Craig Unsworth who left the board at Ten Group where he oversaw the company’s £120 million IPO joins Business Matters to tell us about Upgrade Pack, the company he co-founded to change the way that airline and hotel upgrades are managed.
What do you currently do?
I’m the CEO and co-founder of Upgrade Pack. Upgrade Pack transforms the way airline and hotel upgrades are attained by the most valued customers and employees of the world’s most innovative companies, through our unique closed marketplace app-based platform.
While we’ve only just begun, this year has been super successful in terms of getting investors on board, securing an amazing office space and building to a team of 15 already (soon to be 20). We’re very much looking forward to our launch in Q1 next year, and going live with our very first and very high profile client (I’m afraid I just cannot say) not soon after.
In terms of my day to day, I like to get in to the office early. We’re based by the river in beautiful Richmond, South West London, so my commute is a drive through the park surrounded by trees and deer. I spend the first part of my day on emails and admin tasks. By the time everyone else is in the office, my attention focuses more to catch ups with my team leads – Product, Technology, Commercial, Partners, and Operations. I like to frequently get stuck in to planning sessions. A challenge, a team, and a whiteboard – that’s my happy place. I still travel a lot for work, visiting clients and partners around the world, but it’s reduced greatly now I’m in the CEO seat.
What was the inspiration behind your business?
I wanted to start a business in an area where I thought I could have the most impact. I’ve always been passionate about new technology, and who isn’t passionate about travel? Upgrade Pack is our vision to bring those two things together.
The idea for Upgrade Pack came to me whilst on a flight to New York surrounded by a load of empty seats in business class. In this situation, I wondered why airlines didn’t send out a last minute e-mail to people on their loyalty plans asking “Who wants a last minute half price upgrade to business class?” and of course
I realised it’s because they don’t want to cheapen their brand, so the plane from JFK took off with the empty seats.
I thought to myself, how could I create an incredible customer loyalty programme using technology, to help airlines and hotels sell discounted upgrades, without them having to cheapen their brand. The answer was Upgrade Pack.
But we’re not just about filling empty seats on planes or rooms in hotels, we set out to create the ultimate customer loyalty tool and employee benefit for businesses. Getting loyalty right really matters for businesses.
Take banks, for example. 55% of banking customers prioritise accounts and cards simply on the basis of the travel benefits they offer. Upgrade Pack works on a cost per user subscription basis for businesses, to enable them to reward their most valued employees or customers with one of the things they know they’ll covet the most (95% of consumers say the thing they value most when travelling is an upgrade).
Who do you admire?
I’ve always admired people who have done something differently. Breaking the status quo is – for me key to being a true innovator. But that can be an entrepreneurial or intrapreneurial thing; some of the most dynamic ‘creators’ I’ve worked with have broken new ground inside a heavy and hard-to-navigate corporate structure.
People like Richard Branson get a lot of press, of course, and I have great admiration for his “screw it, let’s do it” attitude. That kind of disruption can be really constructive. I also look to Jo Malone who, after exiting her eponymous empire, decided she’d do it all again. Why? Because she loves what she does.
Sony’s PlayStation is one of the best selling consumer electronics in the world, but it might never have happened. Ken Kutaragi ‘jailbroke’ his daughter’s Nintendo, trying to make the console more powerful and user friendly. After much rebuffing internally, a senior executive championed his idea and the rest is history.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently?
I think I’d have moved out of Central London sooner. There’s so much more to business than the City, and so much more to the UK’s incredible tech scene than Old Street.
Upgrade Pack is based in Richmond, South West London, and it’s been a real game changer for our business and our people. Quality of life, fresh air, a reverse commute, and a destination our clients and partners love visiting. We’re part of a great tech ecosystem with neighbours including PayPal, eBay, Notonthehighstreet, Reed Exhibitions, Haymarket, Sabre, and Graze – but in a much more collaborative and neighbourly way than I’d ever felt in the heart of Shoreditch etc.
We also pay half the rent per square foot than we would otherwise have paid – which allowed us to open on day one with an office big enough for our first three years of hiring. It’s made such a difference to be in our own space.
What defines your way of doing business?
For me, it’s all about four things. Build something valuable, create a product that adds tangibly to users’ lives, foster a culture that allows everyone to be themselves at work, and always trust your instinct. At Upgrade Pack we subscribe to a number of ‘models’.
We’re Agile, we follow the principles of ‘lean business’, we believe in the “break it to make it” mantra, and we empower our people to make – and learn from – mistakes. We generate a huge amount of data in what we do. We respect insights, data, and analytics. But we encourage everyone to apply experience, instinct, and the ability to pivot to every decision.
What advice would you give to someone starting out?
Do what you think you should do. Build what you think you should build. Work how you think you should work. If and (hopefully!) when you’re right, it’s your success.