business but have also offered advice too,” says Hutcheon. “Gareth is very pro-active about reaching out to see how I’m getting on – when the news of his deal with Ctrip broke it really made me smile because he was still making the time to get in touch even when all that was going on.
“Marie joined our board as a non-executive director and has been invaluable. We have a very strong board because our chair is Kenny Fraser, who was a partner at PWC and specialised in technology companies.
“We also tap into the experience of the other companies in Equity Gap’s portfolio, like Qikserve and My1login. It’s the same with E-Spark – we still share an office with Cally from Mallzee and I met up with Vic this morning for coffee.
“We’re very lucky in Scotland – the entrepreneurial ecosystem is really strong and everyone looks out for each other. I love doing business in London, but if we’d started the company down there then I don’t think we would have got the same support.”
After Desk Union closed, Arnold worked as a consultant with Appointedd and put the company in touch with Frank Cottle, founder and chief executive of Alliance Business Centers Network (ABCN), which bills itself as the largest global network of serviced offices, covering more than 650 locations in 40 countries. In September, Appointedd unveiled a contract with ABCN to offer its services to the network’s 500,000 customers, the start-up’s largest deal to date, which could be worth US$15-20m (£12-16m) over the next three years.
The deal with ABCN is one in a series of international agreements for Appointedd. In January, signed an agreement to offer its services to another 500,000 companies through global payment transaction provider AEVI.
The business is now firmly in its scale-up phase, with 12 staff on the books and further members being recruited to its sales team. Its global deals will no doubt bring Appointedd to the attention of multinationals, so is Hutcheon worried that bigger technology companies could simply create their own versions of her company’s services and incorporate them into their own software, squeezing her out of the market?
“The best way for us to defend our position is to be innovative and be the first-to-market,” Hutcheon counters. “We just worry about continually improving and innovating – like with our cross-time zone functions – those are the things that we have control over, we don’t have control over how any big tech companies may behave. One of the strengths of our software is that it can be integrated into all the major packages like Eposnow and Freeagent and calendars such as Gmail, Office 365 and Outlook. That’s a great way to defend our products.
“Ultimately, I think it’s flattering that big tech companies might be interested in us one day. Our aim is to build a global business, so we need to work with those companies.”
Time’s up. As Hutcheon walks me back to the lift so I don’t get lost again, I reflect on how the word “lucky” comes up so many times in conversation with her: she was “lucky” to get into E-Spark, she was “lucky” to secure funding, she was “lucky” to win big contracts. But we all know that true entrepreneurs make their own luck.