Louis Schena is the CEO and one of the founders of Swipii, based in Glasgow, Scotland. Schena was named one of Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2017 and has since helped to introduce card-linking to the world of loyalty tech in the UK. Now at the helm of Swipii, he is working with the team to develop the app further with new technologies and awesome new features in the pursuit of helping consumers save money and supporting local businesses. We spoke to Louis about his take on the Swipii journey, his plans for the future, and being a petrol-head.
How did you come up with the idea of Swipii?
Well, I had already started thinking about the idea of Swipii when I wrote my dissertation at Strathclyde University in 2012. The title was “An International Comparison of Factors Influencing the Behaviours of Online Group-Buying During the 2008 Recession and Years to Come”. I just became obsessed with Groupon, where the founder of Groupon at the time had taken the concept of group-buying power, which had existed for years or decades, and taken that to the local space. And originally, I think it was a really great way to enable local businesses to reach critical mass before any of the new technology, which is available now in 2019, had arrived. And then I met my co-founder Chitresh Sharma and he had a different idea, which was to have a platform to help students find nightclubs. After meeting nightclub owners, we realised that they had a different problem than we thought. Their problem was actually that they were discounting their products to current customers, the clubbers who would come in and pay full price anyway. The nightclub owners wanted to identify who was who, so they could discount new people coming in and have current or regular customers pay the normal prices. And that idea, mixed with the whole Groupon idea of loyalty in the local space, resulted in the creation of a loyalty platform and that was when Swipii was born.
Over the years you must have seen so many independent local businesses joining Swipii, especially in Glasgow. Any that have stood out as favourites?
In the early days, we did all of the meetings to get our first 18 businesses onboard back in 2014. I could probably list them. I’ve put myself on the spot! We had Wee Guys’ cafe on the corner of George Square. Zebra Cafe which was on Queen Street. Then Tempo Tea Bar. Geek-Aboo, we actually did the launch of Geek-Aboo together when they had just opened the store and we have Joanna Goodbite, both of which are still with us on the app. We worked with a business owner called Juliane, who had the cupcake shop near Strathclyde Uni called Snuggle Muffin! We did all of them! The door-to-door visits and the meetings, we were super close with a whole bunch of local spaces. Since we started Swipii we have seen how hard it can be for local businesses in the current climate, and although some have come and gone, we want to do our best to support them and empower them with technology and data. In terms of favourites, I'll get back to you on that one! I don't want to discriminate!
What are the best bits about being based in Glasgow with all these local businesses?
One of the pros is that you get people who are super passionate about Glasgow. You know Glaswegians! Definitely, the passion and pride come out. It’s a great city, apart from the weather really! Honestly, it’s got a great nightlife, and it has got more restaurants than most of the cities I’ve visited in such a condensed space and they’re so varied. You can drive literally 10 minutes out of Glasgow and you’ll be in the countryside if you want to escape. It’s certainly a great city! There are 3 universities and more colleges meaning plenty of graduates to hire from too!
You mentioned earlier that we’ve got so many restaurants here in Glasgow, have you got any favourites or anything you think is a top tip?
Absolutely! You’re like, hold on, I’ve got a list! I’ve got an excel spreadsheet for this, honestly. Me and my girlfriend have a favourite restaurant, Halloumi. I love Halloumi. It’s a Greek tapas place. It’s definitely a place to go. My girlfriend is Spanish, so we’re always visiting Café Andaluz. It’s great for tapas, plus we have a great relationship with The DRG, which is the group owning Di Maggio’s, who are on Swipii! My girlfriend is still hopeful that Café Andaluz will come on too! There are so many great places in Glasgow, honestly. I have just moved to the Southside and Kebabish is definitely a good place I’ve been to recently. And in fact, our server just guessed that I was French so just started speaking French to me! And I was like how. Because usually, people think I’m Canadian or half-American. Turns out he spoke 5 languages! I was impressed with the food and the service. That means it’s definitely a must.
When you set up Swipii in the early days, it was both you and Chitresh running the show. But now, although Chitresh is still part-owner of Swipii, you’re at the helm as CEO! What is the key difference in running a company now as the solo founder here in the office?
Yeah, I think like anything, there are pros and cons. There are definitely times when it's difficult because you don't have that person to speak to when there's a problem, when you're not sure, when you're hesitant and all of those things. As co-founders, you see each other more than your own family. Sometimes more than your partner! And so obviously when that stops, it’s a shock in many ways. On the other side, like any relationship, you'll have disagreements. But something we always agreed on was that when there is a disagreement- and it took us some time to learn this- it’s better to pick one road rather than jump from one to another because you rarely end up at the desired destination of either if you just keep jumping from path to path.
I'd say the advantage now is that we're able to follow one path and whether that's the right one or wrong one, sometimes it’s irrelevant! Because we get to the destination much quicker and will learn if we fail that we need to change much quicker or succeed and move on much quicker.
And would you say these are the best and worst things about running your own company too?
The best and the worst things about running the company? I think the best things are… I get to do what I want to do. I think that it’s exciting stuff. It's stuff I believe in. It’s things I'm passionate about. I think that's definitely my favourite aspect. I'd be pretty miserable if it wasn't something I believed in or something I'd get excited about. I'd add to that also the people. I think I have a good laugh in the office. Most of the time! And that's good. And then the other part is the parts I don't like the most?
Yep! Is there even anything you don’t like about it?
Haha, well, if I'm perfectly candid, the admin side of things sometimes bothers me. If it was up to me, we'd be going a thousand miles an hour and hitting every wall, but still going in the right direction! Once you hit five or six people in a company, things completely change, and a lot of procedures start to kick in. I see it as part of the challenge. I don't see it as a barrier, it's just part of it. And if you don't accept that, I think a lot of entrepreneurs are not able to grow from there. That's why you have a lot of startup entrepreneurs that love to start a whole bunch of stuff. And then you've got the ones that scale and go really big and you just need to accept that this is just part of their challenge, not something that's just a problem. There are 22 members of the Swipii team now and we’re still growing, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Knowing what you know now, what are some of the top things you wish you had known when you started Swipii?
I think one of them, like many entrepreneurs I've spoken to, is that I wish I could have had a coach earlier to learn how to improve myself. I think that would have been immensely helpful. Taking time to reflect can be a challenge when there are so many things to do and people to support. It would have been good to have a coach earlier on to help me through some of the hurdles we’ve overcome as a team. But now I have one and it’s been great! I’d recommend it to anyone, not just in business.Also, the importance of hiring experienced people at an early stage. This might sound cliché, but it’s only since I’ve surrounded myself with the recent leadership team that I have appreciated the impact that skilled and experienced individuals can have when you scale. I think it's definitely something I would have loved to have learned much earlier on. Sounds so obvious in hindsight!
Getting your first major round of funding must have been a huge milestone for Swipii. Are there any milestones that stick out as the most memorable?
One thing I've always noticed is that when you picture yourself at a moment of success, your brain always pictures a defined moment in time, a five-second moment when you know you're gonna fist pump. In terms of a milestone which felt really like a ‘big one’ and a success, I'd say cashback was the one that felt the closest to this! There was such a short period of time between when we talked about it, when we executed it and when people started to withdraw money! We introduced cashback because, earlier in 2019, we realised that our users were encountering a problem at redemption (claiming their free reward) which stemmed from the unpredictable human element of our previous redemption process.
Cashback, to us, removed the awkwardness for the consumer in-store and meant the consumer could complete the entire redemption process from the comfort of their own homes. Our company has become so consumer-focussed, we have to make sure our product gives consumers the most value possible, and cashback does just that. Not to mention that, with cashback, it's a universal currency so they could use that money anywhere. That was the big one for 2019. So far so good. We had set a vision that if we could get people to redeem more cash than rewards, then that’s success. I was pretty specific on if we could pay someone their cashback, that would be sweet. And then we ended up paying over 100 quid in cashback to users within the first week! Yeah for me, that's definitely the biggest milestone!
You are ingrained in Swipii now obviously, but what would you be doing if you hadn't founded Swipii alongside Chitresh in 2014?
I'd be doing something in the motorsports or the automotive industry, I’m a massive Formula One fan. I'm a massive petrol-head and that’s what I’ve always wanted. From the very beginning... Actually, funny story. In kindergarten in France, my mom got called over to the kindergarten school because the teacher thought something was wrong with me. And she thought something was wrong with me because, well, all the other kids were drawing a whole bunch of different stuff. I could only draw cars. That was the only thing I ever drew. And that's the story of my life. At Christmas, all the funny stories about me are always driven around that. No pun intended! And I think if Swipii hadn't happened, I would probably be a car designer. That was what I did throughout high school, what I was preparing for before I went to uni and then a last-minute change meant that I was destined to come to Scotland.
Tell me about the new features that we’ve just released, what is really exciting you about them?
Card-linking was obviously a big piece of 2018. Just pay with your card, collect points automatically! Super seamless. Then throughout 2019, we have worked hard to build, test and trial cashback on the app - to great success as I have already mentioned! We’re excited about the potential value we can really bring to local consumers in Glasgow, and many of the businesses we’ve spoken to so far have been eager to make move over to cashback too. And then the newest feature to come out is Swipii Deals. We created Deals because we think they deliver quicker value to consumers. You can download the app, find a deal and link your card, walk down the street and get cashback - all within a few minutes, potentially. And then if you were to continue to be loyal to that business then you could use their loyalty program and get further cashback if you repeated business there. We’ve made sure to involve consumers and businesses at every step of the way when releasing Deals, with tonnes of user research and asking for feedback.
We hope that this will make sure we’re creating something which continues to provide the value people are looking for! And then the other feature that we have put on the back burner for now, but one I'm still very keen on is our rating feature, in which the reviews are linked to transactions for accountability. Our users are prompted to give reviews only once they have made a purchase, so we’re cutting out any risk of the fake reviews you may see on other sites. We’ve also chosen to keep reviews private to each business, meaning they have a chance to read feedback and improve without the comments going public. This puts the focus on supporting your local business and giving truly honest feedback, making it mutually beneficial for both consumers and businesses. With ratings, we continue to deliver, from the feedback from businesses, better value and fairer ratings than the current competitors. But until we develop it a bit more, it won’t be at its full potential.
Good to know! It's a very exciting time! What excites you most about the future for Swipii?
The thing that really excites me is that we're going to do a better job than some billion-dollar companies out there at providing value to consumers locally. Daily deals sites have been here for a decade now. No company has had the guts, the will, found the tech or whatever it is that is needed to displace these businesses. All this while local businesses and consumers are not seeing as much value anymore. We have all the key parts to do better because we know we do better for some businesses in Glasgow, we’re already providing value to the consumers using our app here. We want to support the ecosystem of local independent businesses here in Glasgow and throughout the UK, ensuring that money is put back into the local economy through cashback for consumers and sustainable technology for businesses. We just need to scale that up.
Then I think we are already doing a better job than review websites with our rating feature I mentioned earlier. We all know the problems with review websites, from fake reviews to unfair balances in how reviews are weighted. And us being able to deliver a solution to every single problem, again in Glasgow and not at scale yet.These companies have been around for a while and being able to say that we do a better job is quite a big statement but we just haven’t got to the stage where we’re doing a better job at scale yet. That's what really excites me because I think that cashback was the last piece in the puzzle which will allow us to increase revenue and then allow us to actually scale. That's why I'm excited.
Looking ahead to 2020, building on cashback and deals, looking at new UK cities… What would success look like for you at Swipii? Is there a point where you would kick back and think “I’ve done it”?
I don’t think it would even be related to a monetary value. I think I would find immense satisfaction to reach a global scale with some of the original team that's here. Because whenever I picture success in my mind, we’re in multiple countries, we have a great place to work, Swipii is world-famous for what it's done, but also for being from Glasgow. I think I'd be very happy if we could still be in Glasgow. But also be seen as a great place to work. I think that would be very important to me. But I never picture success alone.
When I picture success, I picture it with everyone around us being kind of like “Wow, remember that time when we were having this interview”. I think knowing that I would have made it, would be to be global and be with as many people from the team as it is today. I realise that the team that gets us from A to B will be different from the team that gets us from B to C. New people will join of course- and I can’t wait to meet them- but I’d love to celebrate success with some of the original crew who are in the office today!
We’ll be there! Drinks on Swipii, right?
You can download the Swipii app here: https://swipiicard.onelink.me/QSFa/DownloadSwipii