Interview: Gareth Rees Jones, managing director of UpriseVSI

Tech Dragons recently caught up with Gareth Rees Jones, who’s the managing director of UpriseVSI. It’s a Cardiff-based web development and technology agency that specialises in designing and building bespoke web applications, websites and online booking systems.

TD: Why did you set it up?

In a nutshell, I didn’t want to work for anyone else anymore and I also didn’t want to have to wear a suit every day. I had worked in big advertising agencies and client-side marketing roles for over 12 years and decided that I wanted the freedom that comes with working for yourself.

I was introduced to my business partner by a mutual friend in 2012, and we decided to set up what was initially a B2B marketing and lead generation agency. But we quickly morphed into a creative and digital agency, and then latterly a web development and technology company.

TD: What makes it unique?

GJ: UpriseVSI started out like most other agencies, doing consultancy, creative work and designing and developing straightforward ‘brochure’ websites, but we always wanted to be more technology led and have our own products that we could sell.

In 2015, we bought VSI-thinking, a web development agency based in Cardiff Bay that had previously been my back-end web development agency when I was the marketing and commercial director at The Celtic Manor Resort.

As well as the quality of their team and client list, what really made them attractive to us was that they had developed their own range of technology products including a content management system, CRM database, ecommerce software, project management software and an online booking system.

However as they were developers. They didn’t have the skills to effectively take them to market so putting the two companies together made perfect sense as it combined the softer creative and marketing skills of Uprise Marketing with the more hard edged, technical skills of VSI-thinking.

TD: How has your business journey been?

GJ: It’s been what I can only describe as ‘interesting’ – the last five and half years have flown by. Like most start-ups, we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs, but overall we’re pleased with the way things have gone and where the business is today.

We’ve changed massively from when we started, and have constantly adapted and tried to take advantage of every opportunity that has presented itself.

Acquiring another business after only 3 years was one of those opportunities. It was a big move that was also a big risk personally for us, but we felt it was the only way of getting to where we wanted to be quickly. Thankfully, after much hard work, it has worked out.

TD: What’s been your biggest success and biggest obstacle?

GJ: Our biggest success has been building the business from two people sitting around my dining room table just over five years ago with no clients – to now dealing with brands like the Thomas Cook, Jacksonville Jaguars and FarFetch, a $5 billion global online retailer.

We set out to build the business up as quickly as possible and said from the start that we wanted to work with big brands and be a company that extended our reach beyond Wales, although we are very proud to be a Welsh company and to work with some great Welsh brands like the WRU, Hugh James, Paramount Interiors and Cardiff Airport.

Our online booking system, thinkBooker, won ‘Best Emerging Technology’ at the 2017 Wales Online Digital Awards . This was also a big milestone in the development of the product.

Our biggest obstacle initially, like most start-ups, was winning clients when you don’t have a track record or a portfolio of work to show them. Fortunately, Geoff and I were able to draw on our network of contacts and some of them were prepared to give us a go.

For example, Paramount Interiors was one of our very first clients, and I’m proud to say that they are still a client today. We are very thankful for the faith that they showed in us, which helped us to get up and running.

TD: Where next?

GJ: We’re going to keep growing the business as quickly as we can by winning large web development projects and by focusing on marketing our thinkBooker online booking system.

We’ve always been ambitious and want to be technology company that operates on the international stage. We’re already receiving interest in thinkBooker from as far afield as Thailand and Australia. And while we still have a lot to do here in the UK, ultimately we have a product with the potential to be sold in other markets.

We’re launching a new thinkBooker website in February and will be focusing our efforts on increasing awareness of the product and on generating new leads. We’re also going to be developing the system further to enhance its features and functionality as well as designing a brand new back-end interface.

TD: What do you think of Welsh tech?

I think Wales has got a really thriving tech scene, and it’s great that there are so many new companies starting up and being successful here. The recent announcement by the UK Government’s Tech Nation it  intends to create a ‘tech hub’ in Cardiff is significant and shows that the city is now gaining a reputation as a centre for technology.

It’s really important that Welsh tech companies get the access they need to affordable funding that allows them to invest in marketing and developing their product. Also having access to a support network that allows companies to get advice and share ideas with each other will also help Welsh companies grow and hopefully compete on a global stage.