Conceived just four months ago to solve a very pandemic-specific problem, Aussie startup COVID Comply has clocked up more than $50,000 in revenues already. But, according to founder Ben Richardson, this contact tracing tech is no one-trick pony.
At its core, COVID Comply is a contact tracing tool allowing small businesses and other entities to quickly and safely collect the details of people coming into their venues, through a QR code scanner.
Once a business signs up and adds its location, the platform automatically applies all the regulations required for their state — both in terms of what details need to be collected, and in terms of data privacy rules.
That also means it automatically deletes information as soon as required.
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Then, the user can further configure the service in line with their own business’ needs.
“Over time, it’s evolved into this rather comprehensive complex product, meeting all these really interesting niches and business requirements,” Richardson tells SmartCompany.
“It’s basically a much safer, healthier alternative to paper and clipboards and a lot of the temporary solutions out there at the minute,” he adds.
“Under the hood, it solves a lot of really complex problems around privacy and data retention and security that most businesses don’t think about much.”
“It was going to get really hairy”
Although he has a degree in aerospace engineering, Richardson says he caught the startup bug and got into coding before he even graduated.
Since then, he’s created and sold one business, and served as founding CTO at a federally-funded mental health project.
“That’s where I got a really good understanding of security and data privacy from the consumer’s perspective — the average person — and how it varies state-by-state,” he says.
When rules started to relax in Victoria, the first time around, he saw the contact tracing rules coming into effect, and knew it would be tough for businesses to respond quickly.
He looked to what had been going on in New Zealand just weeks earlier, when businesses had started opening up with similar requirements.
A lot of Kiwi development agencies and business administration providers pivoted to offer a solution, he notes.
But these were businesses that, like everyone else, had been quiet for months.
As soon as BAU picked up again, “the amount of iteration in those products, and how they evolved, slowed down really rapidly — much, much quicker than I expected,” Richardson says.
“I imagined the same thing would happen here,” he notes.
Australia was about to enter a similar scenario. But here, each state and territory was working to different COVID-19 rules, that were constantly evolving.
And, each state and territory was working to different data privacy regulations.
“I realised it was going to get really hairy,” Richardson says.
“I thought I would have a crack.”
Growth in analogue
Now, after just four months, COVID Comply has turned over more than $50,000 in revenue. And it’s not only cafes, bars and restaurants using the tech.
Lifesaving Victoria, for example, is using COVID Comply at 60 locations, including two helipads.
“They have really interesting requirements around volunteers and cleaners and different cafes and all their clubs,” Richardson explains.
“They need a lot of flexibility in their solution.”
All of this is after spending less than $1,000 on paid digital ads.
“And they failed miserably,” Richardson says.
He launched the business back in June, before Melbourne went into its second lockdown. At the time, he reached out to a group of restaurants in Richmond and Collingwood, and secured them as customers.
From there on out, almost all new business has come from word-of-mouth, SEO and organic growth.
One accountancy firm in a small town discovered the platform and signed up, Richardson recalls. Before he knew it, he had more and more customers popping up there.
“We had critical mass in that town after a few weeks.”
Life after COVID-19
This is a solution built to meet a very specific need of the COVID-19 era. With any luck, there will come a time when we don’t have to check ourselves in everywhere we go.
But, Richardson doesn’t think that would necessarily make COVID Comply obsolete.
One interesting, and perhaps unexpected, thing that’s come out of the crisis, is a wider understanding of how QR codes work, he says.
“Adoption and awareness was absolutely miserable,” he says.
“So many people had no idea they were able to scan a QR code on their phone by default.”
Now that people know they have a way to transfer information quickly, effectively and securely, the opportunities abound.
Richardson is already fielding interest from the medical sector, for example.
“Everything really needs to be tight, professional and well looked-after — the data needs to be cared for carefully,” he says.
He’s looking into ways of “replacing clipboards in receptions”, he says.
More broadly, Richardson is passionate about the concept of data ownership.
“When you check-in via QR code, or you provide data to a doctor, technically, everything you provide should be yours, and you should know that,” he explains.
“Now, people are more aware of privacy than ever, and I think the onus is on the sector.”
Anyone providing a data-management solution should be making it clear who owns the data, where it’s going, what it’s being used for, and what insights may be generated from it.
“You don’t need to be in Europe and abide by [the General Data Protection Regulation] just to be a responsible business,” he stresses.
“Clipboards and paper scare the hell out of me,” he adds.
“It’s an open database that anyone can read. It’s not even encrypted.”
But, as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on, he’s already seeing a shift in perspective.
While initially, COVID Comply clients were asking for help in how to explain the data management aspect of the system to their own customers, now they’re saying diners are demanding digital solutions, and questioning why they should ever be physically writing their details down.
“It’s going to be really interesting how the average consumer sees technology as an opportunity to improve their personal lives or professional lives, as opposed to having it pushed on them by an organisation, for example,” Richardson muses.
“The companies that will do well out of this, in this new trend of digital awareness, will be the ones that are really proactive in helping people understand what privacy is, what it means to them and what their rights are, without being prompted or forced by government guidelines.”